In Notes toward the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot considers what the primary means of transmitting culture. He begins by stating that it is the family, then concedes that this is not the sole mechanism, as institutions such as apprentice-master relationships and universities have themselves passed along culture. Eliot explains,

The primary channel of transmission of culture is the family: no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment. It would not do to suggest that this can be the only channel of transmission: in a society of any complexity it is supplemented and continued by other conduits of tradition. Even in relatively primitive societies this is so. In more civilised communities of specialised activities, in which not all the sons would follow the occupation of the father, the apprentice (ideally, at least) did not merely serve his master, and did not merely learn from him as one would learn at a technical school–he became assimilated into a way of life which went with that particular trade or craft; and perhaps the lost secret of the craft is this, that not merely a skill but an entire way of life was transmitted. Culture–distinguished from knowledge about culture–was transmitted by the older universities: young men have profited there who have been profitless students, and who have acquired no taste for learning, or for Gothic architecture, or for college ritual and form. I suppose that something of the same sort is transmitted also by societies of the masonic type: for initiation is an introduction into a way of life, of however restricted viability, received from the past and to be perpetuated in the future.*

Eliot goes on to explain how families transmit culture, which is conditional. What is necessary here is a “piety for the dead ” and a “solicitude for the unborn.” Some greater end must be in view for a family to transmit culture, not a mere “love” for one another, but a recognition of legacy and family honour and respect. Loving your children and their grandparents is not what Eliot is talking about. He continues,

But by far the most important channel of transmission of culture remains the family: and when family life fails to play its part, we must expect our culture to deteriorate. Now the family is an institution of which nearly everybody speaks well: but it is advisable to remember that this is a term that may veary in extension. In the present age it means little more than the living members. Even of living members, it is a rare exception when an advertisement depicts a large family or three generations: the usual family on the hoardings consists of two parents and one or two young children. What is held up for admiration is not devotion to a family, but personal affection between the members of it: and the smaller the family, the more easily can this personal affection be sentimentalised. But when I speak of family, I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote. Unless this reverence for past and future is cultivated in the home, it can never be more than a verbal convention in the community. Such an interest in the past is different from the vanities and pretensions of genealogy; such a responsibility for the future is different from that of the builder of social programmes.**


*T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), 115-16.

**Ibid., 116-17.

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