In 1981 I gave a speech to the incoming arts students at Carleton University. Today I have to give myself credit for being something of a prophet–as will be obvious if the reader scans what follows. One ironical and sad sidelight. In 1981 I had not quite taken in what damage would be done to the literary and arts curriculum by the arrival of full-blown post-modern criticism. With its obfuscations of language, over-emphasis on deconstruction, its scientism and “nothing but” mentality it has undermined some valid and deeply satisfying aspects of arts education. It has politicized the arts and literature at the expense of spirit, and pedanticized and polarized where breadth and reciprocal insights are needed. Yes, some useful exposures of long-standing oppressions and complacencies have been achieved, but the price has been high. Artists have been led into too narrow paths, audiences have been alienated as well as broadened and enriched, and a generally materialistic, socially focused perspective has replaced traditional spiritual aspiration. Nor has the power of the arts to critique social injustice been markedly improved, since the issue can no longer be framed in terms of “higher”–i.e., synthesizing and humane–values” versus opportunism and material complacencies; it is now just one damned ideology against another.
Some Prophetic Words May 9, 1981
I’m fully aware that prophecy is a very risky business, but if I were asked to give a name to the future I see ahead of us as we approach the year 2000, I would be forced to choose a rather sombre one and suggest that, above all, we are moving into the era of the Manipulated Environment. In the coming decades , we have every reason to suppose that there will be a shrinkage of options for the -individual and an access of control by powerful social groups and interests relatively immune to political response from those who wish to modify their influence. The development of multi-national corporations, which operate in many cases outside of the political control of any one elected government, is a case in point. It is no accident that the most perspicacious science fiction writers have often predicted a world in which these groups will compete equally with or actually replace elected governments, and introduce measures of social control that will make Hitler’s regime look like the reign of a political amateur.
The corruption and subversion of our information networks is already a real possibility, as monopoly power grows, and the wonderland promised for television appears more and more like a wasteland of superficiality, mediocrity and political distortion. Our privacy is threatened by computerized storage of information in central places easily accessible to a ruthlessly minded government. Such promised communications revolutions as telematics, or two-way television, which have inspired such enthusiasm ( and indeed, national hopes, since Canada is a pioneer in this development) seem to me particularly vulnerable to subversion. We are promised a computerized home network with the intellectual and artistic resources of the world at our disposal: but does anyone really believe that that is what we’ll actually get? Or that we will get it without the inevitable price of loss of option for dissent; or that in acquiring it we will be able to escape inviting Big Brother into our living rooms, as our houses are hooked up to central headquarters, where, for any “good” reason someone can throw a switch, cutting us off, or perhaps worse, tuning us in, so that we may be inspected, certified, and corrected, in case we fail to meet some standard set by the faceless and impersonal parties at the other end.
If you think this is an exaggerated perspective, ask yourselves how much input you, or political groups you are involved with, have had in such a key area as the development of nuclear power, for example. Nuclear power, for good or ill, is a power system innately divorced from control of the public at large. It is a power system which has been and inevitably will be developed and controlled by big business and big government, one in which secrecy has become a mania, and where monitoring by an informed public has never once been encouraged and has often been thwarted. As we move toward the end of the century, more and more decisions are being taken out of our hands. Economic stringency is sometimes the excuse, often the cause of this loss of freedom. More and more, we in the industrialized countries will be asked, I believe to count ourselves lucky in a world where millions are starving, in that at least our standard of living remains relatively high. More and more the real freedom implicit in the democratic ideal will be thwarted in the name of expediency. Only lack of time and an innate dislike for Jeremiads prevent me from extending these examples to other areas and at length.
If this is a reasonable prediction of our future, based on extrapolation from some present trends, what kind of education can we rely on to deal with it, to change it, to remake the situation a little nearer heart’s desire? Certainly not education for instrument knowledge. Education for instrument knowledge, without other values, can produce only victims, human tools fit to be manipulated by the power structures that surround us. Strangely enough, it is precisely the education that seems least useful in dealing with the technological and social changes of the next decades that is in fact the most useful, that is actually the only kind of education that can offer much hope. I refer to education in the arts. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit philosopher and a great proponent of science and progress, once asked in a letter the theoretical question: where does progress in the arts lie? Are the arts not really a stagnant element in our western civilization in which there is so obviously a strong developmental aspect to the sciences? The answer to this question isn’t easy, but, in brief, I think we can say that the arts are both evolutionary and rooted–I would certainly not say stagnant. The arts are evolutionary in the sense that styles and techniques change and develop (though not necessarily for the better) and in the sense that the arts alter in relation to the unfolding of other systems of human knowledge, as part of the overall sweep of human psycho-social evolution. At the same time, in a very important sense, the arts are rooted. This is because the arts deal, by and large, with a common sense world, with the world of human experience, the human body, human language; or work through the human senses of sound and touch. As René Dubos, the ecologist, has put it:
As far as we are concerned, the real environment is that which we can perceive by our senses or which affects our bodies. The only world that is real for us is the primary phenomenal world in which the sun moves from east to west, the stars are hung in the skies, the reference measurement is the human body.. We remain Ptolemaic because this is the way we perceive the world during our early years, with the result that our reasoning, shaped by our senses, proceeds according to this initial way of thinking. Whatever road to progress he takes, man will reach a desirable destination only if he is guided by the direct perception of his senses, and the yearning for elemental modes of life.
What the arts can offer as training against the Manipulated Environment is symbolic reaffirmation of the primary environment of the senses, training in the articulation of intellectual systems that deal directly with this primary human experience, and historical knowledge, which enables us to perceive and evaluate changes in the human condition in specific and general terms from epoch to epoch.
I really believe (even if my prediction of our dire future is quite wrong) that some other terrible evil will overtake us, if we do not begin now to give renewed support to the kinds of inquiries and values represented by the arts disciplines. I would hold up as an educational ideal what might be called the literate consciousness, that is, the ideal of an aware and creative human being, in touch with physical reality, grounded in specific local and communal commitments and necessities, with an ability to read (and defeat if necessary) all the half truths and outright lies perpetrated by those in control of the sophisticated means of mass communications in our time. I would like to see an arts–inspired revolution that would go beyond some of the vaguenesses and diversions of the sixties to create a generation which is both sensitized to small scale and more natural values, and at the same time capable of dealing with the emerging one world of the noosphere, the planetary consciousness which is inevitable and which can be a force for great good.
The arts disciplines, I think, are beginning to realize that they must offer more than genteel, learned, and supposedly disinterested ironies to the new generation of students who have grown up partially inspired by and partially corrupted by the various media revolutions. Issues which were poorly dealt with by the counter-culture, such as the social, verbal, perceptual and even environmental distortions of a traditional masculinized society have been been raised by feminist writers; there are sophisticated methods of analysis of language and symbol systems that can be used to break through the conditioning imposed by our commercialized culture; new research has remarkably confirmed the incredible possibilities of human mind-powers so far untapped by western rationalism. This could indeed be the beginning of a very exciting era in the development of human potential.
But you may be wondering whether I’m suggesting in all this that arts students must necessarily be converted to a great crusade against the evils and exaggerations of the present day, that nothing but an arts training is needed to turn a student from the path of groveling opportunism to the point at which he or she becomes a model of intellectual and moral probity.
Obviously, I am arguing no such naive nonsense. What I am insisting on, though, is the idea that the arts are not harmless; on the contrary, they are very dangerous. It is perfectly possible for someone committed to the study of languages, philosophy or history to emerge as a restless, angry critic of the existing world. It is also possible– and this should cheer up many of you—for a person trained in the arts to become part of the system, to make a very good living now or in the Manipulated Society that I’ve suggested is on the horizon. It’s perfectly possible for an arts graduate to write excellent, silly advertising jingles, to write fine-sounding speeches for nasty politicians, to treat art or music purely as a commodity, to go into law and defend members of the Mafia, to become an eloquent spokesperson for a big corporation that has no social responsibility, to justify in perfect prose the inhumane actions of any particular bureaucracy. I certainly hope this reassures you!
The big lie, I think, is the one that claims that the arts occupy a special place in an hermetically sealed environment uncontaminated by “mere living.” As against this rather rarefied kind of idea I would like to set the concept of the German dramatist, Bertolt Brecht, who by contrast spoke of militant learning:
Learning means something very different to different strata of society. There are strata of people who cannot conceive of any improvement in conditions; conditions seem good enough to them. Whatever may happen to petroleum, they make a profit out of it. And they feel, after all, that they are getting very old. They can scarcely expect many more years of life. So why continue to learn? They have already spoken their last word: But there are also strata of people who have not yet “had their turn,” who are discontented with the way things are, who have an immense practical interest in learning, who want orientation badly, who know they are lost without learning–these are the best and most ambitious learners. Such differences also exist among nations and peoples. Thus the lust for learning is dependent on various things; ‘in short, there is such a thing as thrilling learning, joyous and militant learning.
I would hope the study of the arts in this country could be reformed so that arts faculties would indeed become centres of militant learning. It is a dangerous word–militant, -one that may raise the spectre of ideological rigidity, of vicious politicking, of an actual struggle over fundamental values, such as threw some American campuses into chaos in the sixties. I think now, though, we have to accept the risk of such a struggle, to free ourselves from our defensiveness, our bondage to the expediencies of narrow-minded politicians. My values may not be your values, but I’ve tried to take a first step by affirming some of them here so as to demonstrate that arts disciplines are not remote from what we fondly imagine to be the “real world”, and that however useful arts skills may be in preparing students to fit into the possibly sinister world on the horizon, they would be far better applied in making sure that no such evil world comes to pass.
(Unfortunately, as Chris Hedges and other analysts have pointed out, the study of the arts and humanities has since been corrupted by materialism and greed, and the field laid waste by contending ideologies that have lost touch with traditional idealisms).