Tough economic times breed tough social questions. Yet, it seems like the solutions most frequently offered for Britain’s economic predicament miss the point entirely. In discussing policy remedies for the private sector, it is just as important to acknowledge the limitations of government policy as it is to advocate its strengths. Still, an inescapable trade-off seems to exist between economic efficiency and income disparity, a contradiction that is by its very nature immune to being treated politically. The answer to the questions of bonus pay on the one hand, and public discontent on the other, are primarily of a cultural nature.
Both society’s producers and consumers need to value something above the respective revenue they generate and items they purchase. In order for economic activities to be undertaken for the sake of something other than making profit, there should be a common good for them to aim at. In a pluralistic society, however, a concept such as “common good” is notoriously difficult to define. If the public reaction toward the financial crisis taught us any universal values though, it is that of social membership- the urge to not be left out.
Last summer’s London riots however–purportedly motivated by social exclusion and lack of opportunity– pointed toward something much more endemic than a desire for shared profit. The incidents typified that many had lost the attachment they might once have felt toward society. They showed that people had come to value the commodities they were able to loot from their local stores above the communities that their actions consequently vandalized. If anything suggests a deficit of social solidarity, it is likely to be the infliction of senseless violence on one’s own territory. These mobs were not simply angry–say, at the bankers — but rather lost. It seemed they didn’t value anything around them. Social membership, therefore, is not simply a matter of re-ordering priorities of the managerial class, but of cultivating shared values, regarded by society as a whole, rather than material gains. And in what could such membership consist if not the common culture that a well-rounded education fosters?
An interesting precept is taken from the United States during the sixties, when a particularly strong variant of the “culture wars” broke out and engulfed Europe at the same time. The issue at stake on campus was that of academic freedom, believed by both traditionalists and progressives to have been encroached upon by the doctrines of the opposing side. The liberals’ progressive approach to course selection, their emphasis on diversity, and the priority given to the contemporary over the traditional was itself accused of being “illiberal”.
In 1951, William F. Buckley published a book called God & Man at Yale, in which he argued that the prevailing liberal orthodoxy of the Professors had failed the basic tenets of individualism by imposing secular beliefs on students. For Buckley, the University’s identity was to be defined by the will of its alumni, since Yale’s charter left the institution’s oversight to them. An interesting observation is that– without a state religion to rely on–his argument for the traditionalist’s right to define the University’s vocation was made from the point of convention and consensus. In the decades that followed however, the kind of consensus through which Buckley had tried to defend his alma mater’s calling broke down infinitely further than he might have imagined.
Yet university, for so long now entrenched in the petty squabbles of status politics, has forever been the principal arena for the preservation of national culture. Indeed, in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davison Hunter points to the university as the sphere in which national culture is essentially defined and embodied in practical terms. Where The Church once defined the moral framework of economic relations, universities must now cultivate the cultural background against which they are legitimated.
What better way is there to start than with the re-establishment of a literary canon? Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, has argued that the conservation of a national canon provides the people of a country with “a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.” Such canons are commonly taught in the United States, an example being Columbia University’s compulsory “core curriculum“.
Universities in the United Kingdom need to be reformed along such lines, in order to foster a common identity that students can take into the working world. This is something that could form the root from which the fruits of trust and mutual obligation might flow. The current English educational system is wide in choice, but narrow in substance. It offers students three-year courses is any subject–ranging from classics to computer science–but where content continuously reduces one’s cultural experience to the specialised material offered in his or her respective department. Even Scottish institutions, which offer a more rounded credit-based structure, don’t endorse a unified package for all students to partake in. The young may inhabit the very same university campus without ever occupying any common cultural territory.
The argument that such a proposed curriculum may perpetuate a biased prejudice in favour of the culture of “dead white men” is seriously misplaced. It is precisely because the canon’s central authors explore issues that are universals of human experience that it is applicable to students of any origin. After all, it is not Shakespeare’s background or ethnicity that make his characters relatable, any more than Socrates need ever have existed for his method of reasoning to be intelligible. A canon is a collection of works that have stood the test of time. A given text’s canonisation is therefore testament to its ability to transcend a multitude of cultures, not merely represent any single one of them.
Perhaps the most important point is that such an initiative aims to reconcile the conflicts and discontents that arise from our country’s very economic structure, not merely to remedy the ills of the business elite. It may be true that some value work as an end in itself– usually those in positions of authority or with varying degrees of control over their respective spheres of activity. The arbitrary and largely inconvenient nature of the division of labour however, means that most people (through little fault of their own) work as a means to some further end; for leisure, for sport, or for family. Such times cannot be spent alone, figuratively speaking, but require recognition from the people and organisations in whose company we choose to pass them. This is why it is important for our institutions to cultivate a sense of belonging. They should ensure that the hours we spend together in these spheres have some shared resonance and meaning, and encourage the kind of social unity that can only come at solitude’s expense.