In this exclusive interview for Urban Times, renowned philosopher Roger Scruton talks to Urban Times's education correspondent about the modern university system.

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Scruton has written extensively on music, and has composed two operas (scandinavia-goodliving.blogspot.com)

Scruton has written extensively on music, and has composed two operas (scandinavia-goodliving.blogspot.com)

Professor Roger Scruton has been at the forefront of British philosophy for four decades. Having originally specialised in Aesthetics, there is virtually no subject about which he has not written, from the importance of hunting and the nature of beauty to the question of sexual desire. His latest book ‘Our Church‘, is ‘a personal history of the Church of England’. Scruton is also a quarter-time fellow at the University of St Andrews. During his last tenure, I asked him about Allan Bloom’s famous book on higher education ‘The Closing of the American Mind’, and what is missing from modern philosophy departments and British universities in particular. 

Part of Allan Bloom’s famous book, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ discusses the importance of music in education. He talks of the necessity to ‘harmonise the enthusiastic part of the soul with the rational part’. In an article for the American Spectator (February 2010), you discussed Plato’s view of music and its relation to the laws of the city, and you link it – as does Bloom – to the fact that cultural relativism has made it taboo to criticise musical taste. Has modern technology and how readily available everything now is made it harder for students to harmonise these two ‘parts of the soul’, so to speak?

RS: That’s a very important question. Bloom was already very depressed by the way students had locked themselves into their own musical worlds. Students do get locked into their adolescent preferences, and the moral and intellectual effort of listening to a world outside yourself is for that reason atrophied. So I think it’s true that things have got worse, but this isn’t to say that everything students listen to is all rubbish – there’s plenty of good stuff there. There is also a lot of exchange of information about it among young people, but what there isn’t is a kind of public arena of criticism, where things are put up for judgment and people come to try and understand what it is these songs are saying to them, and that there may be another kind of music that is saying something else. Losing that public arena of criticism is a great cultural disaster, because the real works of our musical tradition are not just things that people like to listen to, but embodiments of an ideal of human life, which is unique to our civilization and something we need to learn. These great works are exercises in stillness – they are saying ‘sit, listen, be calm, understand this message’. On the other hand, Metallica for instance is an example of the opposite; it’s an exercise in agitation that is trying to drive any competition out of the listener’s soul. If you want to bring students into the classical tradition, you’ve got to engage them and say what is good and what is bad.

I’d like to ask more generally about the role played by philosophy in education. Is it plausible to say, as Bloom hints, that modern philosophy departments who concentrate solely on the analytic tradition have strayed from what might be called the original – or perhaps the Socratic – aim of philosophy, to ask ‘what is the nature of the good life?’

RS: Well yes, I think it’s certainly the case that analytical philosophy as taught in a normal department is not much of a guide to life, and does tend – even in the study of ethics – to focus on silly and unanswerable questions, and it takes seriously totally unserious views like utilitarianism. So yes, analytical philosophy has betrayed its mission, though there may be alternatives that haven’t; perhaps the phenomenologists at a certain stage were in the business of advancing a conception of how one should live in the modern world, but then they all became rotten and diseased and fell into the trap of deconstruction. If you look at late twentieth century French philosophy, which is the heir to all that, it is far worse than analytical philosophy because it’s not just irrelevant to life but it’s also nonsense. At least analytical philosophy is not nonsense, even if it is only going round and round in ever diminishing circles.

Are there different ways of structuring the undergraduate experience that can help to better unify these different aspects of education? Bloom was very fond of the ‘Great Books’ theory of education, and there are places like Columbia University that run a Core Curriculum whereby modules like ‘Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy’ are made compulsory for all students. This imparts its students with a kind of shared identity, no matter what they eventually ‘major’ in. Do you think that is a good idea?

Roger Scruton has written on topics ranging from political conservatism to animal rights and the environment. (en.wikipedia.org)

Roger Scruton has written on topics ranging from political conservatism to animal rights and the environment. (en.wikipedia.org)

RS: I think it’s a very good idea, and I think that it’s absolutely true of British universities in particular that students in the humanities can come away from a degree course without ever having encountered something great. Certainly it would help if everybody reading their subject was also reading Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Livy and so on … and I have no doubt that that is the principal thing missing from the education of the young today. I’ve had that feeling just in delivering my little lectures on German aesthetics here in St Andrews – students couldn’t recognise a painting of an interior by Bonnard when I asked them, and nobody seemed to have read Antigone or Oedipus Rex. You just have to have a course like that, especially now that students come from this visually saturated background where all their time is spent staring at screens or listening to mechanical noises in their ears. If you can’t get them out of that they’ll never learn anything anyway, and they must be got out of it by being presented with something seriously challenging which they must be made to know.

So I think this is absolutely right. Some people have wanted to start ‘Great Books’ programmes in English universities, but it is difficult because it means threatening all kinds of established interests. You firstly have to get a cross-disciplinary approach, and then you have to make people who have been quite comfortable teaching one small area of a subject all their lives to wake up and teach something that is a real challenge to them. The great thing about America is that no matter how many obstacles lie in the way of something happening, it will happen if people want it to – because that’s the way America is. They are more idealistic about education over there, but they are also able to say ‘well, if you’re not going to teach this, then you’re fired!’ We never do that here in Britain.

Is the structure of British undergraduate education old fashioned, because both the quality of secondary schooling, and the social landscape in general, have changed so much in recent decades?

I almost feel as though universities should dedicate the entirety of a student’s first year simply to overcoming the influence of the previous eighteen.

RS: Yes, there are other problems that everybody would recognise. Our universities grew to fruition throughout the 19th century when, first of all, they didn’t admit more than a small minority of people for all the social and economic reasons that we’re all familiar with, but also – at the time those kids would come from schools that had taught them quite heavy and difficult things; they’d have Latin and Greek up to full reading level, proper mathematics, and usually quite a bit of ancient history. So some very serious foundations were already there. With the range of A-levels now on offer, and the gradual replacement of the difficult ones with simple or even non-existent ones – like sociology, which doesn’t really have a subject at all – students will come to university with a whole load of non-knowledge. Their minds are cluttered with irrelevant and empty bits of jargon, and that’s one reason why they find it so difficult to speak or to write an essay. Articulate speech, for instance, is a very difficult thing to acquire, and if you spend your life in front of a television or with an iPod in your ears, you’re not likely ever to learn it. What I’ve noticed in St Andrews, largely under American influence, is the incredible loss of syntax in students’ dialogue. Every sentence has the word ‘like’ in it three times! It would be so easy to correct it, and I almost feel as though universities should dedicate the entirety of a student’s first year simply to overcoming the influence of the previous eighteen.

In 2009, Scruton narrated a BBC documentary on Beauty and Art (tinoradman.wordpress.com)

In 2009, Scruton narrated a BBC documentary on Beauty and Art (tinoradman.wordpress.com)