Commentary Magazine

The Dangers of Literacy:
Has Democracy Debased Culture?

Mass literacy is a new phenomenon in the history of civilization, and it is no surprise that thoughtful people find its effects disturbing. When ability to read no longer guarantees participation in a living intellectual tradition, when a generalized notion of “culture” has a prestige far wider than the spread of any proper training in the patterns of thinking and feeling, then the way is open for every kind of charlatanism, pedantry, educational self-kidding, muddle-headed pretentiousness, and plausible can’t. Jacques Barzun provides rich documentation of all this in a book1 by whose examples few sensible readers will not be shaken and whose anxieties most will Share, but about whose arguments many will have mixed feelings.

The symptoms of our modern ailment—which is not exclusively American but one which afflicts our whole Western civilization—are not difficult to describe, whether they are graduate students in history who burble sophisticatedly about Hegel without knowing the meaning of some of the simplest words in the English language or even the precise meaning of B.C. and A.D., or the behavior of the large American foundations in endowing “projects” conceived in grandiosely woolly terms and described in polysyllabic doubletalk. Diagnosis, however, is more difficult. What exactly has gone wrong, and how? And what is the proper cure? Mr. Barzun, whose chief zest is demonstrated When he describes the symptoms, has his own answers to the first two of these questions. About the cure he has little if anything to say, at least directly, though certain kinds of treatment seem to be implied in the way he conducts his diagnosis.

Consider the argument in Mr. Barzun’s chapter on “Conversation, Manners, and the Home.” The art of conversation, he tells us, is dead or dying; in contemporary talk, there must never be any real disagreement, the contradicter being either a fool or a snob. He quotes de Tocqueville: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America,” and he illustrates how this is even more true today. “Torn between the fear of error and the fear of being thought inhuman, hating to be misunderstood and hating even worse to be misliked, we verbally cast off self-confidence and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court, saying ‘frankly’ before every sentence and giving warning that we are going to be ‘candid.’” The “routine hypocrisy concealing a desperate wish to placate” is perhaps at the present moment more of an American than a European phenomenon, but still Mr. Barzun is right in seeing it linked with the nature of modern democratic society. There is a “mutual tenderness” in our conversational relations with each other, and “we coax rather than flatter and we do it by whittling down the self so as to spare vanity the smallest hurt.”

What it is in modern society that encourages this, is clearly worth some investigating; perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, in an age of increasing specialization of knowledge, what many individuals really know is strictly “shop” and socially unintelligible, so talkers must find a common ground of non-expert agreement. In, say, the 18th century, when an educated man was reasonably well-informed about the whole intellectual world of his day, conversation could range widely and often belligerently over a great variety of topics. (Consider the enormous number of subjects on which Dr. Johnson talked with at least an air of authority.) In an age of the expert, conversation is either professional talk with other experts or a mutually vanity-sparing exchange of platitudes.

This would, of course, only apply to professional people—but then it is largely professional people to whom Mr. Barzun’s description applies. One does not find this desperate desire to placate in listening to the conversation of truck drivers or miners; one finds it all the time at university cocktail parties. True, one finds it even more strongly among businessmen, where it would seem to be a form of public relations, part of the businessman’s necessity of being liked that we see in one of its lower forms in Death of a Salesman. The phenomenon itself is obviously complex, and any explanation is complex, but Mr. Barzun’s explanation is simple: democracy. “It is popular government which has made accountability universal and thus caused everybody to be forever ‘selling himself’ to everybody else. . . . Conversely, in a society that had little free movement but fixed ranks and set forms, the most rapacious merchant could go through life without fawning and would not dare sell himself or anything else during social intercourse.”



In other words, a rigid class structure makes for good conversation, while a more egalitarian society dissolves all conversation in placatory gestures because “everybody senses that in the free agitation of so many human molecules anyone may become one another’s customer, relative, employee, or ‘opposite number.’” There is some truth in this theory, but let us take a closer look. Did merchants in more class-ridden societies “go through life without fawning”? Has Mr. Barzun studied the portraits of merchants in, say, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and the 18th- and 19th-century novel? Merchants in earlier times normally mixed socially only with members of their own class, but when they had the opportunity to meet a member of the aristocracy, “fawning” is exactly what they did, if literature is to be trusted. The picture of the merchant fawning on the impoverished aristocrat in order to get at least part of his bill paid is one of the commonest in English literature. I remember myself when I first came south from Edinburgh to Oxford, to find myself in a society still very much (this was in 1934) class bound, how surprised and revolted I was by the fawning of the city merchants and tradesmen before students. The idea was to encourage students to run up huge bills; they were given almost unlimited credit, because the “young gentlemen” were expected eventually to come into their inheritance, when of course they would at once be dunned by the tradesmen. This was already an anachronism in 1934, but it was a genuine relic of the older society to which Mr. Barzun harks back. The lickspittle deference with which tailors, wine merchants, hairdressers, and others talked to students (who were “gentlemen”) is something I shall never forget. One sees the same thing in the novels of Thackeray, in 18th-century drama, and in earlier English literature.

Of course I know what Mr. Barzun is getting at and I sympathize with what he is doing. I agree wholeheartedly with his analysis of the effects of a false egalitarianism on education and of the refusal of so many modern educators to recognize differences in ability and aptitude among pupils of the same age. I enjoy his wit and appreciate the ironic relish with which he exposes so many of our modern educational and cultural falsities and confusions. I do not (though my own politics are what might very generally be called “left”) have much sympathy with those of his critics who take fright at once at any suggestion that democracy has its drawbacks and that there is a lot to be said for educating an elite. Indeed, I believe in an intellectual elite and I believe in democracy because I want such an elite to be properly educated wherever it can be found, regardless of financial or social position. At the same time, we must not allow ourselves to set up, however implicitly, an ideal from the past without looking at that past at least as closely as we look at the present. When and in what conditions did the ideal conversation which Mr. Barzun desiderates take place? And what relation did it actually have to the class situation?



The educated middle and upper-middle classes of the 19th century, whom Mr. Barzun much admires, were great talkers but not as a rule great conversationalists. Neither Carlyle nor Mill nor Ruskin nor Arnold were great conversationalists. In the country houses of the landed gentry a wearisome deal of empty social chatter in which nothing was said, with a certain drawling elegance, went on daily (see Trollope and other novelists). Professional wits like Sydney Smith at the beginning of the century and Oscar Wilde at the end were not conversationalists but wisecrackers, masters of repartee and epigram, for whom the conversational game was not one between equals but simply an opportunity to get off the (as often as not) previously prepared witticism.

Must we go further back to find ideal conversation? Is it to be found in the dialogue of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano and similar Renaissance works? Hardly: this is philosophical dialogue, whose ultimate model is Plato, rather than conversation. It is certainly not to be found in the affected conversation of Elizabethan courtiers, mocked by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost and elsewhere. It is perhaps to be found, stylized and perfected, in tone dialogue between Mira-bell and Millamant in Congreve’s The Way of the World: this is the “conversation of gentlemen” on which Dryden wished to model poetic diction. It is, as Congreve presents it, an enchanting game of witty exchange, in substance utterly trivial, in manner poised and perfect. Is this what Mr. Barzun wants? Clearly not, for he tells us that the true conversationalist must “mix the raw material of experience with some thought that gives a handle to further thought, to disagreement, to speculation—Yeats’s ‘phantasy.’” To be sure, Mr. Barzun adds: “Any subject—a lost button—then becomes matter for conversation and a source of delight,” and this suggests that conversation is only a game, but the implication is that the lost button is only the starting point that leads to higher things.

Is it the conversation of the 17th- and 18th-century French salon that Mr. Barzun wishes to revive? But this was surely too specialized, too self-consciously intellectual, to fit Mr. Barzun’s description, and in any case it often consisted of a literary dictator laying down the law to disciples. Is it Dr. Johnson’s famous conversation? Again Dr. Johnson, who “talked for victory” and was in manner authoritarian and peremptory, was a talker rather than a conversationalist; he never really listened, and never weighed any opposing arguments, dealing with opposition like a steamroller.

The fact is that good conversation of the kind Mr. Barzun describes has been extremely rare in any period of our history. The factors that militate against it today—and they range from television to the modern mystique of public relations—are quite different from those which operated earlier, and they corrupt or destroy conversation in different ways. We no longer have today the offensively silly social chat of the 19th-century country house, and our pedantry is not the pedantry of 18th-century chaplains and schoolmasters or Renaissance grammarians; our silliness and our pedantry are different, because the causes are different. If one looks at the “betting books” of Oxford Senior Common Rooms, records of bets between dons on matters which came up in conversation over port, we get some idea of the conversation of the gentleman and scholar over the past two hundred years, and the glimpse is not encouraging, even if it shows something very different from the conversation of professors at faculty clubs in modern American universities. I think myself that the conversation at the faculty clubs is as a rule altogether more interesting and civilized. As a matter of historical fact, good conversation at England’s two older universities has been revived in recent years by dons who more often than not came up from humble backgrounds; the indolent insolence of manner and narrowness of interest of the older type of don have disappeared only recently. I am not sure what the moral is, unless it is that in looking for solutions to our present discontents we must seek a way out, not back.



Mr. Barzun is a historian, and one of my objections to his book is that he is not historical enough. The present is particularized while the past is generalized; or, if the past is not generalized, incidents are picked out with misleading casualness. For example, in discussing the division of labor between the literate Church and the illiterate temporal power in the Middle Ages, Mr. Barzun quotes Harold Nicolson in a footnote: “The Emperor Frederick II, for instance, was wont to sneer at King René of Sicily for his addiction to the arts, obliging that monarch to indulge his gift for painting in the privacy of his own closet. Learning was derided as a practice fit only for clerks and bearing no relation to knightly duties and accomplishments.”

Thus Nicolson, apud Barzun. The Emperor Frederick II is being cited as an illiterate monarch sneering at culture and the arts. I cannot believe that Mr. Barzun does not know how monstrous this is as history. Frederick II was one of the most learned men of his age, stupor mundi et immutator mirabilis, whose brilliant Sicilian court was one of the greatest centers of international culture the world has ever known. Here Moslem, Jewish, and Christian scholars met together and translated each other’s works; here Michael Scott translated Aristotle and Averroes, and many other original and intrepid minds worked under Frederick’s eager patronage. Frederick himself, something of a freethinker who (as a monkish chronicler sadly records) “even took baths on Sundays,” anticipated the ideal of the Renaissance Prince who combined knowledge and power and to whom knowledge was power.

It does not make any real difference to the tenor of Mr. Barzun’s argument whether the example is accurate or not; yet, the fact that Mr. Barzun sees fit to quote his history at second hand through the work of an amateur and that he allows an absurd implication to stand is thoroughly disturbing. Let me repeat: I think he is right in most of what he says about our present cultural ills and their relation to universal literacy and even to democracy; but wherever he goes to the past to illustrate a point or show how things were once better, I find him hasty in generalization and careless in illustration. (Incidentally, the real point of the reference to Frederick and René suggests a conflict between intellectual and artistic activities which Mr. Barzun later on refers to as a modern phenomenon.)

I shall take only one other example. “Where,” asks Mr. Barzun, “have intellectuals learned, together with anti-intellectualism, these diffident gestures of the spirit?” (He is referring to “the shuffling manners of democracy and the modern artist’s oblique thrust at society.”) His answer is: in the novel. “The novel from its beginning in Don Quixote and Tom Jones has persistently made war on two things—our culture and the heroic.” This just will not do. The anti-heroic element in the novel (which is related to the anti-heroic element in the medieval fabliau, both the product of a rising middle class) is far too complex a matter to be brought in in this breezy manner as an explanation of a modern phenomenon. Our intellectuals have learned their anti-intellectualism, and other things, from the novel—learned it, mind you. What an odd notion of cause and effect!

The “low mimetic” mode of the novel (to use Northrop Frye’s useful term) is itself, of course, a product of certain impulses and related to certain social situations. The possibilities of heroism in the modern commercial or industrial world, and the hero appearing as fool if he persists in feudal heroic manners in a post-feudal age, are important themes in the European novel. Oddly enough, the novelist who saw this most clearly was the novelist whom Barzun cites in a footnote as having avoided this theme and “attempted to portray heroic heroes.” In Scott’s best novels (e.g., The Heart of Midlothian and Redgauntlet) the possibilities of active heroism in the modern world are carefully explored with the conclusion that they do not really exist: the active hero appears in the end as fool or exhibitionist or merely as a case for the police, and the true heroism of the modern world lies in prudence (Baillie Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy) or quiet and humble determination (Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian). Again, the example is unimportant, but it shows Mr. Barzun using a popular illusion about the past instead of drawing on clearly realized knowledge of his own; and this is not good enough in a historian. Apart, however, from the accuracy of particular references, what are we to say of the argument that the modern intellectuals’ anti-intellectualism has been learned from the novel? I am at a loss; perhaps we might begin by suggesting that Mr. Barzun read carefully the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

There are, of course, plenty of novels which do work in the direction indicated by Mr. Barzun and I think I know why he says what he does. But to see the relation between fictional realism and modern self-suspicion as simply one of cause and effect rather than as the complicated interweaving of many factors with, in same instances, the same causes operating on both phenomena, is altogether too slick. “The inflection of a voice, the angle at which a head is carried, the coarse hairs that grow on the back of a hand—at some time or other, every physical accident has served a novelist to characterize the victim or the instrument of a moral lesson.” Very true. It is also true that modern techniques of psychological analysis have helped to dissolve value in description: no man is a hero to his valet—or to his psychoanalyst. There are ways in which knowledge destroys value (cf. Huxley’s description of the acoustical and physiological aspects of the playing of a Bach suite in Point Counter Point) and destroys responsibility (this man can’t be held guilty of murder because he saw something horrid in the woodshed at the age of three and was brought up in a slum). The point I want to make is that Mr. Barzun’s observation is related to the wider question of the relation of knowledge and value in our civilization, and that to explore this relationship rather than to isolate “the novel” as a cause would surely be more profitable. I do not wish to be thought to be criticizing Mr. Barzun for not doing what he never intended to do; but his book clearly sets out to be a description and diagnosis of some basic ills in our culture and we have the right to expect that he will follow his insights through.



Most of us have a sneaking sympathy with Yeats’s country-house ideal and a nostalgia for the order and elegance of a society more ritualized and hierarchized than ours is or could be today. A society where literacy is confined to a few, all of whom share a common intellectual training and background, can avoid many of the evils—the watered education, the pseudo-jargon, the self-hate of the intellectual—which Mr. Barzun and I deplore. But let us not forget the horrors which those societies produced: the waste, (the cruelty, the suffering, the wanton disregard for human personality in all but a small minority. When Pope wrote a poem lamenting the death in a lightning storm of a farm laborer and the girl he was going to marry, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu made devastating fun of him for imagining that the lives or deaths of a couple of country bumpkins could be of any interest or worth any poetic comment, and Lady Mary spoke for her class, the ladies and gentlemen who appreciated good literature and good conversation. We think of the few exceptional country houses, and remember the Countess of Pembroke or the Duchess of Bedford or even Lady Gregory and forget the innumerable affectations, pretensions, snobberies, and boredoms in the lives of the great majority of members of the nobility and landed gentry.

“The generation born . . . between 1860 and 1880 retained traditions of intellect and presumably could have transmitted them, not intact, perhaps, which no tradition can ever be, but unimpaired. That generation fathered one of intellectual cripples by being itself emotionally lamed.” It was emotionally lamed because it discovered compassion and responsibility as more than matters for witty conversation in drawing rooms. The preceding generation, who were presumably not emotionally lamed and could therefore enjoy their House of Intellect in all its purity, were responsible for some of the most appalling social conditions ever to prevail in a civilized society. It is always salutary, whenever one is overcome by the deficiencies of one’s contemporary culture, to look at the other side of an earlier age whose surface we may find appealing, and I suggest to Mr. Barzun that he read through the Report of the Committee on Factory Children’s Labour of 1831 and the two Reports of the Factory Commissions of 1833. I am sure that Mr. Barzun knows all about the conditions there described; but a periodic re-reading of these reports is an insurance against romanticizing the past. The critical and humane intelligence first of the Enlightenment and then of the Great Victorians brought us where we are today. If we do not like all the features of our present-day landscape (and who does?) the answer is surely to apply our critical intelligence and our humanity ever more determinedly so that we can reach a state where we may reap the fruits of that impressive movement while removing its drawbacks. It will not be easy, and we have a great deal to learn from history, but it must be history faced squarely in all its implications.

The indictment drawn up by Mr. Barzun is persuasive and terrifying, and most of us could add our own list of horrible examples. Yet civilization has a resilience that can defy all the rules and all the signs. I agree with Mr. Barzun in his analysis of the defects of modern American education and I am chauvinistic enough to take pleasure in the thought that British education, though it has its own deficiencies and problems, has not yet gone as far as American education has down the path he has charted. Yet when I read certain modern American poets and novelists, I am aware of a vitality and of a culture really working which I miss in contemporary British writing.

Culture has its ways of surprising us. One of the results of the deficiencies of modern American education is that many of the best American minds are today genuinely self-educated (i.e., educated in spite of having gone to high school and college). Consider the curiously impressive weaving of “cultural” references into the texture of the narrative of The Adventures of Augie March. That seems to me a most significant achievement, and it sounds like the product of real self-education. I read it as a symbol or a symptom of something that is happening in American culture that perhaps indicates a new line of vitality for Western culture as a whole. In the face of this, many of the objections, so true, so persuasive, so productive of despair, fall away. This is more than an American hope, just as it is more than an American problem. America is but modern industrial democratic civilization writ large. Goethe, writing of the human heart, exclaimed “Hier oder nirgends ist Amerika.” We might reverse that and say of America, “Hier oder nirgends ist Europa” or, better, “Hier oder nirgends ist das Abendland.” I am not sure whether this is a cause for despair or for hope; like so many people, I suppose I alternate between the two. But it is certainly a reason for observing and diagnosing the state of American culture with care, even with anxiety. That is why a book such as Mr. Barzun’s, though I quarrel with certain parts of it, seems to me important. Let us hope it will take its place as one contribution to a great and necessary debate.




1 The House of Intellect, Harper, 276 pp., $5.00.

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