For the good of the others


‘Inform, educate and entertain’

This week, Radio 4 has been broadcasting a series of 45-minute programmes by Melvyn Bragg under the title The Value Of Culture. It’s a sign of the strength and quality of public culture in Britain that such programmes are an unexceptional part of everyday broadcasting. Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series, In Our Time, from which The Value of Culture was a kind of holiday offshoot, shows the continuing resonance of the BBC’s original mission, as described by John Reith, to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

That mission, despite its abiding influence, wasn’t mentioned these programmes. Indeed the BBC itself, so central to the story of evolving ideas of culture in Britain during the past 90 years, received only a characteristically self-critical sideswipe about how its post-war national radio stations—the Light, Home and Third programmes—reflected both the class system and then-current ideas about lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow culture.

There were other striking omissions in a series that concentrated entirely on British men—Arnold, Tylor, Hulme, Wells, Orwell, Snow, Leavis, Hoggart, Williams and Hall—with a brief diversion to the American anthropologists Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Continental Europe might not have existed in this Anglo Saxon perspective, to say nothing of the rest of the world. There was no mention of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu, or Hélène Cixous, to name only a few of the most obvious and influential thinkers on the value of culture.

Nonetheless, the programmes gave an interesting overview of the evolution of British ideas about culture, science—not the same thing, despite what many contributors maintained—public life, democracy and ideology over the past 150 years. They opened up far more questions than could be considered in a single post, and I may come back here in future. For now, I just want to say something about an issue raised in the first programme, about Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, because it underpins so many of the disputes about the value of culture that still rage today.

‘The best that has been thought and known in the world’

250px-Matthew_Arnold_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16745The most famous line in Arnold’s book, though as so often it tends to be repeated without the context that gives it complexity, is that culture

‘seeks to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere’.

That idea of the best quickly became a dividing line between those wishing to defend certain cultural values and those taking a more relativistic view of human cultures. It remains highly contested as demonstrated by some of the less illuminating parts of Bragg’s final programme, a public debate at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.

It has always seemed to me that this is a false division, as are so many drawn by opponents in our culture wars. Who, after all, does not want access to the best experiences that life can offer, at least some of the time, including the best that has been thought and known? No one seeks out mediocrity, knowingly and consistently.

The problem arises because we don’t agree about what is good. And in cultural policy, or the spending decisions of Arts Councils, that problem becomes acute because some people have to make choices between available goods on behalf of others. The dilemma is pervasive in public culture: for the trustees of a museum, an everyday decision such as whether to spend more on acquisitions or on access programmes, turns on this question.

‘Dignity and freedom’

And, in a democracy where each citizen has an equal voice, it cannot be resolved by appeal to an absolute authority. Experts—those who have studied and thought long about a subject—can argue that their specialist knowledge should be listened to and, if the issue was building a bridge it would be stupid not to take the advice of an engineer.

But culture is not physics (which is why a distinction between art and science exists and must be recognised). And, even if it were, the central principle of democracy remains: people have the right to make their own decisions, even if those decisions are misguided and will lead them to outcomes that they do not want.

Bernhard SchlinkThat is the philosophical heart of  Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader. The central character, faced with a critical decision about whether to act in what he sees as another person’s best interests but against that person’s wishes, is told by his father, who fortunately happens to be a professor of philosophy:

‘But with adults I unfortunately see no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.’

‘Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?’

He shook his head. ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy, you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, (1997)

The question about culture in a democracy is not whether mother is right but whether every citizen is treated with equal dignity in exercising the freedom to make sense of his or her own life, in and through culture.


The BBC is increasingly making its radio output available online in the form of podcasts. The Value of Culture programmes are available indefinitely here.

One comment

  1. A very valid observation, and one which I find the majority of arts workers i interview agree with. They recognize that their role is not to impose their value judgments onto others, but to produce something of such quality that people can’t help but want to come and engage with it. Quality is one of the strongest tools in dissolving barriers to cultural engagement, and we should support quality in every way, no matter what form the cultural engagement takes. This needs to be recognized by those who make decision however and find a way to support people to develop quality in the culture that they choose, not only in the culture that is provided for them.

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