"Colleges and universities should offer more courses on popular music, film, advertising and television because contemporary culture has much greater relevance for students than do arts and literature of the past."
To the extent that contemporary culture is, by definition, current, it does have a much more immediate impact on students and people in general than do the arts and literature of the past. Contemporaneous events directly affect everyone alive at the time because they are occurring at precisely the same time as the individual’s existence. But to paraphrase a famous philosopher: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." To a great extent, past arts and literature shape who we are as people at least as much as, if not more than, contemporary culture does.
Everyone alive today is affected in one way or another by the events of the past. Past events have directly led to the way that the world is shaped today. The arts and literature are one of the most well-preserved and documented resources that can give us a direct link into what actually happened in the past. Consider the religious writings of the Bible, the Koran and those of Confucius, as well as those related to Buddhism, Hinduism and all other religions. These writings directly relate to, and in some cases to a great extent control, the behavior of human beings today even though most were written hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Artworks relating to these religions also have a profound effect. Consider Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, or the vast myriad of historic Buddhist statues throughout Asia, or the ancient Muslim mosques throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. It would be difficult to argue that contemporary culture has more relevance to today’s students when compared with the relevance of these examples of past arts and literature.
At times it is difficult to determine what exactly is the difference between contemporary culture and the arts and literature of the past. Shakespeare’s classic writings are continuously being adapted into current movies that are often big hits with students and the general population as a whole. Millions of people every year view classic works of art in museums all over the world. Readings of religious texts have never gone out of style with a large part of the world’s population. Clashes between centuries-old cultures and religions, such as that of Western countries and Islamic extremists and that of Hindus and Muslims in India, demonstrate that the religious artifacts that could be called arts and literature of the past are very much a part of contemporary culture.
While the past can certainly not be ignored, a large part of what students must learn at university is based on contemporary culture. Most religious learning, at least of one’s own religion, occurs either at home or early on in a student’s education. At the university level, studies of politics, business and the computer sciences must deal in great detail with the latest advances in contemporary culture in order to remain up to date and relevant. Other subjects, such as mathematics, agriculture, and the arts and literature themselves look largely to the past for the core knowledge that is taught in these courses. The application of these lessons from the past are entirely appropriate to help put contemporary culture into some type of historical context that can help students to understand and comprehend the rapidly changing world that they are living in.
It would seem self-evident that a properly educated university student must find a balance between studying contemporary culture without neglecting the study of arts and literature of the past. The study of one is not mutually exclusive of the study of the other. The benefits of a well-rounded education come from not only knowing the state of the world as it exists today but also in knowing how the world arrived at this stage of development in the first place.