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‘The Best That Has Been Thought and Said’

Recently, I had the chance to study — and teach — a couple of chapters from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (first published as separate magazine essays, then published as a book in 1869). How beautiful to have lived in a more intellectually innocent time when a man who made his living evaluating schools could become famous for arguing with gusto that a good modern society can come about only when all its citizens are educated in “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” Can you imagine anyone getting away with that today? Theorists of all stripes would have a ball! Everyone enjoys quoting Arnold’s famous phrase, but only as a blast from the past. People especially like to undermine his idea by snottily asking, “And who, exactly, is to say what’s the ‘best that has been thought and said in the world’?”

I was nonplussed when a colleague with whom I was chatting about Arnold made fun of my enthusiasm for his ideas.  “But he’s such an elitist!” he exclaimed, implying, of course, that therefore I must be one too. As surely as if I’d been asked if I still beat my husband (which, I’m happy to announce, I finally gave up just this past week), I was cornered.

Those who teach Arnold today teach him inside the isolated halo of historicism. Who wants to agree with everything Arnold said? Who today would, for example, argue that culture should function as a social, political or moral transformative force? Culture is a fancy form of entertainment that generates money, and we have coldly calculated, in an outcomes assessment sort of way, that if “used” correctly, it improves the odds of “success” in life. Some concede that culture staves off the worst excesses of modern liberalism, consumed as it is by its orgy of consumer-driven, me-driven, do-what-you-want individualism.

Arnold was no philosopher, and Culture and Anarchy is chock full of theoretical holes. But because he was a poet (a Romantic might like to say that he possessed the soul of a whole man), his criticism of modern liberalism — for its philistinism and excess individualism — and his faith that concentrating on “the best that has been thought and said” could salvage it, still resonates with anyone who’s not close-minded. Poke an academic relativist hard enough, and what do you find? An utterly indefensible, passionate attachment to the “best that’s been thought and said.”

One thing Arnold was right about: We need rescuing from the decayed liberalism that has reduced human happiness to the idea of being able to say, do, and buy whatever we want. For some, religion is the answer (although I can’t help but notice how frequently vicious epithets hurled at others who think differently, general bad behavior, selfishness, or even outright evil, as well as owning a lot of stuff, come neatly linked to those who believe deeply in God). For others, although culture is never to be confused with ethics, at its highest and most beautiful, culture overlaps and reinforces ethics.

I’m not the optimist Arnold was. I don’t think that teaching Homer and Virgil to the poor will lift them out of poverty. Nor do I think culture has the ability to penetrate modern beings once they’re completely slathered in the thick materialism of our times. And though I do not share Arnold’s faith in government as the solution to modern ills, I do believe it has an enormous role to play in advanced post-industrial societies — especially in funding public schools whose aim is to do more than produce cogs for capitalism. I ask you, without a larger vision, what’s the point of this thing called life?

Although no one should be so foolish as to defend the idea of a closed “canon,” defending greatness is another story. 

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