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Traditional Defences of Literary Culture, like Sidney’s, Shelley’s, and Arnold’s, are deployed against the zealotries of puritanism and commercial utilitarianism. The existence of such a conference as this, suggesting that literacy is yet again under pressure, stems from a somewhat different cause of concern. Utilitarian rigour, following the outburst of student hedonism in the nineteen-sixties—one might say in revenge for it—certainly exerts a strong pressure on learning of all sorts, one which we see clearly enough in the desire of our own province to relate learning to manpower, job-getting, and accounting. In part such an attitude bespeaks a commendable conviction that people should work for a living and have the equipment to do so; in part it presents the familiar face of Babbitry, the evaluation of life and action according to the ideals, if one can call them that, of the Chamber of Commerce. Dickens typified this view of life in a great series of edifying characters: Ebeneezer Scrooge, Murdstone, Bounderby, Merdle, and Grandfather Smallweed, “whose mind holds, as well as it ever held, the first four rules of arithmetic, and a certain small collection of the hardest facts. In respect of ideality, reverence, wonder, and other such phrenological attributes, it is no worse off than it used to be. Everything that Mr. Smallweed’s grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly” (Bleak House 287). Such grim philosophers are always with us, but in defending literacy we now find ourselves not simply confronting the familiar adversaries, Mammon and Dr Bowdler, nor the more general spirit that H. L. Mencken described as the “Anglo-Saxon zeal for ugliness,” but a view that quality in learning and the power to discriminate are “elitist.” The issue is not whether the reading that students do will corrupt them, but whether they should read anything other than what they please, what seems momentarily “relevant”—indeed, whether it is necessary for anyone to read much at all when by turning on a tv set he can become another global village idiot (see Durrant 98).

One can see behind such slackness a debased and muzzy notion of democracy that tells us we can develop the student’s unique and individual self without exposing him to what is first rate in conception and articulation, that we can have a nation that thinks clearly without special training in the use of language and ideas, that we can have a sense of national identity without a knowledge of the culture from which we grow, that we can realize our full humanity without bothering about the greatest expressions of the human spirit, in short, that we can get along well enough spinning the thread of our unique and individual selves, personally, nationally, or [End Page 44] humanly, out of a vacuum. Democracy has to do with making choices, and the choice we are here confronted with is, as Matthew Arnold put it, between “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and “our natural taste for the bathos” (x 56; v 156). Arnold sees this choice as fundamental to the calibre of any democratic system of education, determining the difference between a life clogged by inertia and one of energy, judgment, and creativity. He would have agreed with Burke that while “the effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints” (7).

The benefits of literary culture are not obscure: they are intellectual, moral, and aesthetic, and, acknowledging in advance that this is a convenient rather than tidy division, I shall talk about them in that order. The first two usually get most emphasis. Arnold puts their case simply and well in saying that the aim of culture is “to know ourselves and the world” (x 56). The aesthetic pleasure of literature, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, often gets less attention, though Wordsworth speaks of the creation of...