The Leavis-Snow Controversy

First published as “A Comment on the Leavis-Snow Controversy.” Commentary, June 1955.


It is now nearly eighty years since Matthew Arnold came to America on his famous lecture tour. Of his repertory of three lectures, none was calculated to give unqualified pleasure to his audience. The lecture on Emerson praised the then most eminent of American writers only after it had denied that he was a literary figure of the first order. The lecture called “Numbers” raised disturbing questions about the relation of democracy to excellence and distinction. “Literature and Science” was the least likely to give offense, yet even this most memorable of the three Discourses in America was not without its touch of uncomfortableness. In 1883 America was by no means committed—and, indeed, never was to be committed—to the belief that the right education for the modern age must be predominantly scientific and technical, and Arnold, when he cited the proponents of this idea, which of course he opposed, mentioned only those who were English. Yet his audience surely knew that Arnold was warning them against what would seem to be the natural tendency of an industrial democracy to devalue the old “aristocratic” education in favor of studies that are merely practical.

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