Culture "Of the People, by the People, for the People." (Growth of Popular Culture Studies)

By Browne, Ray B. | National Forum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Culture "Of the People, by the People, for the People." (Growth of Popular Culture Studies)


Browne, Ray B., National Forum


The social and political thunder that rumbled through American society during the 1960s told academics that they should reexamine what they were studying and teaching. Institutions tend to become more self-enclosed and self-serving as they mature, and many people thought that American academia at that time was growing distant from and irrelevant to the society it was supposed to serve. This was especially true of some definitions of "culture" and the meaning of life.

Culture, to many people, was still rooted in the past, in the observations of British poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, who in the middle of the nineteenth century defined culture as "the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world." This statement was generally confused with his definition of criticism: "A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." Arnold's viewpoint, it seemed to be forgotten, was clouded by nostalgia and fear. His world was a "darkling plain...where ignorant armies clash by night," and his sense of obligation to civilization was limited.

Culture: An Anachronistic Definition

Despite the apparent anachronism of Arnold's point of view in the late twentieth century, many academics clung to it in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and some at least into the 1990s. In her Humanities in America: A Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People (1988), Lynne Cheney, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, reported one professor's lament over the state of American education: "Students are not taught that there is such a thing as literary excellence as they were twenty years ago. We are throwing out the notion of good or bad, or ignoring it." Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which became almost holy writ to countless academic administrators, advocated turning academic classrooms into Shakespearean Greenrooms where Caucasian gentlemen sat around and discussed Shakespeare's plays and Plato's work, with Bloom leading the discussion, as the only needed canon in modern society.

Cheney's Report, again, quoted educator Jacques Barzun advocating "grace and beauty" as criteria for the value of literature, though he did allow that "excellence is found in many forms, some of them unassuming and even fugitive. The specifically literary qualities can grace a detective story by Dorothy Sayers or a farce by Couteline, a ghost story by M.R. James or a poem by Ogden Nash." Barzun seemed to be concerned that Gresham's law applies to literature as it has been said to apply to economics. But "bad" literature does not drive out "good." The 50,000 titles published annually in the United States in at least 4 billion copies demonstrate that the world of literature "as well as literacy among many people" is rich for all. It is not "bad" literature that shuts out "good," but "dead" ideas that often shut out new ideas and innovative ways of thinking and acting, as in the study of a people's popular culture.

Popular Culture Studies: A Historical Perspective

There is nothing new in the study of popular culture. American academics up until the beginning of the twentieth century recognized, with Emerson, the oneness of culture. The better sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and literary critics used popular culture in their analyses throughout the early part of the century and stressed its importance.

A.O. Lovejoy in his monumental study The Great Chain of Being (1936) observed that many of us are not interested in ideas unless they come to us dressed in full war paint, when it is the small ideas or the accumulation of them that becomes significant. T.S. Eliot in his Essays Ancient and Modern (1936) recognized the importance of popular culture, on which he learned to write and which he used throughout his career, in one important testimonial: "I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for 'amusement' or 'purely for pleasure' that may have the greatest. …

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