My favourite part of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy is his scathing yet hilarious criticism of other artists and styles. The most poignant part is when Tolstoy draws a distinction between the increasingly absurd art of the “upper classes” and the art of the “masses,” for it reveals how culture is a power dynamic in itself. U of T’s introduction of two new courses motivated by mass media significantly deviates from academic tradition.
Culture can denote separate judgements on the quality of social practices and values. One is a historical purveyor, and the other is a body of features representing a society’s progress.
Although people are exposed to many cultures in modern life, there still remains a belief that some cultural features are more prestigious or developed than others. In a simple offhand remark about social media or reality television, there is an inherent act of discrimination against less “cultured” content and those who adhere to it, which may spiral to reinforce other prejudices.
This same attitude informs the content of our academic studies, guiding it toward certain subjects over others because they are supposedly more intelligent or insightful. These subjects often express male-dominated, upper-class driven, and Western traditions.
This makes U of T’s decision to offer two new courses which explore K-pop fandoms and the #MeToo movement significant, because these courses break with a Eurocentric tradition and recognize the impact of popular media movements on twenty-first century values and lifestyles.
Our contemporary world is marked by rapid changes in technological mediums which affect how we communicate and connect with others, in addition to providing a platform for cultural homogenization, globalization, and radicalization. There is nothing more relevant to our understanding of culture than the social reality in which we live.
These courses might not be impartial or apolitical, but the subjective experiences that students bring into the classroom present an opportunity for meaningful discussion — discussion that allows for different perspectives to be heard and new ones to arise.
Subjectivity is already an alternative tool for understanding that appears when a person reads-in modern or personal perspectives on historical events, makes assumptions and generalizations about other civilizations, and pieces together social conditions from a variety of partial sources.
Upon close consideration, it’s baffling why the inclusion of K-pop or the #MeToo movement took so long in the first place. There is no justification for people who believe that popular culture cannot positively contribute to classroom settings other than notions of cultural superiority.
Media culture is complex and integral to the structure of social events, just as much as topics with ‘greater academic worth.’ Opponents of these classes are no longer begging the question. They are finding new reasons to enforce hierarchies.
U of T must embrace the generational and technological differences that shape society without judgment, and adapt its curriculum so students can address issues of here and now, as will be done in the K-pop and #MeToo courses. To perpetuate a false perception of culture is, as Tolstoy would say, absolutely absurd.
Emily Hurmizi is a second-year Philosophy student at Victoria College.