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Thoughts on a Common Culture   (Chuck D., January 9, 2008)

I share your concern over common ground and fragmented culture. It is something that has been floating in the back of my mind for quite a while. Periodically something brings it to the forefront. Your little essay has done it this time. I am going to divide my comments into three sections.


History teaches that we cannot overlook the importance of a common culture. Painters of the 15th to 18th centuries could assume that they and their audiences shared a common culture that reached back to the Greeks and Romans. It allowed painters to communicate ideas in symbolic images in their paintings with assurance that viewers would know those symbols, their meanings, and would draw from that a whole level of communication completely outside the literal images in the paint. The same type of communication took place in literature.

Because we have lost over time this cultural background, much of the meaning and content of theses works have literally been lost to us.

It likewise seems pretty apparent that the countries of Western Europe became the crucible of modern Western civilization after the Middle Ages at least in part because of three things – homogeneity of ethnicity, homogeneity of language, and homogeneity of religion. In other words, each had a common culture that all citizens or residents shared with one another.

One only has to look at the landscape of disasters, wars and ethnic cleansings in the 20th Century to see how often they occur in places and situations where these homogeneities are lacking – even still in Europe. It also shows how poorly the Western European countries have been able to export the concept of common culture to other parts of the world they been involved in.

A quick list suffices: European anti-Semitism and Hitler’s “Final Solution” is the great example. One hundred years later, we are still dealing with effects of arbitrary boundary drawing done after World War One in Palestine, Iraq, and the Balkans, all areas where homogeneity of ethnicity, language, and religion (and hence culture) is lacking. And it is apparent in Africa where the colonial empires simply superimposed a Western style government over traditional tribal systems, and with end of colonial empires simply left the Western educated elite to struggle to maintain that Western style system. Then there are the tribal conflicts in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda that we have watched with horror, as well as Darfur.

All of this should give us pause to stop and think seriously about what downsides to “diversity” may exist instead of uncritically assuming it is all just a wonderful thing. Can a common culture exist where blacks have their own “black culture” and people in South Florida can live their lives speaking Spanish without having to do much about learning English? How well can these different sub-cultures co-exist and still be part of some kind of cohesive whole? The European immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries seemed to understand what is at stake better than we do. Once here they tended to shed the customs of the old country, and never speak the language, so both were lost to their children who would then grow up to be real Americans. Of course, since we don’t study history and it is politically incorrect to ask such questions, no one thinks about this.


In discussing culture one of the distinctions we need to make is between culture that encompasses “the classics” or “great art” or whatever, and pop culture. Your discussion is about pop cultural artifacts. While accurate, I think it misses a subtle point.

The artifacts of “classics” or “great art” are called that because they somehow transcend the time, place and culture in which they were created to continue to speak to later generations. Or they are so prodigiously virtuosic that we are left to ponder the miracle of how mere flesh and blood could ever create such a thing in the first place.

On the other hand, pop culture is not intended to last. It is the equivalent of a kid’s Happy Meal – anticipated before it is gotten, enjoyed while it is consumed, and forgotten about after it is eaten. It is a consumer item.

It is not just the Arsenio Hall show or the other 1970s forgotten cultural artifacts you mention. Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and their movies are largely unknown to young people today who otherwise might be able to tell you how much lint Britney Spears gets out of her navel (if they still are interested in her). How about bands of the Big Band era, and the music they played? How many people today have ever heard of, let alone heard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square?” A number of years ago, a friend of mine purchased a reprinted collection of Civil War popular songs. I played through a lot of them out of curiosity. Yes, they have their share of maudlin sentimentality. But there are some wonderful pieces of music – all totally forgotten. How about all the quadrilles and two-steps from the same era that have wonderfully catchy melodies that no one ever plays? You get the point.

This is not to say that at times pop culture doesn’t rise above its origins and produce something “classic”. It does. It’s just that the folks who made “Casablanca” don’t appear to have set out to create a work of art nor do they appear to have had any idea that’s what they were doing as they did it. Years ago Richard Schickel did a series of interviews with the directors of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood like Frank Capra before they died. In one of them he interviewed King Vidor. Schickel asked Vidor when he was making a movie did he ever think we was creating art. Vidor thought a moment and then answered, “Hell, no. We were too busy making movies.”


I cannot be as effusive as you in regard to No Child Left Behind. The reason: I know too many teachers.

Your two general benefits are correct in and of themselves. But it looks to me as though you have missed something that is pernicious, especially in the context of your essay theme.

What I have repeatedly heard is that it is taken for granted that schools are now to teach the test. Mind you, I said teach the test, not teach to educate the kids so they have knowledge to understand the world and how to get through it. These two things are not necessarily the same.

But why would we expect anything else to happen? After all, real money is at stake here in the form of state and/or Federal subsidies, not to mention that local taxpayers might start to wonder what they are getting for the several thousand dollars of school property taxes they shell out each year.

Historically, the purpose of education has been to give children the knowledge they need to understand the world and how to get through it. After all, we bring them at birth into this cumulative construct/environment we call the world totally ignorant of it. If they remain that way, there is the danger they will become like barbarians at the gate and knock it down without realizing what they are doing and God knows what will be left after the other has been lost and things revert to the nasty, brutish and short life in a state of nature. (Think William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”). Culture is the accumulated knowledge and experience of men and women living in the world we have created to escape that state of nature. Education is vehicle by which that knowledge and experience is passed on from one generation to another to make sure it is preserved. That is why having a common culture and experience in the world is so important, and why fragmenting a culture is risky.

I admit that your two reasons do attempt to address this issue. To the extent that they do, it is an admission that the education system in America has lost its way and doesn’t know what it is doing since someone has to tell them what they need to do. To the extent they do not (and they don’t), they and No Child are simply an expression of what bureaucrats and politicians often do best: tinker at the edges and self-perpetuate themselves.

So what do I think is wrong? Structural problems, such as:

(A) Local control by school boards is more of an ideological shibboleth than we believe. The politicians and education bureaucracy long ago recognized the problem you mentioned – lack of uniformity in standards and result – and figured out how to deal with it Impose requirements that local districts can’t afford, then subsidize the ongoing cost of implementation. In other words, take control of the money supply and put conditions on the purse strings. Before we can decide whether we really want “local control” and whether or not it is a good thing, we have to first understand what has already happened. Then we can decide whether we want it to remain the same or try to change it.

(B) Educators have made careers of devising and promoting their own teaching “methods”. There are certainly worthy ideas among their efforts. But often we end up with ineffective fads that come and go. In the long run it is the children and the rest of us who pay for this because the methods just don’t work and the kids just don’t learn. For anyone who learned basic math 40 years ago, with memorizing tables and simple carrying of numbers in computations, check out the convoluted methods that they try to teach kids with today. Even the bright kids don’t get it, and don’t want to bother.

(C) Then there are the educators who can’t write a simple clear sentence of English to explain what they are doing but instead write impenetrable “educationese”. And we think we should entrust the education of our youth to people who can’t clearly express themselves?!! Puh –leeese.

Beyond these things I think there are two deeper structural issues: that teaches don’t need to have knowledge only methods to teach, and that kids learn best at play and by doing.

One of the education fads about a generation ago was that teachers did not need to know subject matter of what they taught. If they simply knew teaching “methods” they could teach any subject. This fortunately fell by the wayside after a while, but it appears to me to still have influence. I am amazed at the lack of general knowledge I find in teachers. After all, aren’t educators supposed to be educated? I have a friend who is a high school teacher. One of his colleagues insists on teaching that World War One ended on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11the day of the 11th month. Sorry, but there was no 11th minute – it was 11:00 A.M. on November 11, 1918. What’s worse, he has pointed this out to her, and she ignores him. What hope is there for an educational system where the blind can lead the blind?

One of the persistent assumptions in modern education seems to be that kids learn best when they learn by doing and when they have “fun” doing it. Granted, some things have to be learned by the doing of rote practice, such as learning multiplication and division. But how much “fun” can learning the multiplication table be, and should we even try? A few years ago, my local newspaper had a feature article on some elementary classroom that spent about week dressing up as Pilgrims and doing things like building a model Plymouth to learn about Thanksgiving. Couldn’t the same thing been accomplished in about a 15-30 minute lesson where the teacher simply talked and the kids were expected to listen up? And if so, wasn’t the other a hugely inefficient use of time that might have been spent otherwise teaching kids other things they might need to know? But that wouldn’t have been “fun”, so presumably they wouldn’t have learned as much.

Of course, this particular issue may be trumped by the fact that it is actually true that modern kids are conditioned to the idea everything must fast-paced multimedia entertainment and have truly become incapable of learning anything any other way. If this is actually true, then we are risk of simply losing a whole body of information and knowledge that can’t be transmitted this way. To this problem I have no solution. I don’t know that anyone does. Perhaps we are about to suffer an unintended consequence, something that often happens to people who don’t know what they are actually doing.

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