A Primary Culture For Democracy
Charles Horton Cooley
University of Michigan
One who looks even a little beneath the surface of things may see that there is no question more timely than that of culture, and none which has more need of fresh and fundamental conceptions. It is by no means a question merely of the decoration of life, or of personal enjoyment; it involves the whole matter of developing large-minded members for that strong and good democracy which we hope we are building up. Without such members such a democracy can never exist, and culture is essential to the power and efficiency, as well as to the beauty, of the social whole.
We may all agree, I imagine, that culture means the development of the human and social, as distinct from the technical, side of life. Our recent growth, so far at least as it is realized in our institutions, has been mainly technical, the creation of an abundant economic system and a marvelous body of natural science, neither of them achievements of a sort to center attention upon what is broadly human.
It is true that along with these has come a growth of humane sentiment and aspiration, of a spirit Christian and democratic in the largest sense of those words; but this remains in great part vague and ineffectual. To give it clearness and power is one of the aims of the culture we need.
There is also, I am sure, a growing demand for culture. In the course of the greatest struggle of history, which is also a struggle for righteous ideals, the people everywhere have learned that the social order needs reconstruction, and that the popular will has power to transform it, as has actually been seen in molding nations to efficiency in war. All this gives rise, especially in the young, to large and radical thinking, which permeates the armies, the press, the labor unions, and other popular associations; and
( 2) among the first results of this thinking is a demand for a new sort of liberal education, through which. all members of the coming order shall get a wider outlook, a higher and clearer idealism, and so be prepared to create that free, righteous, and joyful system of life to which they aspire.
Indeed our democracy, in spite of its supposed materialism, has long had at heart the ideal of culture. Culture has been a god that we somewhat ignorantly worshiped. We are not satisfied with beholding the multiplication of material things, nor even with the hope of greater justice in their distribution; we want joy, beauty, hope, higher thoughts, a larger life, a fuller participation in the great human and divine whole in which we find ourselves. Even those popular movements w' rich formulate their aims in material terms are not really materialistic but get their strongest appeal from the belief that these aims are the condition of a fuller spiritual life.
Another reason for turning our thoughts to culture is that the economic outlook demands it. We are apparently entering upon a period of cheap, standardized production upon an enormous scale, which will multiply commodities and perhaps increase leisure but will make little demand upon the intelligence of the majority of producers and offer no scope for mental discipline. Work is becoming less than ever competent to educate the worker, and if we are to escape the torpor, frivolity, and social irresponsibility engendered by this condition, we must offset it by a social and moral culture acquired in the schools and in the community life.
Our culture must be a function of our situation as a whole. just as the arts, like literature, painting, and sculpture, cannot be merely traditional but must spring fresh and creative from the living spirit of the time, so also must culture, which is likewise an expression of the general life. It may be contrasted with, perhaps opposed to, the apparent trend of things; but if so it is only because it is rooted in a deeper trend. If it does not function in the whole it is nothing.
I am in sympathy with those who cling to the great humanistic traditions of the past. There can be no real culture that is alto-
(3) -gether new; it can only be a fresh growth out of old stems; but it must be that; it must be new in the sense that it is wholly reanimated by the spirit of our own time. Any attempt to impose an old culture upon us merely because the educated class cherish it, or because it can be supported by general arguments having no reference to our actual needs, must fail. Through control of institutions the classicist, or the scientist, or the religionist may for a time force the forms of an old learning upon a new generation; but before long all that does not vigorously function in the life of the day will slough off and be forgotten.
Certainly no culture can be real for us that is not democratic. This does not mean, however, that it must be superficial, or commonplace, or uniform. These are traits which the enemies of democracy have endeavored to fix upon it, but which do not belong to its essence. Democracy is at bottom a more humane, inclusive, and liberal organization of life, and certainly a democratic culture will be one based on large and kindly conceptions, meeting the needs of the plain people as well as of the privileged classes, and worked out largely through the schools and other popular institutions. Because culture has in the past been inaccessible to the masses and still is so in great part, we must make it our very special business to bring it within their reach; but the idea that such a culture must lack refinement and distinction has no basis in sound theory and will be refuted as fast as we make democracy what it can and should be.
An undemocratic humanism, in our time, is not humanism at all but an academic retreat out of which no living culture can come—just as a dead-level democracy without humane depth and richness of life is not true democracy. Finer achievements get their vitality from the sympathy of a group, and an idealistic democracy, which includes a unique mingling of races, classes, and nationalities, should achieve a culture as rich in human significance as any the world has seen.
We should recognize, however, that such traditional culture as we have is not democratic for the most part, but involves the inheritance, through an upper class, of the conceptions of an out-worn society. The very word "culture" is in somewhat bad odor
( 4) with people of democratic sympathies, because it suggests a parasitic leisure. Nothing could be more timely than that the plain people should take up the idea, reinterpret it from their point of view, and give it a chief place on the program of reform.
A living culture is not only an organic part of life as a whole, but it is a complex thing in itself. It must embrace, I think, two main aspects: a common or primary culture of knowledge and sentiment diffused through the whole people, and a variety of more elaborate culture processes, informed with the common spirit but developed by small groups in diverse fields of achievement. I mean by the former, to which I shall confine myself in this paper, such elements of culture as American children might get, in the schools or otherwise, before they have passed the age of compulsory attendance, or say sixteen years. This must supply the soil and atmosphere in which all our higher life is to grow, while the more specialized culture will give room for classical studies, sciences, philosophy, fine arts—what you will; nothing human need be lacking.
The aim of a common culture, I should say, must be a humane enlargement of the thought and spirit of 'the people, including especially primary social knowledge and ideals; inculcated in no merely abstract form but appealing to the imagination and assimilated with experience. The currents of such a culture will flow, in large degree, outside the channels of public guidance and formal institutions, working upon us through newspapers, popular literature, the drama, motion pictures, and the like. They will get much of their form and direction, however, from the common schools and other community institutions, and since these are within our control they call for peculiar attention.
Of the studies now pursued in our primary schools those most plainly suited to be the means of culture are language and history, because they deal directly with the larger human life; but it cannot be assumed that they are actually fulfilling the culture function. They do so in proportion as they impart the higher traditions and ideals of our country and of the world at large, awakening in boys and girls a hearty participation in this greater life.
Language studies should make the individual a member of the continuing organism of thought and enable his spirit to grow by interaction with it. For our people this means self-expression in the English language and a beginning appreciation of its literature. These studies should be disciplinary, requiring precision of under-standing and expression, but they should also be joyous, for culture has no worse enemy than the sort of teaching that makes drudgery of them. Noble sentiment is of their essence, and if that is not imparted nothing worth while is.
Other languages, modern and ancient, belong to the more specialized culture, not to that of the whole people. They are essential to many kinds of higher leadership and production, and children who are believed to be destined for such functions may well begin their study in childhood; to ask more for them would be fanatical.
It might perhaps be thought that history would be a study of the humane development of mankind in the past, bringing home to our knowledge and sympathy the common life and upward struggle of the people, and so leading to an understanding of the social questions of our own day. But it is not that in any great degree at the present time, and there is little prospect that it will be in the near future. Although some teachers of history, perhaps many of them, are striving to reanimate their subject in accordance with modern social conceptions, it is my impression that this movement is only beginning, and that the study of history, as actually practiced in the schools, conduces little, if at all, to understanding of, or interest in, matters of social and economic betterment. I question whether this study can make its full contribution to culture without an almost revolutionary change in its underlying conceptions and in the training of its teachers.
The central thing in a study of the past common to all American children should no doubt be the history of our own country, conceived in a social spirit as our part in the universal struggle for humane ideals of life, political democracy and federation, economic opportunity, social freedom, and higher development of every sort. It should be easy to treat' American history in this
( 6) way and to keep it in constant relation to the ideals and endeavors of our own day.
No aspect of history is better suited to the uses of culture than is the economic aspect, the age-long striving for material support, comfort, and leisure, along with the development and mutations of social classes, leading to our own problems of social justice. These are cultural because, on the one hand, they appeal to actual interest and daily observation, while, on the other, they lead directly to the most urgent questions of humane progress. One does not need to be an economic determinist to hold that here is one broad road to participation in the larger currents of life. The fact that history has slighted these things, and that men may pass as experts in it who have made no serious study of them, is itself explicable only by historical causes. Has not the, pursuit of history become a kind of institution which, like many o our institutions, is still ruled by ideas impressed upon it in a former undemocratic state of society?
The very lowliness and homeliness of the daily life of the masses are one cause for its being somewhat neglected by research, and we must reckon also with the unconscious influence of an upper-class point of view unfavorable to studies that call in question the existing social order. I have sometimes fancied that our friends the historians, being for the most part accomplished men of the world, had for that reason a certain predilection for the upper circles of society, both past and present.
However this may be, it is clear that on grounds of culture every child ought to know something of the struggles of the unprivileged masses to gain a share of the opportunity and outlook achieved by a privileged few. Our middle and upper economic classes are still, for the most part, limited to a view of such matters that is both undemocratic and uncultured, and which the schools do little to correct.
It seems then that instruction in sociology and economics, of a simple and concrete kind, must be part of a universal democratic culture. How this should be related to history is perhaps an open question, but certainly the latter, as it is now understood,
( 7) is wholly inadequate. When all these studies are informed by a common spirit it may be possible to unite them.
So intimate and so animating is our relation to nature that natural science may well claim a place in any scheme for a basic humane culture. I would in fact include enough of this to impress the mind with the rule of law in nature and enable it to understand the experimental method by which man discovers this law and adapts it to his ends.
I must add that any school culture depends for its reality upon the personality of those who impart it. If the teachers and textbook writers were overflowing with those large views and sentiments that are culture, the students would invariably get them. This in turn depends somewhat upon that more adequate recognition by the public of the place of teachers as leaders and exemplars of cultures, from which intelligent selection and support would flow. The whole question is one we cannot solve by any mere change in the curriculum, but is implicated with the spirit and organization of the community.
Indeed our basic culture is likely to come quite as much from the social experiences of the school and community life as from culture studies. Culture is the larger mind that comes from the larger life, and the most direct and universal access to this is through association and co-operation with other people. No movements now going on promise more in this way than do those which aim at a livelier community spirit and expression in all the towns and neighborhoods of the land. When every locality has its center for social intercourse and discussion; its consciousness of its own past and ideals for the future; its communal music, sports, and pageants; its municipal buildings with noble architecture, painting, and sculpture; its local organization ready to take up voluntarily any responsibilities which the state or the nation may impose—then the child who learns to share in these things will not fail to get from them a social and spiritual enlargement.
The school especially can and should provide a group life, ideal, as far as possible, in its forms and spirit, participation in which will involve in the most natural way the elements of social,
( 8) moral, and even religious culture. As states of the human spirit democracy, righteousness, and faith have much in common and may be cultivated by the same means, namely by the group activities of the school, such as socialized class work, athletics, self-government, plays, and the like, into which the boys and girls eagerly put themselves, and from which they may get training for a larger life. And this larger mind should by no means be allowed to lapse with graduation but should be cherished in the reunions and festivals of the local Alma Mater.
I feel that what I have said deals only with the more immediate and perhaps the more superficial factors in the growth of a primary culture. The studies, the teachers, the social activities of the schools and the community, are all expressions of an underlying current of life which molds their character for better or worse and can only gradually be changed. It would be fatuous not to see that this current is largely unfavorable to the development of any real culture, either primary or secondary. The influence in our society which is organized and dominant is commercialism; the elements of culture are for the most part scattered, demobilized, and impotent. The very idea and spirit of it are starved and crowded out.
If we divide the sources of culture into two parts, those that derive from tradition and those that come to us more directly from participation in life, we shall find that the former especially are deficient. Perhaps the first requisite of progress is to face the fact that we are, as a people, in a state bf semi-barbarism as regards participation in that heritage which comes only by familiarity with literature and the arts. And since this is lacking in the people at large, including the bulk of the educated classes, our schools, which are nothing if not an expression of the people, do not readily supply it. The wealthy and energetic men who have general control of education mean well, but their whole life-history, in most cases, has been such that words like culture, art, and literature can be little more to them than empty sounds, and whatever provision they make for them can hardly fail to be somewhat perfunctory and superficial.
I do not mean that culture is irreconcilable with commercial activities or with technical training in the schools. On the contrary, periods of commercial expansion have usually been those when arts and literature flourished most; and technical training, if moderate in its demands and enlarged by a constant sense of the social whole to which it contributes, may itself involve a most essential kind of culture. But our commercialism has been exorbitant and exclusive; and our technical training is rarely of a sort which makes the student feel his membership in the larger whole. Both must be transformed by a social spirit and philosophy before they can join hands with culture.
These are the underlying reasons for the unsatisfactory state of our schools and for the extreme difficulty of introducing any culture spirit into them. American education, on the culture side, is deadened by formalism from the first grade in the primary schools to and including the graduate departments of our universities. In spite of much sound theory and honest effort on the part of teachers the stifling gases of commercialism have passed from the general atmosphere into academic halls and devitalized almost everything having no obvious economic purpose. I doubt if there has on the whole been any progress in this way, perhaps rather a retrogression, during my own time.
When I contemplate the state of culture in our colleges I cannot wonder that it does not flourish in the elementary schools. Thus, to take only one indication, I have reason to think that serious spontaneous reading is far less common among university students than it was forty years ago. This is my own observation, confirmed by others and corroborated by the evidence of a veteran bookseller, who told me that he sold fewer books of general literature to, say, 5,000 students at the time of our conversation than he did to one-fourth of that number in the Victorian era.
I find the outlook somewhat more cheerful as regards that sort of culture which we get as a by-product of co-operation with our fellows. This is a plant which grows untended in a free and friendly life; and I think that democracy is giving our feelings, our manners, and our social perceptions an enlargement which is
( 10) truly, in its way, a kind of culture. That consideration, helpfulness, and ready sociability which, it appears, have endeared our soldiers to the villages of France are a part of our civilization and may well prove to be the first fruits of a new sort of culture. Let us cherish and diffuse this spirit in every possible way, especially through that school and community organization of which I have spoken. It is not only a fine thing in itself but will help us to appreciate and acquire that transmitted culture, akin to it in essence, which we now so sadly lack.
On the whole, our present condition as regards a popular culture, though unsatisfactory, is not unpromising. We have energy, good-will, and a sincere though vague idealism. We may expect these to work gradually upon all departments of life, our schools, our communities, our economic institutions, and the general atmosphere of the country, slowly bringing to pass a culture which will certainly be fresh, democratic, and human, and need not be deficient in those things that have to be learned from the past.
If I have not undertaken a discussion of the diversified higher culture, it is not because I doubt that democracy can and will develop in this direction. I say again that our ideal does not allow uniformity or limitation of any kind; but calls for utmost opportunity working out in utmost richness of life. In the way of culture, as in technical training, our higher schools should offer the best that the world has achieved, and should also foster specialized culture groups to kindle and support the individual in his struggle for a larger life.