Western Culture: The Baby and the Bathwater

Since we live in a postmodern world, we often forget the “roots” of Western Culture. Oh, we know lots of incidental details, and sure enough, we have a pretty good idea of how things work.

What we often lack, however, is a clear idea of how we got here.

When I was in university, I had to take a series of general education courses. In GenEd 101, we read excerpts from The Bible, The Merchant of Venice, Plato’s Republic, and all sorts of other good things.

The books we were reading for that course were, as I am sure was obvious to the professors, important source material for Western Culture. What’s interesting to me now is that I somehow remained blissfully unaware of that fact. I understood that these books were important. I just didn’t understand why.

To tell the truth, it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I really began to be able to wrap my mind around Western Culture. Sure, I knew that Western Culture is racist (for instance), but I didn’t understand the why of it. I understood that the more abstract the material one studies in academia, the more prestige one gained–but again, I didn’t even know how to ask “why?”

What I had difficulty understanding was that racism, the valuation of the abstract over the concrete, and a whole host of other ideas all  had the same root: they could be traced back to Plato, or at least to Neoplatonism–ideas I’d been exposed to in my education.

Playing with Plato

This is not the Plato you are looking for.

In the works of Plato is the idea of the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain is a hierarchy of all things in the world. “Higher” in the chain is the ideal world, and things are judged by their closeness to that ideal. Highest in the chain is “the One.”

When we use the Great Chain to judge things, and Western Culture often does, we value the abstract over the concrete. The abstract is closer to the ideal, and the ideal is closer to the ultimate ideal–the One, which was represented as God after the popularization of Christianity.

Tickle Me PoMo

What’s interesting to me about the last thirty years is that, as we’ve moved from a Western Culture to a Postmodern Culture, we’ve lost this valuation of the abstract. No longer are those who professionally study the abstract held in high regard. Instead, as a culture, we have moved towards valuing things based on their “utility” in a much more limited sense.

The capital-“T” Truth has moved from being an ideal to something that we value only for its utility.  The idea, and ideal, of pure research has fallen away. Oh, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. I am saying that the ways in which it is supported have grown more limited over time.

Kevin Clash and Elmo
No, not ELMO…

These ideas have become popularized, as well. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “those who can’t do, teach.” It’s one of those catchy sayings that appeals to students everywhere because, let’s face it, students are sometimes working out their own relationships with authority.

But the aphorism, in denigrating the teacher’s role, tosses aside two millennia of Western values. What could be more postmodern than that? It is part of a larger belief, we live in a new era where things simply are what they are, and everything can be bought and sold.

Once, I would have shaken my head and said that students have always rebelled against teachers, and it’s nothing to worry about, but this attitude has somehow become trendy recently. The standard bearers of our culture, pundits and politicians, talk about how teachers have such an easy life, and how they have such poor standards, and how what they teach is of limited utility.

[Irony alert: These are often the same people who decry the loss of “Western Values.”]

Don’t Turn Back the Clock

Caste System

We don’t need to turn back the clock and start using the Great Chain of Being again in order to redeem (or resuscitate) Western Culture. But we’ve tossed aside one set of values, and seem to be struggling to come up with an alternative.

One possible alternative that we’ve come up with is determining someone’s value as a person by how much money they make. This is in contrast to traditional Western patterns, where we’ve built value through three separate hierarchies.

For example, we’ve been promised that a college education will provide the means for us to join the middle class. That is an example of educational prestige. Yet that the promise of a college education doesn’t ring as true as it once did.

Yes, a college education is often a necessary step for those hoping to enter the middle class, but in recent years the middle class has shrunk while the number of granted college degrees has risen. Just do the math, and it’s easy to see that the middle class is neither growing nor prospering, while the number of people getting college educations is rising, as is the cost.

Apparently, Western Culture has decided it doesn’t like the pattern described in Max Weber‘s Three-Component Theory of Stratification anymore. We’re moving toward one rationalized hierarchy; instead of wealth (cash), prestige (education), and power (force), we decided that prestige and power could be merged with wealth if we simply paid people according to their social status.

While seemingly more “efficient” and “fair,” this has had some nasty side-effects. The previous tripartite system described by Weber, with its multiple paths of “success,” served to prevent any one of these hierarchies from dominating.

By attempting to merge the three social-status systems into one, we’ve managed to increase the amount of distance between the top and bottom. Additionally, we’ve limited the number of metaphorical ladders one might climb when attempting to raise social status.

New Western Values

Culture isn’t some abstract list of values, it’s a series of practices passed from generation to generation, and tested over time using large-scale feedback loops. In this period of intensive cultural change, the “new” values we hold haven’t had time to be tested.

The “old” values have been tested, and we’ve found it necessary to discard or modify many of them. All we need to do is  think about the significant changes in how we view race, gender, religion, and other aspects of culture, or how much the meaning of the word “work” has changed, or even “education.”

The cultural upheaval that we’ve been going through since the 1950s (though in truth, at least since the Industrial Revolution) has been met with our attempts to build (or agree upon) a new core* for Western culture. We struggle with this because we feel the new is so different from the old.

We’re laboring under a false assumption. The “core” cannot be divorced from the past, as postmodernism sometimes seems to be. The core we create will, however, need to incorporate a larger world. The past and the present are not at war. They are in deep and dramatic negotiations over our future.


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