Thomas Bender’s Vibrant Culturist Communities

Coldwater, Michigan sounds like culturist heaven. In their newspapers one finds endless lectures prepared for citizens by citizens on literature, history and science. Debates and free classes must have reflected the historical, biblical and classical allusions evident in their two leading newspapers. They were culturist in that the town constantly sought to cultivate themselves through knowledge. Coldwater citizens built a full school system, a library and a YMCA. Coldwater’s citizens also displayed culturist propensities in that they sought to improve their world’s culture. Articles on social purity, reverend’s speeches on the duty to improving society regularly appeared in the newspaper. Women’s Christian Temperance Union meetings regularly filled the calendar. There was a Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. All of this action happened in a town with a population of about 2,500.

Thomas Bender’s wonderful small book, Intellect and Public Life, asserts that in the first half of the 19th century, “even places with small populations aspired to a full intellectual life.” The more one reads about small towns like Coldwater, the more one understands what vibrant associational communities small towns had. We also see that some retained vibrant intellectual communities longer than Bender notes. But, still and all, his tale of their decline rings true. Intellectual life has declined, and he sets out to explain it.

Professional universities helped to kill intellectual life. Originally, even in larger cities, intellectuals were enmeshed in their local civic culture and this emanated to small towns. When East coast intellectuals were discussing a book, all small towns knew of it and took it up. As urban centers got more diverse, there was less of a unified audience to whom to speak. “The urban intellectual, now standing essentially alone, faced a heterogeneous, anonymous, and vastly expanded audience.” (35) Professors professionalized and started talking to themselves. Intellectual life became something specialized professors did and they did not think it dignified or deep to spread their detailed research among the masses. Size and diversity killed community.

To prove a point, Bender shows this pattern repeating in the 1950s. Lionel Trilling’s 1950 The Liberal Imagination became the first serious paperback and made him one of the most influential intellectuals of his generation. Trilling used literature to make us critical thinkers and better citizens. He sought to jar us out of blindly accepting the alternatives given. Liberal in his work’s title referred to a wide spectrum of opinion being investigated – as in the liberal arts – not the narrow political sense of the word as we use it today. By the late 1960s, his audience had bifurcated into identity interest groups such as blacks, women, immigrants, gays, etc., Trilling’s assuming a cohesive national audience makes him totally irrelevant today.

In his conclusion Bender decries the distance from society and specialization that has overcome the university. Academic concerns include PC language concerns that do not speak to average citizen’s concerns. No one, he notes, wrote about the savings and loan debacles before they happened. Instead we get gendered discourses about the marginalized. He asks academics to engage in the search for truth with the community in pragmatic ways – to always make sure that our discussions resonate in the communities in which we are situated. This way we can affectively attack social problems and find relevance within the community once again.

Trilling would, I suspect, teach us another lesson. People do not look to their universities to tackle social problems. While this Liberal political agenda may be noble and appeal to half the populace, it does not inspire us. Outside of union rallies, Marxist materialism never made a community. Rather, universities must return to the role they have held since their founding – teaching Western thought and spawning debate. These subjects invigorate the imagination and encourage discussion. Rather than becoming objective policy advisors, as Bender shows academics did, they need to reclaim their positions as keepers of the Western flame. Unless we cultivate a common public cultural vocabulary, intellectual leaders will not have community to join, let alone lead.