On Being Cultivated
Title of Book:Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy
Publisher:University of Chicago Press
Year of Publication:2005
For Serendip's Bookshelves
Several years ago, I was involved in a discussion group that read Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club together--a rich history of the pragmatists, and one that looks only glancingly @ the thinking and doing of Jane Addams. Addams taught one of the pragmatists, John Dewey, quite a lot about a form of decision-making that incorporated the ideas of as many individuals as possible--in order to work through the (only apparent--but oftimes violent) opposition in their interests. I'm grateful to Louise Knight for filling in some of the gaps in Menand's account, for teaching me more about Jane Addams' evolution from her Christian moral upbringing to her adulthood as pragmatist activist and social democrat.
Knight's book was just recommended to me by a friend. I found myself particularly compelled by one insistent theme within it: Addams' evolving and paradoxical definition of what it means to be "civilized," or "cultivated," the trajectory of her re-thinking the education and habits of discrimination on which her class prided itself.
Two moments of revelation highlighted this process for me. The first took place in Spain in 1888, when Addams, traveling with friends, was eager to see a bullfight. She had read Spanish history, and anticipated seeing in the bullfight a re-enactment of "all the glories of the [Roman] amphitheater," the matador fulfilling his role as "the slightly armed gladiator facing his martyrdom." To be able to see the cultural meaning with which the ritual was laden would ffirm Addams' sense of herself, she thought "as a sophisticated, well-educated person." Mulling over her experience after the bullfight, however, Addams "became upset that she had been fascinated by something so revolting": "Her behavior struck her as compelling proof that culture cut her off from feeling compassion for suffering": "an armour or erudition" protecting her from "hideousness" (163).
As she thought and wrote about her life experiences over time, Addams increasingly came to identify the common understanding of "culture" as that which protected one from true cultivation. "It was undemocratic," she argued, to live a life of isolation within one's own class": "The cultivated person is the one who uses his social faculties, his interpretative power, the one who puts himself into the minds and experience of other people....The uncultivated person is bounded by a narrow outlook on life, unable to overcome differences in dress and habit, and his interests are slowly contracting within a circumscribed area. The cultivated person is a citizen of the world because of his growng understanding of all kinds of people and their varying experiences" (402).