Why Culture Matters
About This Event

Roger Scruton, British author, philosopher, and former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, and Boston University, discusses why culture matters. Scruton will illustrate his remarks by using contemporary controversies over culture, religion, and politics. He is the author of numerous books, including The Aesthetics of Music and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. His forthcoming book will be published in the fall of 2003 by Oxford University Press in New York.


5:15 p.m.


5:30 Introduction: Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI


Roger Scruton, author and philosopher



Event Summary

September 2003
Why Culture Matters

In an increasingly turbulent society, the study of culture has once again come to the forefront of intellectual consciousness. At a September 15 event, Roger Scruton, British author, philosopher, and former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, and Boston University, presented a paper that defines culture and analyzes contemporary "culture wars."

Roger Scruton
Author and Professor of Philosophy

Culture can be defined as a set of shared customs, beliefs, rituals and values that hold a society together. This definition has its roots in the anthropological field and is widely accepted as the common academic explanation. However, the field of cultural studies defines culture in two additional ways. First, as "popular" culture, or culture constructed through forms of popular entertainment, or leisure activities for the masses. The rise of MTV as an intergenerational commonality represents a particularly potent example of this phenomenon. Secondly, culture can be "high culture," and is defined as the cultivation of intellect and emotions through works of art and literature, or the ability of "masterpieces" to refine an individual. High culture is learned, not innate. One essential concept unifies the three different levels on which culture operates: culture is inherently social in nature. Culture can never be constructed as one person’s attempt to integrate into a community but is rather the sharing and interactions of ideas and experiences within a social context.

The cultural studies field has recently focused on the newly defined concept of the "culture wars." These wars exist in direct relationship to the three aforementioned definitions of culture, and thus operate on three levels. The first "war" is the most basic: the attempt to make inherited culture an option rather than a shared assumption. A recent trend in British education exemplifies this re-structuring-classrooms often celebrate holidays like Diwali instead of ones like Christmas, traditionally observed in a Judeo-Christian society. Transforming inherited culture from a shared assumption to merely an option diminishes fundamental self-confidence in the shared moral belief system. This particular war de-legitimizes the ‘dominant’ culture in the name of multi-cultural acceptance.

The second culture war exists at the level of "pop culture." The devolution of popular culture into a "contagious mental disease" of stupidity and isolation, stemming from the popularity of television, is of paramount concern. Television constitutes a "wholesale assault on the human soul," and this addictive medium causes mental degeneration. In order to combat this increasing power of television and the trend toward a "dumbed-down" society, teachers must confront the wholehearted acceptance of television’s message and encourage students to read more and engage in more familial and social interaction.

Finally, the third level of the culture wars is an assault on "high culture," which has become localized as criticism of a Euro-centric or parochial curriculum. Teachers in the liberal arts field are under increasing pressure to transform their curricula to incorporate more multi-cultural texts. However, the much-maligned "Euro-centric" curriculum has always been inherently multi-cultural, absorbing influences from a variety of cultures such as Arabic cultures in medicine and both Hebrew and Arabian cultures in biblical studies. The recent trend of delegitimizing a dominant culture does no positive service to the student, for it merely destroys a source of moral knowledge without providing a legitimate alternative.

Essentially, the true culture war is one waged at the fundamental level between thought and its absence. From the elementary school classroom to the pop-culture junkie teenager to the changing classes in the hallowed halls of higher education, culture as we know it is under siege; the traditional pursuit of knowledge is disappearing and being replaced by a haphazard morality subject to the whims of the shifting times. Should the current trend continue, we will find ourselves the inheritors of an education system that preaches diversity without meaning, and one that, in its attempts to expand cultural horizons, wrecks the traditional moral foundation and destroys any coherent, collective knowledge base.

AEI Research Assistant Nell Manning prepared this summary.

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