Social Process

Chapter 7: Some Phases of Culture

Charles Horton Cooley

Table of Contents | Next | Previous


THE idea of life as an organic whole affords an illuminating view of the old question of practical training versus culture, letting us see that these are departments, or rather aspects, of the process by which the individual grows to full membership in the social order. They correspond to two aspects, of differentiation and of unity, in that order itself. In one of these society presents itself as an assemblage of special functions, such as teaching, engineering, farming, and carpentry, for each of which a special preparation is required. But in another it appears a continuous and unified organism, with rich and varied traditions, intricate co-operation, and a wide interplay of thought and sentiment. Full participation in this calls for a general and human, as well as a special and technical, adaptation; a development of personality, of the socius, to the measure of the general life.

Under this view culture is growth to fuller membership in the human organism; not a decoration or a refuge or a mystical superiority, but the very blood of life, so practical that its vigor is quite as good a measure as technical efficiency of the power of the social whole. Indeed the practice of regarding the technical and the cultural as separate and opposite is unintelligent. They are complements of each other, and either must share in the

(68) other's defect. A society of training without culture would be a blind mechanism which could be created and maintained only by an external force; while one of culture without training would lack organs by which to live. The real thing in education is the organic whole of personal development, corresponding to the organic whole of social life; and of this culture and training are aspects which, far from being set against each other as hostile principles, should be kept in close union.

The process of culture, then, is one of enlarging membership in life through the growth of personality and social comprehension. This includes the academic idea of culture as the fruit of liberal studies, such as literature, art, and history, because we get our initiation into the greater life largely through these studies. The tradition which so long identified culture with classical studies rested upon this foundation. From the revival of learning until quite recent years it was felt that the literatures and monuments of Greece and Rome were the chief vehicles of the best the human spirit had attained (except, perhaps, in religion, which was held to be a somewhat separate province), and accordingly the study of the ancients was an apprenticeship to the larger life, an initiation into the spiritual organism. And whatever change has come as regards the classics, it is still true that studies which, like literature, history, philosophy, and the appreciation of the arts, aim directly at opening to us our spiritual heritage, have a central place in real culture.

Culture must always mean, in part, that we rise above the special atmosphere of our time and place to breathe the large air of great traditions that move tranquilly on the upper levels. One should not study contempo-

( 69) -raries and competitors, said Goethe, but the great men of antiquity, whose works have for centuries received equal homage and consideration.[1]

So far as schools are concerned culture depends at least as much upon the teacher as upon what purports to be taught. That is, it profits more by the kindling of a spirit than by the acquirement of formal knowledge. "Instruction does much, but inspiration does everything." Any subject is a culture subject when it is imparted through one who is living ardently in the great life and knows how to pass the spark on. And on the other hand it is too plain how technical and narrowing is the routine teaching of literature, which widely operates to disgust the student with books he might otherwise have enjoyed.

Indeed culture, in one view, is nothing other than the power to enter into sympathy with enlarging personalities. We get our start in this from face-to-face intercourse, and are fortunate if we have companions who can open out a wider vision of life. But if we are to carry it far we need the more select and various society that is accessible only through books, and it often happens that for an eager mind leisure and a library are the essential things. It seems to me a serious question whether the present trend of our colleges to suppress idling by requiring from the student a large quantity of tangible work is not injurious to culture by crowding out spontaneity and a browsing curiosity. Disciplinarians scoff at this, as they always will at anything irregular, but some of us know that to us the chief benefit of a college course was not anything we learned from the curriculum, but the mere leisure and opportunity and delay, and we cannot

( 70) doubt that there are still students of the same kind. How can a man vacare Deo if he does conscientiously the "required reading" that his instructors try to force upon him? I am inclined to think that the ingenuity of the collegian is often well spent in thwarting these endeavors and securing time to loaf in spite of the conspiracy against it. We require too much and inspire too little.

If we view culture as a phase of the healthy growth of the mind, we may expect that it will be most real when it is allied with serious occupation and endeavor, provided these are spontaneous, rather than when remaining apart. We travel to see the world; but one who stays at home with a spirit-building task will see more of it than one who travels without one. The reason is that hearty human life and work bring us into intelligence of those realities that are everywhere if we live deep enough to find them. The surest way to know men is to have simple and necessary relations with them — as of buyer and seller, employer and workman, -teacher and scholar. It is not easy to know them when you have no real business with them. Culture must be won by active participation of some sort, by putting oneself into something - as Goethe won his by taking up a dozen arts and sciences in succession, and working at each as if he meant to make a profession of it. Any specialty, if one takes it largely enough, may be a gate to wide provinces of culture. Thus the study of law, which is merely a technical discipline to most students, Burke found to be "one of the first and noblest of human sciences, a science which does more to quicken and invigorate the understanding than all the other kinds of learning put together." [2]

Technical training in the schools would not prove hos-

(71) -tile to a real culture if it were associated with leisure and liberal studies, and if the training itself were given in a large spirit which leads the mind out to embrace the whole of which the specialty is a member. And certainly manual arts are not deficient in this respect. I imagine that I have derived considerable culture from the practice of amateur carpentry and wood-carving; and I have no doubt that any one who has cared for an occupation of this kind will have a similar feeling. There is a whole department of life, full of delight and venerable associations, to -which handicraft is the key.

Indeed, nothing is more surely culture than any work in the spirit of art. Since one is doing it for self-expression he puts himself into it; he must also undergo discipline in the mastery of technic, and he has the social zest of imparting joy to others and being appreciated by them. It is real and vital as mere learning under instruction rarely is. And one who has practised an art, though with small success, will have a sense of what art is that the mere looker-on can never have.

It is quite true, in my opinion, that household training could be given to girls in such a way that they would get more culture out of it than nine-tenths of them now do from the perfunctory study of history, languages, and music. It would only require teachers who could impart a spirit of craftsmanship and a sense of human significance. An almost universal trouble with both boys and girls in the present state of society is that they are not given, in connection with their work, enough of the general plan and movement of life to get interested in that and in their part in it. The general movement is too much for them; they do not see any plan in it, and merely catch on to it where they can, work with it when they have to, and put their real interest into crude amusement. We

( 72) do not make it natural for the individual to identify himself and his task with the whole. To do that would be culture.

Possibly the view that culture is not opposed to technical studies may, under the present ascendancy of the latter, tend practically to confirm the subordination of culture; but I aim to state underlying principles, and it seems to me that the right relation between the two is not much forwarded by partisanship for either, but rather by showing that they are complementary and suggesting a line of co-operation. The actual hostility of technical and professional schools to culture arises from their usually exacting and narrow character, which crowds everything liberal out.

I may add in this connection that it is a great part of culture to learn how to do something well, no matter what it is, to have the discipline and insight that we get by persistent endeavor, undergoing alternate success and failure, observing how, with time, the unconscious processes come to our aid, and so gaining at last some degree of mastery; in short, by experiencing how things are really done. Unfortunately many students slip through a supposed liberal education without getting this experience; and no wonder the colleges are discredited by their subsequent performance. In these times when home life has widely ceased to afford practical discipline it is peculiarly important that schools should do so.

But the enlargement of the spirit, which is culture, calls for something more than studies, of any kind. It needs also a hearty participation in some sort of a common life. The merging of himself in the willing service of a greater whole raises man to the higher function of human nature.

( 73)

We need to aim at this in all phases of our life, but nowhere is it easier to attain or more fruitful of results than in connection with the schools. Since the school environment is comparatively easy to control, here is the place to create an ideal formative group, or system of groups, which shall envelop the individual and mould his growth, a model society by assimilation to which he may become fit to leaven the rest of life. Here if anywhere we can insure his learning loyalty, discipline, service, personal address, and democratic co-operation, all by willing practice in the fellowship of his contemporaries. As a good family is an ideal world in miniature, in respect of love and brotherhood, so the school and playground should supply such a world in respect of self-discipline and social organization. There is nothing now taking place, it would seem, more promising of great results than the development of groups which appeal to the young on the social and active side of their natures and evoke a community spirit. They take eagerly to such groups, under sympathetic leadership, finding self-expression in them, and there seems to be no great obstacle to their becoming universal and embracing all the youth of the land in a wholesome esprit de corps which would be a hundred times more real and potent with them than any kind of moral instruction. The motive force is already there, in the natural idealism of boyhood and adolescence; all we need to do, apparently, is to provide the right channels for it. This is a field where the harvest is plenteous, and which the laborers are only beginning to discover.

All of us who have been at college know something of the spiritual value of an alma mater, of memories, associa-

(74) -tions, and symbols to which we can recur for the revival of fellowship and the ideals of youth. If we ever have noble ideals it is when we are young, and if we keep them it is apt to be by continuing early influences.

It seems, then, that every one ought to have an alma mater, that whatever kind of school one leaves to enter the confusion and conflict of the world, it should be enshrined within him by friendship, beauty, ceremony, and high aims, and that these should be renewed by revisiting the academic scene at occasional festivals. Our common schools, in town and country, might thus play the part in the life of the mass of the people that colleges do in that of a privileged class, providing continuous groups charged with a high social spirit, and capable of extending this spirit indefinitely. There is nothing we need more than continuity and organization of higher influence, and hardly any way of achieving this so practicable as through the schools.

Each community should have a centre of social culture connected with the public schools, and the character of this would vary with that of the community. There is especial need for building up in the country a type of culture which is distinctively rural in character, and yet not inferior to urban culture in its power to enlarge life. Country life attracts the imagination by its comparative repose, by the stability and dignity that one associates with living on the land, and by its wholesome familiarity with plant and animal life. But these attractions are offset at present by social and spiritual limitations which lead most of those who have a choice to prefer the towns. If each district had a culture centre where the finer needs of life might be gratified in as great a measure as any-

(75) -where, and yet with a rural flavor and individuality, the country would be more a place to live in and less one to flee from as soon as you can afford to do so. These centres, we may hope, will grow up about the centralized and enlarged schools that are now beginning to replace the scattered one-room buildings, bringing better and more various instruction, including studies especially appropriate to rural life. Around the school might be grouped the rural church; also consolidated, socialized, and made a real centre of fellowship and co-operation; the public library, art gallery, and hall for political and social gatherings. In a community enjoying such institutions, with a spirit and traditions of its own, life ought to be at least as livable as in town.

It will turn out, I believe, that the higher social culture is of a kindred spirit with religion. The essence of religion, I suppose, is the expansion of the soul into the sense of a Greater Life; and the way to this is through that social expansion which, however less in extent, is of the same nature. One who has developed a spirit of loyalty, service, and sacrifice toward a social group, has only to transform this to a larger conception in order to have a religious spirit. Indeed it is clear that the more ardent kind of social devotion, like that of the patriot for his country in extreme times, is hardly distinguishable from devotion to God. His country, for the time being, is the incarnation of God, and in some measure this is true of any group which embodies his actual sense of a greater life than that of his own more confined spirit. 1 think, then, that social culture through devotion to the service and ideals of an inspiring group is in the direction of religious culture, and probably, for most minds, the

( 76) natural and healthy road to the latter. I do not mean to suggest that school and community groups should supplant the churches; but it seems to me that they may supply a broad foundation upon which churches and other organizations may set their more special structures.

Shall we not come to teaching every one, by concrete social experience, a community spirit that shall be the basis at once of citizenship, of morals, and of religion? Why should not the simple principles of democracy and righteousness and worship be so humanized and popularized in the life of the community and the school that the children shall almost unconsciously learn and practise them? Do we not need, in these matters, an alphabet of a few letters to replace the Chinese writing of the past?

I may add that if every man had a suitable task of his own, for which he was properly trained, and could see the relation of that task first to larger work of the same sort and then to the general human life, it would build up religious faith in a way not otherwise possible. Our work is the most vital part of us, or should be, and if we can see it as one with the ordered life of humanity, and divine a connection with the Greater Life, we shall hardly lack religion. Religion is, for one thing, the sense of a man's self as member of a worthy whole, and his sense of self is formed by his striving. On the other hand, anarchy of endeavor breaks up faith.

It is perhaps unnecessary that we should agree upon definitions and programmes of culture. Although it is always some kind of enlargement of the spirit, it must vary with individuals and communities. The higher literary culture, calling for mastery of languages and long immersion in the great traditions, is only for a few, and

( 77) yet it is essential for some kinds of leadership and should always be open to those who show an aptitude for it. The group culture in connection with the schools is of great promise as affording a simple and genial way of spiritual growth in which the least intellectual may share. The study and practice of specialties is capable of indefinite development on the culture side. In short, culture is itself a complex organic process which ought to permeate life, but can never be reduced to rules.


  1. Conversations with Eckermann, April 1, 1827
  2. Morley's Burke, 8.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2