What’s Wrong with ‘Cultural Transmission’?

I found much to admire and little to disagree with in Sam Goldman’s defense of liberal education. Well, I was offended that he called my use of “cultural transmission” postmodern.  I wasn’t offended for any good reason, of course. Putting the techno-phrase in quotes is, of course, a postmodern or cloyingly ironic “move.”  It is a way of ironically appropriating a phrase found in the relevant educational “studies.”  “Cultural transmission” does call to mind pomo lit criticism.  But it also has Darwinian overtones, insofar as evolutionary studies show that human evolution is not only natural but cultural. For members of our species, culture needs to passed on as surely as genes do. “Cultural transmission,” of course, not a phrase I would use without quotes.  I rarely, in fact, use either “culture” or “transmission.” Okay, I do use the latter prefaced by either “standard” or “automatic.”

But there is a sense I think that a properly conservative defense of liberal education should be postmodern, as long as postmodernism is “rightly understood.” Let me explain.

We conservatives are all for a world that’s benefited from both premodern and modern experiences, although we don’t think that there’s anything historically inevitable or even likely about the emergence of such a world.  A genuinely postmodern world avoids the spiritual and aristocratic excesses of the medieval world and the material and democratic excesses of the modern world.   It’s a place human beings can flourish as material and spiritual beings or, more precisely, as whole persons.  We think that the true human progress is personal and relational. It takes place over the course of particular human lives in the direction of living responsibly in light of the truth.

For this understanding of postmodernism, I refer you to the work of the great anticommunist dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, as well as to the American philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. For a genuinely postmodern thinker, a conservative criticism of the excessively technological orientation of the contemporary West doesn’t mean a rejection what we’ve learned that’s true about our freedom and our productive capabilities from modern developments. It does mean acknowledging that our mistaken identification of progress in techno-productivity has been at the expense of who we are as relational and purposeful beings. “Cultural transmission,” from this view, means discovering and remembering who we are as whole persons, as opposed to “free individuals.”

So we postmodern conservatives believe that people these days can be educated as both beings who work and beings who love–including love the truth. And, as I’ve said before, critical thinking about the “how” that gives us the means to pursue happiness can be combined with reflection about the “who” and “why”–the self-knowledge and the relational purposes–that make humanly worthy happiness possible.

The idea, rightly understood, of postmodern suggests, of course, that education is not merely traditional, if only because our diverse tradition is composed of elements in tension. The personal appropriation of tradition is, of course, thoughtful and even creative.


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