Sunday, 27 May 2012

Yes, But the Question is How?

 This essay was first published by the National Council of Teachers English, College English, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Jan., 1956)

“Should the college teacher try to raise student taste in movies, radio, and television?” Should the medical school keep its instruction abreast of developments in medical science? Should the engineering school reflect the industrial patterns of the society it trains people for? Should law school introduce its students to contemporary jurisprudence? 

The question sounds curiously beside the point considered in such a context. Indeed, that we still ask ourselves whether instead of how we should do it most effectively is a measure of the adequacy of our response to the emergence of mass culture. It symbolizes how far off balance the humanities have been thrown by this radical shift in the focus of our culture. Generally, our reaction has been one of studied aloofness.

The results of this self-imposed cultural isolationism have not been happy for us. The English department office is more and more the GHQ of a beleaguered army; dismal reports trickle in of a new foray from Education department, of some new usurpation of the Speech faculty, of another commercial corruption of taste. Enrollments dwindle, student caliber deteriorates, power and prestige diminish. How different all this could be! 

Instead of the gloomy headquarters of a war of attrition against plummeting standards, the English office could become a center for intelligent criticism of American popular culture. It could likewise become a source of vision for a commercially oriented popular culture that badly needs some. These two responsibilities—developing standards of criticism for popular culture and creating a vision of creativity within the popular art forms—are, in one man’s opinion, the major tasks of the humanist in contemporary America.

The first responsibility, developing standards for popular culture, can best be done by relating similar genres in popular culture and the humane tradition. Juxtapose slick fiction and classics; why does one surpass the other? Compare current TV drama at its best with past dramatic achievement. Systematically assign movie reviews as themes; discuss and write about Hollywood’s troubles and achievements. 

Assess the function and effectiveness of our popular critics—Crosby, Seldes, McCarten, Ace, Hamburger, and others. Term papers on any aspect of popular culture not only develop communication skills, but also provide the participant in popular culture a perspective he unfortunately isn’t getting at all presently. Even the most inane element of popular culture becomes significant and serves our purposes of deepening cultural awareness if it is made the object of close and careful scrutiny; such study becomes indispensable, as a matter of fact, because thereby a member of popular culture is enabled to pierce the tinsel curtain of superficiality that now separates him from the humane tradition.

But even more necessary than the development of a tradition of popular criticism in America is the creation of a vision of the possibilities of mass culture. The promising young English major must be made to feel it is as important to write TV drama and movie scenarios as to publish in the little reviews. As long as America’s creative talents think it is beneath them to create for the popular arts, there is little hope of overcoming debasing commercial tendencies. 

Given, however, a new criticism for the patron of the popular arts, and given new directions to the creative talents of the next generation, we may expect an integration of popular culture and the humane tradition which will mean much to a maturing American art. The English teacher more than any other can use mass education as a countervailing force to anti-humanist tendencies operative in the popular arts. 

Criticism and creativity, to be effective, must perceive the context in which they are to operate. Increasingly, this context is that of mass society. If the English teacher ignores these fundamental changes, both he and general American society will be poorer for his withdrawal.

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