Auden on education in America

Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s book Notes towards the Definition of Culture, W. H. Auden identifies what he believes to be the distinctively “American problem” in transmitting culture from one generation to the next. After noting that few of the 19th-century immigrants to the United States “were conscious bearers of their native culture and few had many memories they wish to preserve,” because they came primarily in order to escape persecution and poverty, he continues,

This, in the absence of any one dominant church has placed almost the whole cultural burden on the school, which has had to struggle along as best it could with all too little help from even the family…. I have never understood how a liberal, of all people, can regard State education as anything but a necessary and – it is to be hoped – temporary evil. The only ground for approval that I can see is the authoritarian ground that Plato gives – that it is the only way to ensure orthodoxy…. It is almost impossible for education organized on a massive scale not to imitate the methods that work so well in the mass production of goods.

The greatest blessing that could descend on Higher Education in this country would be not the erection of more class barriers but the removal of one: namely, the distinction drawn between those who have attended college and those who have not. As long as employers demand a degree for jobs to which a degree is irrelevant, the colleges will be swamped by students who have no disinterested level of knowledge, and teachers, particularly in the humanities, aware of the students economic need to pass examinations, will lower their standards to let them.

The New Yorker, 23 April 1949.