Archive for the ‘Academic’ Category

[K-]72. There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see it take place too quickly. This is very characteristic of brisk and lively people, which is why they seldom achieve very much: for they are cast down and give up as soon as they perceive they are not advancing. Yet they would have advanced if they had used less energy and taken more time.

— Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (translated by R. J. Hollingdale), The Waste Books (New York : New York Review of Books, 2000 [1990]), pg. 201.

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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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[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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Loving the alien

A few days ago, I wrote about how difficult it can be to learn about cultures that are unconnected to one’s own; how we lack a context in which to understand what we are trying to learn.

Part of my difficulty in this kind of learning is that I tend to approach it purely intellectually, which is perhaps the worst way to approach it; cultures have a primal, earthy core—the smell of food, the words of prayer, the meanings of “papa” and “mama”—that ratiocination is slow to see, if it can see it at all. And without understanding those, what can we really understand?

Perhaps the best way to learn about a different culture is to love that culture, or at least love a person of that culture. Love shows us what reason cannot because love makes obstacles into opportunities. The boring stretches of the Iliad might stop someone reading it out of intellectual curiosity, but to the person reading it to impress a girl in Thessaloniki, those endless lines of boasts become an endless string of jokes, because love can make us laugh like that and help us go on.

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As an undergraduate, I took two runs at Plato’s Republic, neither notably successful. I am sure I know where to find the paper I wrote about it, and equally sure I would rather leave it where I have lain it.

Thanks to the fine folks at Multnomah County Library (full disclosure: I work for MCL, which is how I know they are fine folks), I will be taking a third run at it over the next month. MCL is sponsoring a “Read the Classics” program, which offers 24 discussions in six different series. You can sign up (for free!) for any individual discussion, as long as you think to sign up before 25 other people do (enrollment is capped).

I look forward to the chance to re-engage the Republic, and I might post about it here as I go.

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Henry Fairlie

In the post immediately below, I note how good British commentaries on the United States can be. One example:

Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who worked in the United States from the mid-1960s until his death in 1990. If you like American political history and ever have the opportunity to read The Kennedy Promise or The Parties (both are out-of-print), you should take that opportunity. In the former, Fairlie presents a forceful case for John and Robert Kennedy as quintessential Cold Warriors; in the latter, he paints such a vivid picture of the sad-sack GOP of 1932-1978 that you can understand why Reagan is revered by Republicans for reviving it.

Both books are odd, and I don’t fully agree with either, but they are well-written and have an intelligent unorthodoxy to them that makes them fun to read.

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Another perspective

I regret the lack of histories of the United States available in English by writers from non-Anglophone countries. Someone from another culture who approaches the subject using a different set of assumptions can provide insights that a native would never reach on his own.

British commentaries can be bracing and instructive and I often enjoy them. But what about Hungarians? Panamanians? Japanese?

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Learning the alien

Senior American politicians who cannot tell a Sunni from a Shi’ite have been rightly roasted in recent years. However, to learn about a culture completely alien from your own is difficult.

My ancestors are mostly from Western Europe. I grew up hearing the names Locke, Kant, and Descartes, and so they were familiar to me well before I studied their work in college; and in those classes, instructors could point to the recognizable influences of those thinkers on my beliefs, my language, and the institutions around me.

Learning about Islam or about China is much harder. The names of its thinkers and other notables—even the forms of their names!—are unfamiliar to me. I cannot draw on habit or upbringing to make sense of what their thinkers mean or pick out the important parts of their thought. I lack the faintest grasp of the Arabic or Mandarin languages; and neither language had much influence on English, so I lack even that secondary knowledge. My grasp of Islamic history and Chinese history is embarrassingly weak. All is alien to me, except our common humanity.

Will I stop trying to learn? No. But I am impressed when I compare the vast forest of my ignorance to the small clearing of my knowledge.

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The verb tabling means the opposite in British English from its meaning in American English.  In the UK, to table an item means to begin discussing it.  In the US, to table an item means to postpone discussing it.

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