Waiting for the Barbarians

July 28, 2010

French number – photograph by Liz Mathews

I overheard some professional philistine on the radio in a shop, demanding what good it ever did anyone to learn French, especially now you can book your hotel room over the internet. (This somewhat ignores the reality of actual arrival in a Parisian hotel, but that is another story.)  The opinion was expressed with enormous self-satisfaction at the possessor’s plain-spoken insular common sense.  But surely even someone (like me) who unfortunately lacks fluent French themselves can comprehend the mind-expanding possibilities of knowing another language, having access to another culture’s riches?  Who could want to collaborate in depriving children of the opportunity – at least – to learn so much for so little?  Only someone who is against knowledge itself, who prefers the safety of ignorance for the future, the cutting of communication between as many cultures as possible, so that we can all sink self-satisfied back into our mire.  Nostalgie de la Boue, indeed.

Everyone is outraged when hospitals are run by managers who only care about profits, but what about schools where nothing is taught except what is needed for animal existence?  How can anyone who has devoted their life to learning bear to be told that it is valueless?  What will happen if we don’t teach anything but money-related pseudo-subjects?  The only possible result will be an increased polarisation between the priviliged (and eccentric) few who independently maintain their private culture, and the rest who only have access to a bogus celebrity culture.  

Now that there’s an opportunity for philistine ideology to be expressed with such pleasure, and vehemence, the old claims re-emerge that the arts are elitist, not for the masses. If art – and education, too – can be presented as merely a status symbol for the rich, then its funding by the government may seem inappropriate, its loss unimportant. This fear of intellectualism has always been a factor of British life, and the perceived divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ has been very useful in preventing any common cause.  It goes with the fears of women, homosexuals, foreigners, vegetarians, artists, etc, etc, which are still major factors in maintaining this unequal society.  As it’s a matter of education, it is self-replicating; the argument is circular, the prophecy self-fulfilling.  

Just as a false dichotomy can be set up between affording health or the arts, false competition can be set up between different arts organisations, between departments in universities, or different disciplines.  While these potential allies argue, the fabric around is dismantled.  I have been amazed to read academics bickering in print about the merits of teaching the humanities at all, or British academics taking issue with Americans for lamenting the loss of departments in our universities (not their business – or the business of the entire scholarly community?), or arts organisations unable to justify their existence except in terms of money.  This is the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ indeed.  

The Greeks who protest in the streets about cuts to the funding of their cultural life, among other areas of society, call the perpetrators ‘Barbarians’; an insult with a long history, beginning with the lack of a language in which to understand each other.  In this modern context, I don’t think the concept is over-emotional, I think it is a recognition that there are people who actually like the idea of destroying culture. We have barbarians here too, who will be only too delighted to bring back the dark ages, if we let them.

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