When Matthew Arnold (1822–88) is mentioned in college lectures on the history of “culture” today, it is usually accompanied by a rolling of the professor’s eyes. The students, obligingly, respond with nervously dismissive laughter. What, after all, could a Victorian Englishman have known that remains worth teaching today?

Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy of 1869 is nowadays much more quoted than read, and especially his notion of culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—a phrase certainly familiar to readers of this magazine. And while he did of course say this, it is intellectually lazy to think that was all that he had to say and to dismiss him as a nineteenth-century elitist with a purely hierarchical notion of culture.

It is true that Matthew Arnold was a...


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