Civilisation and culture

A recent post of Darcy’s got me thinking a bit more about the questions of ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’, in particular about how these relate to my work as an English teacher.

One aspect of this is that the increase in use of technology has also brought an increase in people’s ability to create and publish their own texts.  Notions of the importance of the traditional, western literary canon are being challenged.  More and more students are approaching me, asking if I have read/seen/listened to a particular book/film/piece of music, and I am confounded.  The 30 students sitting in front of me in the class are exposed to so much in their cultural world, and I have no hope of claiming expertise on such a diverse range of cultural artefacts.

This stands in contrast to some of the notions I had about being ‘cultured enough’ to be a ‘proper English teacher’ before I started university.  I recall the summer holidays after year 12 when I found out I had gotten into a Bachelor of Education at Sydney University.  I was going to be an English teacher – hooray!  But there was also a dark side: now I was going to have to read friggin Lord of the Rings.  And so I dutifully did.  Later, in university, I also subjected myself to an entire box set of Jane Austen for the same reason – if I was going to be an English teacher, I was going to have to ‘know my stuff’.

Don’t get me wrong – I am glad for pushing myself to extend my reading to the English curriculum ‘canon’.  It turned out that I loved Lord of the Rings (my how I had grown since year 9 when I hated The Hobbit with a passion) and reading it opened a whole new world for me, whetting my appetite for the entire Fantasy genre.  A couple of the Austen’s were OK too – though Emma did become the first book that I ever didn’t finish (I’m a staunch book finisher) I was glad to discover that I didn’t care for pre-20th century stories about genteel English living, no matter how satirical they were intended to be.  So, reading Austen taught me not to fear the canon, and not to feel inadequate in it’s shadow.

Now, this post is meandering a little, but bear with me…

The extracts that Darcy posted from Kenneth Clark‘s television series Civilisation included a few ideas that I found very useful for reflecting on my own growing understanding of the relationship between society and culture.  In particular I noted these down:

Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies – in fact, the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

Well, I certainly wouldn’t say that England in the 1800s was primitive!  But could it be that people become besotted by this period of Literature because of its narrowness, because it is define-able and knowable?  Because its concentration lends it a vitality that is found wanting in contemporary culture which is so diverse and dispersed?  Is this also what makes Shakespeare so attractive?

We are not entering a new period of barbarism.  The things that made the dark ages so dark [were] the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiosity, the hopelessness…

This is an astute observation, and one that could perhaps quell any fears that people may have about technology, postmodernism, cultural relativism or whatever [insert social ill of choice here] posing a threat to civilisation and culture.  We live in a world that is more connected than ever before, and the growth in cultural production is surely an expression of our curiosity and willingness to engage with the world.  This doesn’t mean we should hate the traditional canon.  However…

One mustn’t overrate the culture of what used to be called ‘top people’ before the wars.  They had charming manners, but they were as ignorant as swans…the members of a music group or an art group at a provincial university [today] would be ten times better informed, and more alert.

Now Clark is really speaking my language.  Because, as I discovered when I made myself read explicitly canonical texts, I’m not the canon hater that I thought I was as a teenager.  On the contrary, even though I didn’t enjoy reading Austen, I found great value and pleasure in developing my knowledge of the way texts that had been deemed ‘the best’ influenced culture that superseded it.  And, as with Shakespeare, I now delight in researching and thinking about how texts reflect their social and political context (this makes me an excellent teacher of Advanced HSC Module B Critical study, in my very humble opinion).

The contribution I would like to make to this assemblage of interesting texts about civilisation is Alain de Botton’s book and documentary film about Status Anxiety.  Here is the introduction to the documentary:

de Botton argues that increases in living standards have not increased our levels of happiness, due to our anxiety about our social status.  To return to one last observation from Clark:

The children of [our] imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

I believe that the current boom in the production of cultural artefacts expresses an ideal that can lead us away from status anxiety – where something like the literary canon is valued, but is knowledge of it is not misused as a demarcation of status.  With a wider range of cultural expression being valued, our fears about being outed as ‘not knowing everything’ fade away as people recognise the impossibility, and folly, of this desire.  I also am hopeful that our increasing tendency to engage with culture as produsers reflects a growth in ideals such as respect for diversity in creative expression and authentic engagement with community.

Of course, there is another angle that we could engage in here – there is a famous quote that I can’t remember, something about civilisation being measured by how well we look after the poor…if you made it to the end of this post 😉 and you know the one I mean, can you add it as a comment?  In this vein I encourage readers to revisit a song from 1992 (a golden year for music!) where Mr Wendal serves as an example of the plight of the homeless:

Civilization, are we really civilized?  Yes or no ?
Who are we to judge ?
When thousands of innocent men could be brutally enslaved
and killed over a racist grudge.

Mr.Wendal has tried to warn us about our ways
but we don’t hear him talk…

…but that is food for a whole different post.

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  1. #1 by Darcy Moore on May 4, 2010 - 5:40 pm

    Hi Kelli,

    Really glad that you have found some stimulation from old Kenneth Clark. The series – which I can lend you – is great to have on as background noise and you’ll find yourself tuning in more often than with many other documentaries on similar themes.

    I missed the Alain de Botton series. Have you watched it all; any good?

    The Arrested development clip was a little more funky that Kenneth’s monologues ;O)

  2. #2 by Victor Davidson on May 4, 2010 - 7:23 pm

    Like Darcy I habitually play Kenneth Clarke as a background documentary as well as Bronowski’ Ascent of Man and Bennett’s Poetry in Motion. And as a measure of civilisation I endorse a compassion index. I know my school culture is scoring well when all the knitting needles and crochet hooks are busy at lunchtime with volunteers making squares.

  3. #3 by Darcy Moore on May 4, 2010 - 7:59 pm

    I do not know Bennett’s, ‘Poetry in Motion’. Link?

  4. #4 by kmcg2375 on May 4, 2010 - 9:24 pm

    Thanks Darcy I’d love a copy of Civilisation.
    I have a DVD of ‘Status Anxiety’ series I could give you a copy of. It really is excellent. I’ve also seen his series ‘the architecture of happiness’ which was amazing too, but I don’t have a copy of that.

    Victor, that gets me thinking…I wonder if there are any teachers at my school who would like to teach knitting to our Social Justice Club, to make (I assume) things to donate to the needy. I’ll have to check that out – it’s a great idea, good on you!

  5. #5 by Angie on March 21, 2011 - 4:29 pm

    Hi Kelli,

    I loved this post. As an over-achiever I still wince when I recall that I failed HSC English in the 80’s, because no matter how hard I tried I could not read “Emma” by Jane Austen. Even the cliff notes bored me to tears. Frankly I’ve never even seen a Jane Austen based movie because of it…..and all this time I thought there must have been something wrong with me. I found your post because I’m now watching my year 8 daughter go through the same thing with The Hobbit.

    I can’t wait to read more of your take on teaching English.


  1. Art in the Age of Barbarism | Class Confrontation

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