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“[T]he culture of [collegiate] English departments [is] structured by an invidious binary opposition between writing teachers and literary scholars that could not be improved by tinkering. Because the profession was organized by–indeed, founded upon–this distinction, it could be undone only by a deconstructive process striking at its roots. […] English departments need composition as the ‘other’ of literature in order to function as they have functioned. The useful, the practical, and even the intelligible were relegated to composition so that literature could stand as the complex embodiment of cultural ideals, based upon texts in which those ideals were so deeply embedded as to require the deep analyses of a trained scholar. Teachers of literature became the priests and theologians of English, while teachers of composition were the nuns, barred from the priesthood, doing the shitwork of the field.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pgs. 35-36.

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“To put it simply, the quasi-religious status once accorded English literature by a class of individuals whose background was mainly privileged and Anglo-Germanic is hardly viable any longer. […] Men and women of letters, whether in or outside of the academy, have a reduced stature today in comparison to major figures in the film and television world. Young people who once wanted to be Hemingway (and many did) now want to be Scorsese, Spike Lee, or Spielberg. Moreover, a knowledge of English literary history is simply not the password to managerial and professional positions that it may once have been. Which is another way of saying that what happened to Greek and Latin is now happening to English. What this society wants of those who graduate from its schools and colleges with degrees in the humanities–as opposed to what many of those who claim to speak for it say it wants–are, at worst, docility and grammatical competence, at best, reliability and a high level of textual skills. What this society does not want from our educational institutions is a group of people imbued with critical skills and values that are frankly antagonistic to those that prevail in our marketplaces, courts, and legislative bodies.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pg. 19. (Italics in the original.)

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How did Joseph Vincent Paterno gain so much power over Pennsylvania State University that the top officials of that university would agree to cover up (and thus enable) child molestation in order to protect Paterno’s chance to set the college football record for most coaching wins?

An essay written by a 2001 Penn State alumnus and published by CNN provides insight. To paraphrase the essay in a sentence: JoePa made us better than other people, and we are still better than other people. (Please do read the essay: It’s a study in baseless, pompous arrogance.)

Paterno got tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to believe that he was making them better than other people, fostering an illusion that they were virtuous merely by association with his virtue, and he could count on their decisive support in every battle he had within the university.

First he gave them pride. And now he’s given them a fall.

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Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton note how the development by the Greeks of libraries, as storehouses of the written word, changed the possibilities of knowledge from what they had been in a purely oral society:

Every library comfortably contains writings and juxtaposes ideas that, if they were represented by their proponents in the flesh, might contrast violently with one another. Yet there they sit, on shelves, awaiting such scholars as may chance upon them to confront their latent contradictions. Libraries […] [construct] a well-made intellectual edifice where every doctrine has its proper place. Where schools [of philosophy] fade or fragment, libraries persist; where schools [of philosophy] sustain fixed arguments and preserve intellectual lineages, libraries absorb new knowledge and accommodate newcomers to learning. This made Greek learning, incubated by oral competition, newly portable to non-Greek landscapes. Abroad, for the first time, writing enabled the accumulation not just of philosophical perspectives but of knowledge of the world more generally.

Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), page 13.

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The following reflection on the unknowable vastness of human knowledge was written 75 years ago:

Human knowledge had become unmanageably vast; every science had begotten a dozen more, each subtler than the rest; the telescope revealed stars and systems beyond the mind of man to number or to name; geology spoke in terms of millions of years, where men before had thought in terms of thousands; physics found a universe in the atom, and biology found a microcosm in the cell; physiology discovered inexhaustible mystery in every organ, and psychology in every dream; anthropology reconstructed the unsuspected antiquity of man, archeology unearthed buried cities and forgotten states, history proved all history false, and painted a canvas which only a Spengler or an Eduard Meyer could vision as a whole; theology crumbled, and political theory cracked; invention complicated life and war, and economic creeds overturned governments and inflamed the world; philosophy itself, which had once summoned all sciences to its aid in making a coherent image of the world and an alluring picture of the good, found its task of coordination too stupendous for its courage, ran away from all these battlefronts of truth, and hid itself in recondite and narrow lanes, timidly secure from the issues and responsibilities of life. Human knowledge had become too great for the human mind.

So wrote Will Durant, looking back at the 1920s.

When we think of the unknowable—the almost unfathomable—depths of what human individuals in the aggregate know; and then think of what is beyond that, the infinity of things to be known that no person knows; when we think of how much there is to know that we do not and cannot know, what choice do we have when we speak but to either be superficial or be silent? We can be more informed or less informed, and more informed is better, but we can rarely be fully informed, and yet we speak.

(I believe that part of what I write above is just warmed-over Wittgenstein; but, appropriately enough for this post, my knowledge of his Tractatus is too superficial for me to say that with confidence.)

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James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, writes about his research into the costs of having more research materials available online.

The benefits of having the materials online are obvious: Ease of finding, ease of searching, ease of printing.

Evans wondered whether there were costs along with those benefits. He found that the ease of using online research materials seems to make scholars less likely to use print materials—even ones that are not replicated online—and thus more likely to narrow the scope of their research to materials from the Internet Age and materials from “high-status” journals, each of which is more likely to be available online.

My summary does not do justice to Carr’s blog post, much less his actual article, which I…um, have not yet read because it is not available to me online (but what do you expect from a superficial cat?). If the subject interests you, then go read the post.

(H/t to Nick Carr.)

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Knowledge

[Gustave Flaubert’s comic characters Bouvard and Pécuchet] discovered through their friendship a common purpose: the pursuit of universal knowledge. To achieve this ambitious goal […] they attempted to read everything they could find on every branch of human endeavor, and cull from their readings the most outstanding facts and ideas, an enterprise that was, of course, endless. [… T]he two brave explorers […] read their way through many learned libraries of agriculture, literature, animal husbandry, medicine, archæology and politics, always with disappointing results. What Flaubert’s two clowns discovered is what we have always known but seldom believed: that the accumulation of knowledge isn’t knowledge.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2008), page 88.

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