Sometimes on Twitter interesting discussions arise. Some other time sheer idiocy comes up. More often the latter these days. Anyway, on a discussion on celebrating the accomplishment of sending the first human being into space and bringing him back alive, this reply caught my attention:
Nobody is saying Yuri Gagarin isn’t important. It’s just that pop culture is also important. People don’t know about lots of important historical figures. And that’s fine. Pop culture isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not antithetical to historical knowledge.
Last phrase is the only one I agree with. Pop culture isn’t bad in itself nor antithetical to know history or any other more haughty knowledge. The two things aren’t in contrast. If anything, devolving time in deepening your knowledge of one may deprive you of time to know well the other but it is not a direct contrast, just our busy lives prevent us to be very knowledgeable in both. If you have the time to keep up with both, tell me your secret 🙂
What struck me is that the author of that reply, along with many others, is increasingly putting more importance in pop culture to the detriment of knowing history or any study that usually get taught at school/university. Even to the point of considering pop culture on the same level as any other kind of culture.
I have to strong disagree.
Pop Culture’s importance
Pop culture has its relative importance, not least because it allows us to bond with people of different or lower education that can be more advanced in other areas of the human nature. Think about social skills or a practical one. Without knowing anything about pop culture, we would have little in common with those people, unless there was a specific life experience. Discussing about pop culture’s events and facts is a catalyst for all kind of people. It’s unifying.
Also, pop culture, especially in an age of endless debates on social media about the, apparently, silliest topics or events, is a fundamental insight on the current way the general population interacts, on what they care about and what are their underlying issues and worries. Getting outraged because a female actress gets cast for the role of a trans individual (of which she thereafter stepped down), tells us a lot how much transgender issues are cared for. We may not agree with the ways pop culture expresses itself and its consequences, even look down on it, yet it is the most insightful aspect of modern culture we have, even better than sociological analysis and polls (people lie, you know…).
Yet. Yet I’d be extremely wary of claiming it as equally important than higher forms of culture, equally worthy of pursuing, equally needed in our lives.
Kayne West isn’t Nietzsche. Nor he will he be ever able to be. And, I hope, he never tries to. Lady Gaga isn’t as deep Bob Dylan (a perfect case of a pop culture individual that arose to higher, Nobel prize, levels). Watching for hours Barcelona playing awesome football, albeit entertaining, can’t be compared to reading Umberto Eco or Oscar Wilde, to name two writers that can be greatly entertaining too. Playing Fortnite or Skyrim for hours won’t ever give you the insights on life that Dostoevsky will.
I hear your protests here: oranges and apples. That’s absolutely true but we’re comparing what is pop, as in popular, against some of the biggest accomplishments of higher culture, anything less would be even worse a comparison. We can pick the most awesome National Geographic documentary ever made, or the highest sport achievement of all time, or the deepest videogame (Planescape Torment is a good candidate), or the best show on Netflix right now. Would it matter? Would any of these be able to be compared, in terms of quality, insightfulness, sheer knowledge learned and lasting influence on your thoughts and decisions, with classic literature, history, philosophy, science papers and similia?
I believe not. Only the very cream of the crop of modern arts, movies on the level of 2001 A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane or bands like Pink Floyd would be able to be compared to the mass of high knowledge that is what is being taught at schools all around the world. We can argue forever about what is the best that pop culture can offer and how good they can be compared to the older knowledge. It’s not my intention to do so here. You all have some artists, sportmen, sportwomen, tv shows and what else that consider worthy of the highest levels of culture of mankind. Pick whatever you want.
Point is, vast majority of what constitutes pop culture isn’t worth of being compared to high literature, history, philosophy and science. Not in importance, as we saw pop culture has its usefulness and weight, but in sheer influence in thoughts, beliefs, ideas and progress.
Knowing all about the most innovative tv series will make you great at parties, I’m sure, but knowing World War II very well will illuminate you on facts and factions of today’s world, because what happened 70 years ago is immensely important to what shaped the world thereafter, including our own lives of current time. No matter if you know it or not, those facts of the past are influencing you today, better you to know them so you can understand what is going around you. Watching a tv series about World War II won’t make you reach the same levels of knowledge studying history will: we all know movies and tv tend to romanticize events to gather to the wider audience possible. You can’t trust the depiction of history of a tv series or of a movie the same as of an history book. And even among those you’ll have to choose carefully.
History matters folks
In the original example of the tweet, you may know by heart all Beyoncé’s songs and danced to Despacito for hours last summer but what that helped you with? You had a lot of fun, I’m sure, met awesome people and collected plenty of pictures for your Instagram feed, but now what that knowledge helps you in your daily life? Surely knowing the history of Gagarin may not seem much more useful but here is where most are wrong. If you ignore him you are definitely ignoring also the early history of the space race, and be aware only of the later, US-dominated, history of it. The first man on the Moon, probably being the only event everybody knows. Therefore you may end up thinking that most of the accomplishments that were done in space technology were led by the US and the Soviets didn’t do much more than building endless industries, polluting the environment and building the atomic bomb independently from the US. You’ll then believe that no communist state has ever reached, or neared, the scientific accomplishments of the Western states, therefore deeming the communist experiment of part of humanity a total failure. You’d never then vote for any communist, or even socialist, party because hey, they never did anything great, why choosing them over the other parties?
See how just ignoring a small part of history can lead to a whole change in your views of the modern world?
Countless more examples can be done: India wasn’t always ridden with poverty, China wasn’t always copying from the West, Columbus wasn’t a monster (yeah, looking at you “progressive” americans…), Egyptians weren’t black (and neither Jesus), Hitler wasn’t the only one killing Jews last century, slavery wasn’t only pertaining to the africans, the very first programmer was a woman and plenty other historical facts that aren’t exactly common knowledge but knowing them would influence your thought more than listening to Coldplay or watching Game of Thrones.
We can’t simply ignore facts and history, and luckily nobody is pushing us to. Not yet. But also we can’t elevate pop culture to an importance that simply cannot and should not have. Even in the more typical areas of pop culture like novels, movies and music, you’ll find plenty of examples where knowing the origins of what is being produced today is of fundamental importance to judge it in an objective light: you can’t read Harry Potter after Tolkien without thinking Rowling is, let’s put it nicely, “highly indebted” to the old professor; can’t listen to rappers without realizing how much influenced they are by good old James Brown; can’t worship Steve Jobs today without being aware of the technologies developed at Xerox PARC back in the time. And on and on.
Knowing the base of what you are interested in, whether it be music, technology, history or tv, is awfully important, fundamental. Without this knowledge, we are easily swayed and impressed by things that aren’t worth it and won’t have the chance to develop our own ideas, independently from the influence of mass media and not-so-honest politicians. We have to know, to choose better, to not be fooled, to make our own progresses in the topics of our expertise and not being just another average Joe (sorry Joe!).