Down with 21st century philistinism
Frank Furedi explains why his latest book calls for a new Culture War.
‘Dumbing down’ is often seen as being about the rise of reality TV and other dumb culture. In fact, says Frank Furedi, the problem is much bigger than Big Brother.
‘Cultural institutions like universities and galleries no longer challenge us or encourage us to question what we know. Instead they flatter us. But flattery will get us nowhere.’ Not content with having taken on risk-aversion, therapy culture and the paranoid parenting industry in his previous books, Furedi, a sociologist and prolific author who doesn’t suffer faddish thinking gladly, lays in to dumbing down (or ‘twenty-first century philistinism’ as he prefers to call it) in his latest offering.
Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, described by former Oxford don Terry Eagleton as a ‘vitally important book’, is a short and sharp critique of the way in which intellectual life has been degraded. Both inside and outside the university, argues Furedi, the pursuit of Knowledge and Truth is today looked upon with suspicion, at best as the pastime of the fusty, old, out-of-touch academic, at worst as an elitist project that seeks to impose outdated ‘Western values’ on to the rest of the world. Contemporary society seems to value knowledge (with a small k), culture and education only in as much as they can play a practical role in people’s lives.
‘Our society seems to have a big problem with the idea of art for its own sake, or knowledge for its own sake, or education for its own sake’, he tells me. Instead, such things are deemed useful only if they serve some other sake – if they work as instruments of ‘economic advance, social engineering, giving communities an identity, or providing therapy for the individual’.
So a university education is no longer valued in its own right, as a means of pushing an individual to his or her intellectual limits; rather, universities are discussed as making an important contribution to the economic life of nations by providing young people with the necessary skills and know-how for their future careers. Even Oxford and Cambridge, those bastions of excellence, are praised primarily for ‘the vital role they play in the United Kingdom economy’ (that quotation coming from the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, no less). In both the UK and the USA, says Furedi, some see filling the universities as a means to the end of keeping the economy chugging along.
Similarly, works of art tend to be valued less for any inner merit they might possess than for their (alleged) role in boosting the viewers’ self-esteem, or even cohering fragmented societies. In his book Furedi cites Baroness Tessa Blackstone, Britain’s former Minister of State for the Arts, who in a speech in 2001 posed the question: ‘Can the arts be more than just frivolous, trivial, irrelevant?’ She answered in the affirmative, claiming that the arts are important because they can improve employability, eradicate inequality and help prevent crime. She was also in ‘no doubt’ that the arts can ‘contribute to improving health outcomes’ too (1).
When arts and education are reduced to playing this merely functional role, says Furedi, we end up with cultural institutions more concerned with massaging individuals’ self-esteem levels or striving to improve community relations than with providing people with an education or giving us stimulating exhibitions. He argues that ‘flattering students is fast becoming the institutional norm in universities’, where the role of academics is to ‘support’ students rather than to transform them, to hold their hands through to the end of the university experience.
His book discusses the example of Tyne and Wear Museum in north-east England, which adopted policies that ‘flatter its visitors’. The museum has an access policy that ‘encourage[s] the display of works from the collections which may not necessarily be famous or highly regarded, but have been chosen by members of the public simply because they like them or because they arouse certain emotions or memories’ (2). This is becoming widespread, says Furedi, where cultural institutions ‘increasingly give us what they think is good for us, and what they think we can handle. They patronise us, spoonfeeding us culture and knowledge’.
That’s one reason why he doesn’t like the phrase ‘dumbing down’. His argument isn’t that people are getting dumb and dumber; his is not an attack on ‘Dumb America’, the very popular idea that all Yanks are Bush-voting thickos, or on ‘Dumb Britain’ (the name of a regular feature in Private Eye magazine, which lists the stupidest answers given by members of the Great British public to quiz-show questions). ‘When I do use the term “dumbing down” I’m primarily talking about institutions, not people. I’m talking about the elite, about the inability at the top of society to provide institutional support for the pursuit of scholarship, the arts or knowledge.’
For Furedi, this is an ‘institutionalised philistinism’, written into government policy documents on the arts, and into universities’ and museums’ ‘access’ policies. It is this top-down philistinism that gives rise to what some refer to as our ‘dumb society’ – to the degraded state of public debate and the widespread sense of political passivity. So his book is not only for those angry academics who are disturbed by what is happening to their profession, but also ‘for anyone who takes ideas and argument seriously’.
Furedi’s book has been welcomed by serious thinkers on both sides of the political divide, such as Eagleton on the left and philosopher Roger Scruton on the right. But it has also been accused of Grumpy Old Man-ism, described as a book for all those bitter and bespectacled intellectuals who hark back to the glory days when clever people like them were taken more seriously. Observer columnist David Aaronovitch argues that the likes of Furedi want to go back to ‘Cambridge 1936, to that fabulous race of warrior dons who knew everything, to the days when intellectuals were intellectuals and women were their wives and mistresses’ (3). For Aaronovitch, the ‘inclusion’ attacked by Furedi is really a ‘new style of democracy’, where universities and other institutions are being opened up to those who were previously kept at a safe distance.
Professor Sally Munt of the University of Sussex wrote a letter to the Observer thanking Aaronovitch for his article and arguing that it was high time that people like Furedi were unveiled as ‘grumpy old men’. (Professor Munt’s letter also included the sentence, ‘A radical social analysis should depend upon the recognition of, and respect for, the dexterity by which most people negotiate an active self in this world’ – perhaps confirming Furedi’s argument that some academics have become dislocated from public life….) (4).
Furedi’s having none of it. He says that he and others who share his concerns ‘are not demanding a return to the past – that is the last thing we want. But we want to make sure that the future isn’t just more of the same’. According to Furedi, the fact that those who criticise the present can so easily be discredited as nostalgic golden-agers suggests there is ‘widespread complacency and even conformism today, a sense that you are not allowed to ask awkward questions’. He says that the cheap accusation of being in love with an imaginary past is really ‘a call for conformism in the present’.
As for the claim that ‘inclusion’ is a new kind of democracy…. ‘I take a very traditional view of democracy’, he says. ‘When people want to be included they don’t wait for an invitation; they kick the door down, they demand to be let in. The Suffragettes didn’t wait to be included in the electoral system, and trade unionists didn’t wait to be included in collective bargaining – they insisted on it. When working-class people wanted to learn they didn’t wait around for an “inclusion policy”; they became autodidacts.’
Something very different is happening today, says Furedi. People are being included for the sake of inclusion, rather than for anything worthwhile. It is the act of inclusion that matters, whether in the universities, art galleries or wherever, rather than the question of what kind of content the ‘included’ will receive. ‘The elite is saying, in a very Victorian fashion, that we know what’s good for you. To see this kind of “inclusion” as a democratic moment is fundamentally to misinterpret what is a state-driven project, which includes people into an inferior version of what existed before. It is an entirely paternalistic project, masquerading as anti-elitist and democratic.’
How did Furedi get here? I first got to know Furedi when we both wrote for Living Marxism, the magazine launched and edited by spiked editor Mick Hume in 1988. It was published by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which was founded by Furedi and others in 1981 and which developed a reputation for its no-BS stance on everything from militarism to freedom of speech. In 1997 Living Marxism was relaunched as LM, which Furedi wrote for and I worked on. LM was forced to close in 2000 following a libel action brought by ITN, and some of the LM team went on to launch spiked, with Hume at the helm.
How did Furedi, a man of the revolutionary left, become what you might call a ‘cultural commentator’, writing books on issues such as parenting, therapy and now the devaluing of knowledge? Some of his detractors claim it is all a ruse to get into the papers; they accuse him of picking sexy, trendy issues on which he can make a controversial point or two.
In fact, argues Furedi, fundamentally his views have remained ‘quite consistent’. ‘Obviously ideas develop in relation to events, and some important political disruptions and breaks have occurred over the past 10 or 15 years’, he says. ‘So the way in which you express your ideas and make your arguments changes with changing times.’ But he says he remains as committed as he ever was to human liberation and to freeing every individuals’ potential – it is others who have changed.
Furedi found himself feeling ‘ever-more estranged’ from the conventional left. He recalls three incidents in particular that suggested the left was moving in a troublesome direction. ‘The first time I felt it was when there were all these demands for “No Platform” for fascists, that fascists should be censored. I have always been, and continue to be, vehemently anti-fascist, but I felt that was just a cop-out, a very anti-democratic way of avoiding debate. I argued that rather than saying “No Platform” we should take up the fascists’ views and undermine them, instead of opting for this very authoritarian, censorious approach.’
The second event was the miners’ strike of 1984. A key issue in the strike was whether there should be a national ballot, which would allow all miners to vote on whether the strike should continue. In places like Yorkshire miners were striking hard, while other miners, in particular in Nottinghamshire, refused to strike on the grounds that there had not been a national ballot. The RCP campaigned for a ballot; just about everybody else on the left disagreed and the ballot was vetoed by Arthur Scargill, head of the National Union of Miners. ‘I fully supported the strike’, says Furedi. ‘But I also called for a ballot, with a rank-and-file campaign to win the vote, for a strike that could be supported by everybody.’ Thatcher supported a national ballot because she thought it would break the strike; the RCP supported a campaign for a ballot as a way of strengthening the miners. ‘But others on the left wanted to prevent a ballot in case the vote went the wrong way. I thought this qualified approach to democracy on the left was a very big problem.’
The third event that further estranged Furedi from the left was the Cleveland child abuse scandal of 1987, when a number of families in the industrial region in the north-east of England were falsely accused of abusing their kids – often by health and social workers who considered themselves part of the left. ‘I felt very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable indeed’, says Furedi. ‘People who I had known on the left were going around saying that loads of working-class men are child abusers. This very negative view of human beings took me aback. The kind of panic about working-class behaviour that would traditionally have been triggered by the right was starting to become a fixture of the left.’
Furedi says it is the left that has changed, rather than his own ideas or motivations. ‘People who call themselves left-wing have become very different. So classically it was the right that was pro-state, now it’s usually the left that calls for state intervention. Traditionally the right was anti-experimentation and anti-science, now the left is often at the forefront of that. Traditionally the right explained developments by conspiracy theory, talking about Jews or communists or whoever; now it’s the left that seems to believe in conspiracies. In all this confusion, people need to rethink how they position themselves.’
Furedi scoffs at the idea that he has taken up what appear to be cultural issues in order to become a media darling. Rather, he says he is continuing the work started by Living Marxism, in trying to make sense of ‘the way in which social disengagement occurs today, the growing passivity of the public, the strong fatalistic cultural and social trends that we see all around us’. But we cannot hope to understand society, and more importantly how to change it, without defending the importance of ideas and knowledge against today’s philistines, he says. ‘That is what my new book is about.’
(1) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, Continuum
(2) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, Continuum
(3) The thinking classes: too clever by half, David Aaronovitch, Observer, 12 September 2004
(4) Letters to the editor, Observer, 19 September 2004