By: Justin Shelby


Here is what Matthew Arnold had to say in his book, Culture and Anarchy, about American Philistines. Rather than say it himself — that would have been too harsh and Matthew Arnold walks more often in sweetness and light than I do — he approvingly quotes a certain monsieur Renan on the same subject:

“The sound instruction of people is an effect of the high culture of certain classes. The countries which, like the United States, have created a considerable popular instruction without any serious higher instruction, will have to expiate this fault by their intellectual mediocrity, their vulgarity of manners, their superficial spirit, [and] their lack of general intelligence.”

The language is polite, but the charges are pretty savage. In that quote, Renan calls Americans writ large stupid, rude, superficial, and then stupid again. What’s more, I do not deny the substance of these charges; they are as true today (writ large) as they were when Arnold quoted them back in the 19th century. For this reason, it’s rather ironic that my article on Confucian Philistinism has been misinterpreted as a sort of screed of American cultural superiority. To speak the vices of one group is not the same as to assert the virtues of a different group. I am here in Vietnam: I address the problems in front of me, not problems 10,000 miles away. In any case, I suspect the reason that I can recognize philistinism in Vietnam so clearly is because the same ailment is present in so many of my own countrymen.

I have covered what I believe are the causes of Vietnamese Philistinism in an earlier article. In the American case, according to Arnold, the cause of this philistinism (an excessive and nearly exclusive preoccupation with status and material success) was the isolation of the American people from the depository of culture (defined as, “the best that has been thought and said.”) which Arnold believed to reside in the established churches of Rome and England. Unlike the UK, America has, enshrined in its constitution, a prohibition against any government sanctioned church. This separation between church and state has served us well for the most part, but Arnold argues that it has had some negative consequences. One of these consequences is a proliferation of bad ideas among the people and a disinclination to take advantage of the excellent thought and speech that has taken place in the past when confronting contemporary problems. I tell this to students all the time: someone has probably thought about your current problem better and more deeply than you have. Accepting that, and its corollary, that in order to make an informed decision, you must submit yourself to the discipline of understanding the best that has been thought and said on a subject by others before you, conduces to culture. Failure to do so slowly erodes it.

It’s a strange experience for me, as an American, to sympathize with the opinions of a man who believes that it is the state’s business to sponsor a church and who argues convincingly that the presence of a state religion has salubrious effects on the morality and culture of a nation. I don’t agree that a state church is worth having, ultimately, but I do agree that in giving one up, we surrender an important civilizing institution, and probably are less inclined to care about, or have access to, proper culture. With the “best” no longer in our sights, and truth, beauty, goodness beyond our ken, we slip easily to the worship of “machinery” (money, status, fame, etc.) and a great mass of us become philistine in our tastes and inclinations.

A large part of the reason why college is so expensive in the US is because in the last 30 or 40 years the trades and their dignity have been deprecated. Many Americans look upon a plumbers, electricians, or HVAC technicians, people working jobs absolutely necessary to our prosperity, comfort, hygiene, and safety, with a sort of contempt or horror. Mike Rowe talks about this here:

The trades are deprecated because, despite the often substantial paychecks they bring, they are “blue-collar”, involving manual labor, and thus, low status. This attitude represents philistinism of the worst and most insidious character. It would be one thing if students were going to college and becoming thoroughly educated in meaningful subjects. In my fantasy world, everyone goes to college, majors in classics, and then maintains their Latin and Greek reading abilities for the rest of their lives. What conversations we could have! What beauty we could contemplate together! Perhaps that world, or a similar one, would be worth the cost. But today, most students don’t go to college to begin a serious and deep relationship with beauty or truth. Today, most students go to school, party a lot, forget most of what they’ve learned post graduation, and then get a job that could have been done without a degree. Our society requires a degree for access to these jobs, in theory, because we want well-rounded and properly educated people in positions of meaningful authority, but (given the sorry state of education) mostly because IQ tests are illegal and the degree is a status symbol. That’s a sad misallocation of resources that will drag society down into the muck. Every dollar wasted to obtain an empty symbol is a dollar that isn’t spent improving the lives of other people in the world. Philistinism costs lives. 
The harsh and nasty truth is that, with the current state of higher education, not everyone should go to college. Not everyone can hack it and not every subject you want to study is worth spending 200,000 USD on. Gender isn’t as worthy a topic of study as mathematics. Learning to read Spanish literature is probably better done by moving to a Spanish speaking country and learning the language thoroughly there. If you must decipher Plato in Greek, or really understand physics, or really have what it takes to become a doctor, we have the university. We also have to consider the international context. The debt situation is heinous in the US, but the analogous situation, the depletion of third-world savings, is even worse. If the average Vietnamese student pays 25,000 USD per year to a college, that’s 100,000 USD in 4 years, in a country where the average per capita GDP is around 2,000 dollars a year. That’s an outlay of 50 years of average wages, a lifetime of work, in four years. That is business starting, life-changing, money. I would have to be a moral monster to not make students aware of the alternative uses of such resources.

The great irony of seeking status and material, rather than culture, or “sweetness and light” in Arnold’s terminology, is that when you seek status and material you will eventually lose both the sweetness & light and status & material. So many of the status seeking American philistines who abhorred trade school, after obtaining the fantasy of status and material that their degrees seemingly made manifest, are now working as janitors and baristas. Meanwhile, electricians, plumbers, and other skilled tradesman make around 50k on average. Baristas make 20k. Electricians often run their own business, can buy nice cars, and afford other symbols of status and wealth. Baristas generally do not and cannot, even if they have fancy degrees. And it’s not like we walk around with our degrees stapled to our foreheads. The status symbol is not the same as the status. Now, I love my baristas. But if you love someone, you want what is best for them. And it is certainly best to live in a world where all baristas are robots because the humans are all too well trained as electricians to spend their time making me coffee.

There will be a part 3, in which I discuss the future I see and the hopes I have for Vietnamese students. For now, I leave you with Arnold:
“The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.”

Justin Shelby