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Public Attitudes Towards Cultural Authority and Cultural Diversity in Higher Education and the Arts

Working Paper #11. Spring 2000

Paul DiMaggio and Bethany Bryson

Using data from a representative sample of Americans aged 18 and over who were surveyed in 1993, the authors explore public attitudes towards a range of issues related to cultural authority and cultural diversity in higher education and the arts. The issues addressed include support for the role of the classics in education; willingness to alter literature curricula to make room for work by women and people of color; bilingual education in the schools; confidence in the curricular judgment of teachers and professors; the value of modern art; the relative quality of high, popular, and folk culture; and the extent to which the ability to recognize excellence in art is rare or widespread. Analyses belie the notion that Americans' attitudes reflect a "culture war" that pits supporters of the classics and high culture against advocates of multiculturalism and cultural diversity. Three separate and largely orthogonal dimensions emerged out of the analyses: support for traditional high culture; support for cultural diversity; and skeptical attitudes towards cultural authority. No tendency was observed for people who support traditional high culture to oppose multicultural reforms (or vice versa). Indeed, educational attainment was strongly associated with support for both.

Analyses also disconfirm arguments that high culture has lost legitimacy or credibility since the 1960s, or that there has been any "closing of the American mind." Although support for cultural diversity has grown since the 1960s (in part due to a decline in racism), baby boomers and members of "Generation X," including those who attended college during the 1960s and in later decades, are as likely as their counterparts in previous generations to agree that the classics are important and that there is merit in "modern art." In other words, contemporary Americans acknowledge the value of conventionally defined high culture while at the same time discerning value in other cultural forms and often approving of reforms that enhance cultural diversity.

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