Saturday, December 19, 2015

Bernard Iddings Bell's Crowd Culture

I picked up a copy of Bernard Iddings Bell's Crowd Culture, which the Intercollegiate Studies Institute had sent me ten years ago when I had helped a student start an ISI chapter at Brooklyn College.  I hadn't heard of Bernard Iddings Bell before.  According to Wikipedia:

Bernard Iddings Bell (1886-1958) was born in Dayton, Ohio. After studies at the University of Chicago, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church USA. He served as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin from 1912-1919. He was warden of Bard College from 1919 to 1933.

It is a short book, 136 pocket-sized pages, but it is a worthwhile one.   Bell is not a libertarian; rather, he is a social conservative critic of Progressivism. The book is based on lectures that he gave in 1952 at Ohio Wesleyan University, and the difference between then and now is stark.  I suspect Bell would not be allowed to speak on many college campuses today.

Two important points are his criticisms of the press or media and of secular humanism, which he calls a "nontheistic and merely patriotic Secularism."   He writes (p. 48):

There are many religions in America, no one of which has a right to monopolize the schools or to appropriate all the funds provided by taxation for the schools. But in our present school system, which has a professed desire to be fair to all faiths and to teach the peculiar tenets and practices of  none, all religions except one are in practice negated, and to that one religion is given monopoly care. The religion of the public schools is a nontheistic and merely patriotic Secularism.  The public schools, without its being generally perceived by those who direct the schools, have become, because of this monopoly advocacy, the most dangerous opponents of religious liberty visible on the American horizon.

However, Bell is not a libertarian (Ibid.):

Because of this, if we desire the preservation  of real religious liberty in the schools, each major variety of religion in America (including of course Secularism and Atheism) must not only have the right but be encouraged to conduct its own schools and to run them at public expense.   Such various schools must be and can be unified by rigorous public control in all matters except religious teaching.

A more liberty-oriented solution to America's dismally failed public education system is Milton Friedman's vouchers, with the public having zero control over the content taught in schools. Voluntarism and decentralization have more in common with traditional Americanism than Bell's solution.  I would also do away with laws that require children to stay in school to age 16. For many students, doing so is a waste of time and money.  Properly run schools would by grade four teach writing at a level that today's average college student has not attained by her senior year of college. (I use the female pronoun because most college students today are female; political correctness and lack of job opportunities have driven away male students.)  Today's college students are subjected to 12 years of ignorant preaching by badly educated, half-literate teachers in America's public schools. They graduate unable to read and write at a sixth-grade level.  Bell makes this point correctly, but he nevertheless conforms--the subject of his book--to Progressive norms.

Bell is in effect a Progressive who would replace atheism and crowd culture with Mathew Arnold's sweetness and light: poetry, the classics, and philosophy. Such pursuits are, Bell rightly observes, available only to a minority.  Thus, his criticism of Dewey is this: You are right to advocate public control, but you are wrong to advocate conformity to group norms and experimentation to derive policy.

Although, as Bell rightly observes, Dewey placed the crowd ahead of the individual, collective values ahead of individualist ones, and social adjustment ahead of individual achievement, at heart Dewey was an elitist. This is evident in his book The Public and Its Problems in which Dewey claims that the public can resolve public problems by hiring social scientists and allowing journalists free rein in painting of artistic portraits of the experts' observations for public consumption. That is very much an elitist argument, although it is cloaked in collectivist and democratic rhetoric. Dewey was a master at painting authoritarianism as a function of democracy, and he is part of the twentieth century's Progressive apologia for the mass murder that occurred under Progressivism's sister ideologies, international socialism, national socialism, and fascism.

In other words, Bell and Dewey have more in common than Bell admits because Bell does not reject Dewey's state authority, and Dewey does not reject Bell's elitism.  Rather, Bell would replace Dewey's elite of expertise with an elite of religious humanism.

In contrast, libertarians reject the state altogether; religious state control is no better than secular state control.  True diversity occurs without authority.  Each can find his own faith within himself and within the institutions to which his conscience directs him.

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