Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: academia (page 1 of 5)

On Getting a Ph.D. in the Humanities

Jordan Weissmann reports that job opportunities for academics are pathetic and shrinking. He wonders why humanities Ph.D. programs haven’t “collapsed:” “From 2011 to 2012… the number of first-time students enrolled in arts and humanities Ph.D. programs had grown 7.7 percent.” [my emphasis] He’s curious to know what drove the decision making of those of us in these programs generally. The market’s been bad for years now, after all.

I don’t know what to say. I’ve always felt kind of dumb, and the fact that I could rant incomprehensibly or find questions that almost make sense bothered me. My first real experience with the humanities was in undergrad, when I realized that reading a book or a poem was tough work that never really ended.

I guess that’s a testimonial-type answer, and I don’t really like giving it. But along the way, I’ve seen so much pettiness within academia and have had real doubts about the value of the classroom. I honestly don’t know how valuable a classroom is unless someone already cares to master the material. I want to change the question: Why do many of us stick with the humanities? Why don’t we just give up? Why do we want the time to read and write and have pointless debates?

Now I know I have something closer to the heart of the matter, because I have a line of questioning that isn’t reducible to a testimonial or a career plan. It involves a sense of value, to be sure, but that sense of value is informed by a want to be relevant, if not practical. And this line of questioning can easily turn into a larger critique of our age without getting snobby. It is true people like Jefferson and Hamilton read everything, including a lot of stuff we would dismiss out of hand as useless. But it’s also true they were very mindful of the practical and probably didn’t care that most Americans could cite the finer points in Montesquieu if they were busy mapping a mountain range or making money by brewing craft beers.

I’d rather get snobby. What I suspect is this: we are at an absolute nadir in terms of people caring about literature or the classics or rhetoric. Our best talent in terms of writing makes movies and tv and comics. They, being exceptional, read a ton and know that the experience of carefully reading – of extracting the opinions of another slowly from a text by working through what you yourself think and eliminating the worst ideas – they know that experience does not sell. What sells is nostalgia, which might be the true porn of tumblr (other than the stuff that is porn). To not put a too fine point on it: when we’re complaining about too many Ph.D’s in the humanities, what we’re really saying is that we have too many people who care to read and write. We need that number to be 0. It’s a similar phenomenon to journalists being told to stop blogging and start tweeting because people who consume print media are little better than heroin addicts. But again, this is just a suspicion.

On a more serious note, I do think a little bit of Marxist-type criticism helps here. There’s capitalism and the culture of capitalism. The latter demands everything conform to its sense of value. The university as a whole does not fit comfortably into this mold, so it has been transformed. It’s now a tax shelter for oligarchs who run sports leagues with unpaid labor and collect federal subsidies. Maybe the reason why some people are in the humanities is that they want to make sure, despite our corruption, that future generations can have access to the past. Maybe they think an example needs to be set, that it needs to be shown someone cares about fashion in 15th c. England or an obscure treatise on horsemanship. Maybe that’s what’s going on, that the humanities are more a vocation and less a career. Maybe.

The Impersonal University

For this discussion: Mike Rice, the administration and Rutgers faculty | Preserving class at Princeton

When I first started in political philosophy, I wondered about the French “liberty, equality, fraternity” versus the whole of American history. All of American history is the tension between liberty and equality, with we the people at various times emphasizing one to the detriment of the other and, in the end, both. Missing, in my experience, is any serious sloganeering on behalf of fraternity. We get plenty about factions fighting each other as the inevitable consequence of liberty from Madison, but not a lot about how we are bound together in a positive way as Americans. I always thought the key issue was this: fraternity is nice and definitely worth having – any political order worth a damn will foster it – but the nepotism and cronyism it can lead to can be a real problem for a republic, especially one that is taking in a diversity of peoples and interests.

In any case, I’ve linked to two pieces above which got me thinking about fraternity and the university. The latter is fairly straightforward. Ross Douthat argues that elite universities exist to preserve an elite class, that the diversity they say they’re striving for is a sham. He talks about the Ivies and others of this status being a social club for rich kids with powerful connections to meet other rich kids. Granted, this is all implicit in the term “meritocracy” – I am reading a bit into Douthat’s critique. It isn’t that our rich, powerful elites fail to work hard or eschew education. They do work hard and take their education seriously. This may make the advantages they have that much more powerful. It becomes that much harder to have class mobility.

I don’t know how much I care for Douthat’s column as a prescription for anything. (The general complaint is noted.) To me, the issue is whether everyone can live comfortably, be educated well, and “rule and rule in turn.” I’ve always been less ticked off at Harvard and Yale’s privileges and more concerned that other schools don’t treat their students well at all (i.e. there are plenty of elites at select fraternities and sororities in state schools, who have an entirely different experience at college than the guy sitting in the library reading all the Kant he can). A major reason I write is that those of us who are being educated owe it to everyone else to explain what we’re doing in school. Equality can come about through a lot of small, positive things. There’s no need for class warfare unless one has identified some awful, terrible corruption that shows no sign of going away.

The other article, though, points to an awful, terrible corruption being perpetrated on everyone in the United States of America. What I’ve been complaining about to friends regarding Mike Rice has mostly been this: how many people covered for this clown’s abuse and tolerated it for how long because of money? Of course, what goes on in college sports – whether we’re talking about coaches or administrators or boosters or whatever – is so mercenary that one would be hard pressed to use the term “fraternal” to describe any aspect of it. The primary reason for Mike Rice’s “rehab” was to secure getting into the Big Ten, which as we all know involves money with lots of tax breaks because we’re talking college here, and thus is far more important than curing cancer or teaching Shakespeare or the million and one other things a university is supposed to do.

Still, “so mercenary” is the key phrase from my rant. Both Princeton and Rutgers show how exploitative the university as a whole is. Either it is working to help perpetuate the Future Oligarchs of America (I believe that is a registered trademark) or it has a crass notion of school/local pride that it uses to generate advertising revenue (you will all not be surprised that ESPN is not very popular on campus). Either we claw our way to the top or emphasize mindlessness as the key to solidarity. There has to be something else worth aiming for here.

After all, it’s difficult to learn things and working together is a necessity. My Greek sucks and I do need help translating things in Xenophon. And hearing from people who know better on different topics than me is always useful. At the least, it’s a reminder that one always has to work for an education and that work never stops. It has to be continual and one does depend on what others have worked on carefully because we can’t fact check everything. We depend on each other to know. There is a basis for real fraternity in this Enlightenment country. One day, we may discover that.

I’m fed up with Megan McArdle’s condescending rants about the academy, even though the picture she paints has a lot of truth

McArdle has another rant about universities and grad school. I don’t feel like saying anything that hasn’t already been said. To sum up previous commentary: I do know academia is in dire need of reform, but I don’t know how much McArdle is helping that cause. See “In Defense of the Liberal Arts” for the more thorough critique.

I’m actually sick of her at this point. There’s no subtlety to what she says, just fire-breathing. There’s the comments, where she matches the tone of her worst commentators (one example of the latter). A few of the commentators (there are many, many noble ones who wonder how college does and doesn’t work) have this “I have a job and I think I’m employable and I think I learned something from working therefore I am a paragon of virtue” complex, the same sort of complex that makes certain people think that people fighting and dying for political liberties all over the Arab world are inferior to Americans who think they’re better because they’re already free. The smugness would be intolerable if not parodied beautifully in Vonnegut’s Player Piano. The people who really care for science and progress and doing something practical for humanity typically have a deep love for arts, letters, culture, the past. They don’t just rant, ala McArdle, about how useless their English degree was.

There’s something in the comments I think needs immediate critique. McArdle wants to throw away people going to college because she thinks she can teach ethics and hard work through making people get a job. Here’s her fuller explanation of why she thinks people should take a year off and work before college:

The whole point is to do something that is limited and boring. The difference between my college classmates and my graduate school classmates (and my own attitude) was stark: college students were trying to get as little as possible for their money, while the MBAs had learned how much better school was than working . . .

The assumption is that hard work is always good and building your mind is optional. After all, building your mind is only appreciated when you’ve found how hard the rest of the world is. I’m not saying I’m against working, not at all. I wish I were teaching right now. But the idea that “I’m working, therefore I’m progressing and can appreciate other things” is painfully shallow. All of us know that there are a ton of people who if you said “read a book, I’ll pay you $5 more an hour for the rest of your life,” won’t do it. (In fact, it seems to me like they’ll go post comments all day about how people who do read books know nothing and shouldn’t be employed.) There are lots of guys I know who take jobs only to stop other people from nagging them. When I argue that communication skills and knowledge of the past are necessary, I do this not because I think everyone is going to learn what I know about why life in this country is good. It’s more because we as a society have to say “hey, these sorts of things matter – jury trials didn’t pop out of the ground; your rights didn’t materialize out of thin air.”

I don’t think I can teach ethics. I think I, at best, can point at something higher, maybe somethings worth fighting for. As someone who wants to be professional and objective, I don’t do this by saying “here’s what’s higher.” Rather, the goal is to try to understand what other people thought and let students figure out for themselves what’s valuable. That’s why we teach the history of thought, why we encourage people to read literature. We need to see other perspectives and be challenged, not just write blog posts about how we’re right about everything and academia is in disrepair so we’re still right about everything.

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

“…in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.” – Megan McArdle

I think McArdle can be very sensible. This is one of her worst comments. I’ve tackled it indirectly before (Margaret Levine, “A Man I Knew”) – try to talk about the higher things in life with utility as the sole criterion, and you’ve described everything except life and what’s important.

Now it really, really needs to be dismantled. We’re obsessed with sports, finance, guns, class warfare, ideological purity. This is a pretty crappy environment right now: it’s hard to be thoughtful in any way. Last I checked, we Americans can be a lot better than this. What’s all this wealth and power for if we can’t think, or be even remotely just?

So let’s tear this quote apart:

1. “in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field. That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.”

I actually worry about this. That’s why I’ve been writing for a number of years: to be publicly accountable for what I’m working on. That does not mean McArdle is correct in any significant way. Some liberal arts fields are about engaging and preserving a past we would otherwise completely ignore. Some are about different modes of expression, whether we’re talking about foreign languages or film or music. Yes, it’s true debates occur among scholars that don’t seem to have immediate relevance. But just because real information is framed a certain way doesn’t make it useless. And again, utility is not the only criterion involved, not by a long shot.

To take one example: there is a big debate over what Machiavelli really means. The New Historicists, i.e. Skinner, Pocock, see him pretty much as a revival of Aristotle. Classical republicanism and its attendant notions of virtue are being revived for the Renaissance. In this line of thinking – see the last chapter of Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment” – there is no serious modification of republican thought occurring over the centuries. Maybe even the American republic is somewhat Aristotlean and the only real break with the past involves an explicit notion of moral progress (i.e. Hegel). Others hold that maybe Machiavelli himself is breaking with Aristotle; his emphasis on some rather dark themes attacks any foundation for virtue (see “An Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince”).

Yes, one can half-read what I wrote and say the debate is nonsense. Or you can actually read it and a question will stick in your mind, as it should: To what degree are morality and politics reconcilable or not? To say this is an important question is to understate the obvious a thousandfold. “Utility” doesn’t even begin to account for the fact that what one person finds useful can literally bind others. The academic debate, before it even gets into matters of “who’s right,” outlines a deep problem with what we consider freedom, what the basis of government is.

What the research does is several things – we find the contours of the debate, what can and can’t be discussed. We find more, obviously, about Machiavelli and his time and how the past for them was recovered. We find a lot about ourselves as people dealing with problems that have existed for centuries. Of course, the debate between scholars is framed in such a way that it has less to do with the “right” reading of history and more to do with scholars’ own biases. I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. There are fields where educated opinions are far, far more important than what is immediately certain. The opinions, strangely enough, lead to a respect for the facts and other opinions, an understanding of how a debate works at a higher level.

Does that mean I think academics are super rational and should always be listened to and paid six figures routinely? Not at all. McArdle’s article calls for an end to tenure; the truth is, we need a lot more professors fast if students are to be given their money’s worth. It just means that the classroom and the research which sustains it have a purpose, that our academic institutions matter. They certainly need reform, but that reform is never going to lend credence to “my uncle knows a ton and he didn’t go to school” and “why are you wasting time reading?” Scholarship in the liberal arts will be irrelevant in a number of years. That’s fine. The focus and attention scholars give now is important for the discoveries that are made and for the students who can see, for just a brief moment, something other than American Idol and school shootings. The research says a lot about what we as a society value. Take it away entirely and we do live in a poorer world.

2. “Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.”

Some fields are nonsense work and little more than ideological vehicles. I’ve seen this from the Right and the Left. But here’s the thing: is the nonsense work because of the liberal arts, or because activists were able to push that the liberal arts should be useful?

What I need clarity on: “hobby.” Is punditry useful? Last I checked, it involves making a heck of a lot of useless predictions and talking to a bunch of people who make up their opinions on topics on the spot in a desperate bid to stay relevant. I’m not saying I don’t get a use out of punditry, especially not good punditry that explains complicated issues and breaks them down so they can more easily be processed.

In previous ages, the liberal arts were how things like “jury trials” and “property rights” (i.e. Montesquieu, Locke) and “science” (i.e. Francis Bacon, Descartes) gained importance and transformed the world. That’s a pretty impressive “hobby,” if we want to call it that. The use in our age, strangely enough, I think is best intuited by Left-liberals who have more affinity for Marx than me. They go right at how materialistic we are and how fast we’ll dumb ourselves down if left to speak the language of business fads (cf. Mark Slouka’s “Dehumanized”).

So no, I don’t think training people to write is just that, the literal skill. This is an Enlightenment Republic. Teaching communication is getting you ready for civic participation. It is striking nowadays that many on the Left see this very clearly. Those of us who see it on the Right almost always have to deal with the “what do you do that is useful?” argument, said with such an edge that you know no one cares to listen, only argue (I am very grateful for my readership. I understand full well I’m not Breitbart or Drudge).

Good writing comes from reading and listening well. Yes, it is true: only a few students will realize what’s going on and why it’s important and diligently work. I know that and you know that. But it’s those few who make the whole world work sometimes. It’s those few who can articulate what’s right.

No one’s saying teachers of the liberal arts are secular saints. All that’s being said is that if you care for ideas, the liberal arts matter, especially if you think of society as democratic. Utility is important, but we sink enormous resources into science and technology. No one grudges that. Everyone acts as if gutting a reading class would make students better on the SAT Math section. It’s really scary when writers who can see the need for serious academic reform decide to attack the field as a whole. We do need academic reform – there are many parts of university life that are hopelessly corrupt. But that comes from valuing the people who are trying to learn the material, not saying what they do is worthless because there is no market for it. There’s no market for justice or freedom, either.

The State of Philosophy on the Internet

1. Sometimes the Internet and modern media technology are responsible for explosions of new talent. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ve been treated to a bunch of exceptional chess players and some great photographers because of our increasingly digital life.

I have reasons to suspect that despite access to a number of terrific resources, quite a few philosophy majors, and intelligent philosophy blogging that philosophy as a field is not blossoming online.

2. Notice that I say “as a field.” I don’t expect people to be reincarnations of Socrates or Wittgenstein. I’m not sure I even want that. What I do want is familiarity with the basics, an ability to think critically, appreciation and discrimination of the better from the worse in terms of philosophy itself.

It’s a losing battle. When philosophical thinking is not reduced to justification for various ideologies, it is needlessly complex and always shallow – the goal seems to be to show who can “win” on comment threads. The only thing even approaching something like intellectual honesty is the population of would-be cheaters posting their homework questions in forums. I can’t stand them. But at least their assignments ask “What does so-and-so mean by such-and-such?”

I’m not unhappy with philosophy blogging. Then again, we’re talking about academics blogging primarily. That’s exclusive in some awful ways. Academics not only tend to talk to other academics, but to a very specific segment of them. None of this, of course, helps the field significantly, especially when more “accessible” posts are ideological rants.

3. There is no solution that will make what I’m complaining about go away. I’m writing so that way a few serious minds who are dabbling in the field but not doing something more rigorous get away from news aggregator sites like Digg or Reddit and start making good notes on primary sources for themselves. I’m actually happy philosophy isn’t worse online – after Colin McGinn’s ridiculous proposal, it is clear things could be a lot worse overall.

I’d better tell my story. In my undergraduate studies, I understood virtually nothing in philosophy for 3 years. I was lucky to encounter some lectures on Aeschylus that explored the mythic foundations of the city. There was little or nothing to sustain those thoughts, though. The course I was in blazed through the Apology and Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. I couldn’t keep up and every time I got confused there was not only too much to do, but it wasn’t clear how I should even approach the texts.

Things only started opening up for me when I had time to breathe and a rough idea how the history of ideas worked. Yes, I’m not even talking about critical thinking or appreciation/discrimination at this point. Everything I’ve said so far is about “basics.” It took repeated attempts of reading with the question “Who cares about this stupid book?” in the background to bring the better books to life. Plato’s Republic was notorious in this regard. I tried reading it several times over a number of years. Each time I tried, I got the feeling that the book read “What is justice? Yes.”

4. So I think this. We can remedy a lot of what’s wrong with philosophy online if a few know some more basics and are willing to read carefully. Eventually they’ll ask serious questions. They won’t see everything in terms of arguments or argumentation. They won’t be taken in by big names and ideological agendas.

A few posts I’ve got to help people get started:

  • On Machiavelli’s Prince – a brief overview of the history of political philosophy. I’ve got my biases. They’re pretty clear in this post. I still recommend it: it’s a starting point.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7 – I’ve got the whole section here where Socrates exhorts Charmides, Plato’s uncle and an awful human being, to hold office. The commentary shows that this might actually be an attempt of Socrates to moderate Charmides. The larger point: ancient philosophy is very tricky stuff. Usually it requires ridiculously good reading skills. I confess I’m still lacking in many regards.
  • On Oedipus Tyrannus – short post showing how Greek tragedy may create a counterpoint to political philosophy.
  • On Plato’s Minos – you don’t need to know the text to know the status of “What is law?” is a solid question.
  • On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 – the text in question is very important. Aristotle lays out a plan for politics on vastly different grounds than we use.

I’ve got so much more lying around. Wish I could link you to all of it. I’ll just say this – I started writing so that way people could pick their text and stick with it. They’d know someone had read it or was reading with them. The big problem with the Internet is simply this. With all these texts available and the ability to publish, we do surprisingly little reading. Surprisingly little consideration of the voices of others.

Letter to a Young Intellectual

for Madeline Frohlich – happy birthday

Dear Madeline:

Humid air yesterday and today weighed us on campus down. It refreshed at first. Before – too much dryness, an annoying cold. A breeze and some accompanying warmth, moisture and sunshine invigorated many. Then we started feeling sluggish and sleepy. I got little done yesterday, a bit more today in the air conditioning.

I am surrounded by students who seem to work at things not many others take seriously. Students here pride themselves on mentioning things about Thucydides, papal encyclicals, Auden. Sometimes this means being comically divorced from the most basic news. One student, three weeks after the BP oil spill, confessed having no knowledge that anything happened in the Gulf. They read a lot, often very quickly. I remember when one read something like 100 pages of Nietzsche in a night. They attend a lot of lectures where smart and insightful things are said frequently. There is mandatory attendance for most classes. Many people here date in a somewhat serious manner. They come from large families where being asked “when are you getting married?” is a question that comes from nearly every family member.

Even here, though, virtually no one has taken an interest in Xenophon. People sometimes ask me about it and then forget what they’ve asked. One gentleman, who I must have told what I’m working on about 30 times over a period of years, still asked recently and I said something completely different.  Now any complaints about my campus – if I have any complaints – would probably hold true for a number of schools. Climates of opinion create expectations and habits. A certain degree of achievement can be had and measured within those climates. Nothing is wrong with this. In fact, it’s essential for the functioning and production of a number of institutions.

Still, when someone like you takes an interest in Xenophon – something I had trouble getting people who do classics to give a damn about – it’s like everything else in the world is insignificant. You were in high school and wondering about women in the ancient world. You certainly had and have a set of activist concerns. And you’re reading about women in Sparta one minute, my little comment on the Oeconomicus the next, about Percy and Mary Shelley later, asking me about Heidegger, telling me about Australian politics and your coursework, and enjoying every minute of it.

You don’t realize how rare a student you are. In my life, I’ve come across only a handful like you. That handful makes the world better many times simply by being themselves. Because there are so many students, quite a few are pale imitations of ones like you and sometimes are well-disguised. There are plenty of people I thought more devoted to bettering themselves who quit when the grades or material rewards diminished, let alone ceased to be around entirely. Being a genuine student – someone who wants to learn what life is about – is far more than hitting the books or even using one’s free time to read. It’s all about the questions one asks.

This critique extends to teachers. You’ve started university and they’ve got lots of information, stimulate lots of discussion. You’re not going to believe this, but most of what you learn are things you would learn on your own anyway. That doesn’t mean to be ungrateful, just as one should never be snob to one’s peers. But it means that for a personality like yours, your learning is your first priority in a way the rest of us can only admire. There are going to be many times where artificial expectations will hold you back from exploring the library, talking to someone worthwhile, going elsewhere to see things firsthand. Your grades may suffer. You might also compose an article or essay that brings injustice to light. You might tell a story that preserves a memory. You might think something that appreciates the truly human.

The most ludicrous aspect of our time is the joining of the words “education” and “business.” This isn’t to say capitalism is bad: the problem has been there longer than the sophists. It is to say that education is an investment in a deeper sense than any of us realize. You are the future. You’re going to show us what a truly intellectual climate can do.

Colin McGinn: “…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science.”

Note: someone pointed out that McGinn’s piece is probably satire. I had suspected this, but was looking for “A Modest Proposal” type reasoning. Still, the acronym he uses for his renaming committee is “C.R.A.P.” Is that enough to make this whole thing a joke?

I’ll admit I’m not the best at spotting jokes. I did feel this piece more tragic than comic, as nothing alluded to the value of philosophy in an age which very much questions that value.

Colin McGinn’s argument that philosophy departments should be renamed is crazy. Why can’t people in philosophy departments say they study philosophy? It’s not like everyone expects people in English departments to write novels.

Still, it’s worth going through some of his observations. They don’t rise to the level of a serious case for what he wants, but they offer grounds for clarifying some issues:

Isn’t everyone employed in a university, and indeed some people beyond, a “lover of wisdom”? Most academics are not “sophists”! Physicists, say, have the attitude described as much as philosophers. But why should one particular discipline be characterized by reference to an attitude instead of a subject matter?

Literally, most academics are sophists. Xenophon’s Socrates repeatedly calls attention to the fact that he doesn’t charge for teaching because he wants to be free to work with whomever he wants to. Still, this is one of McGinn’s better points: there are people who I consider philosophic working in a variety of fields, at a variety of tasks. And philosophy – loving wisdom – is very much an attitude. Unfortunately, there’s the rest of McGinn’s proposal to consider:

(Is a chemist in love with wisdom concerning chemicals?) Moreover, “wisdom” really refers to having good judgment as to how to live one’s life, not to knowledge concerning abstract theoretical matters; and academic philosophy is only partly concerned with wisdom in that sense (ethics, political philosophy). Wisdom means practical wisdom, not scientific understanding. So the original meaning of “philosopher” misdescribes the nature of philosophy as an academic subject.

This shows a very poor understanding of the history of thought – Plato’s Republic in particular. Not that I’m going to hold a philosopher accountable for knowing all that stuff all the time. I’m deficient in key respects myself. But this is bad enough that I’d say I hope students never follow McGinn’s lead here. Sophia (wisdom) is sharply distinguished from techne (art, technique) though both used to mean roughly the same thing once upon a time in Greek. The distinction probably brought any kind of philosophy into being. You can see that very clearly in the Republic without leaning heavily on the terms. “One man, one art” (people with techne) brings the city in speech into discussion, is a ground for natural justice. The philosopher-king (one with sophia) is what you would need to bring it into being. That’s not practical wisdom. That’s theoretical wisdom dictating the practical. You can’t dodge this by saying “well, that’s political philosophy.” If Socrates doesn’t die, then it isn’t clear what we would have of philosophy. The pre-Socratics are fragments for the most part. (Moreover, in Aristotle, prudence and wisdom are again sharply distinguished.)

I’m not saying there aren’t ironies or difficulties all over the place. The point is that McGinn oversimplifies the theoretical/practical problem and wants to rest his case exclusively on what academic philosophy is now. He can’t do this, though, because the core of his thinking is simply laughable:

…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”

See? The dictionary calls academic philosophy a science. The DICTIONARY. It gets better:

We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

Ah, that’s what this is about. It’s about securing the money and prestige for the discipline by playing a renaming game that will work with university administrators and pseudo-intellectuals. I obviously don’t think McGinn is completely forthright in his declaration “whether to classify ourselves as a science or an art is strictly not the issue I am considering.” Philosophy is to be renamed with reference to “physics” and “chemistry.” This would be fine with me, if it didn’t threaten the existence of the field and the reading of books much greater than McGinn’s. After all:

…it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

It is true that Socrates characterizes philosophy as something inhuman: the practice of dying and being dead. He does this in the Phaedo, a dialogue where he explains his break with Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras held mind a dividing power. This resulted in mind being cause, as the world mind divided couldn’t be assumed a unity except inasmuch mind treated it a unity. Anaxagoras’ books weren’t good natural science, but they consistently gave a scientific-sounding description to the world. Socrates could describe his presence in jail as the arrangement of his bones a certain way. Unfortunately, one has to wonder whether “mind as cause” itself became lost in the process. Wasn’t Socrates in jail for doing philosophy, for having led a life he saw as most just?

What philosophy is about: mind as cause. What is the true unifying and dividing power of mind? Just because the practice of some in academic philosophy today takes on the trappings of scientific inquiry doesn’t mean we should abandon a name much greater than ourselves. It is true the proper study of being may lead to some conclusions far outside the scope of the humanities. It is true the practice of philosophy today seems divorced from much of what goes on in the humanities. It is also true things change, and philosophy has inherited a grand, awesome name. Maybe instead of renaming the field people can start living up to their potential.

The fight over college athletics is really a fight over what the University means

1. In some ways, it was natural for the university to become a type of sports franchise. I think of the pettiness of various professors, administrators and students I’ve encountered at a number of schools – schools that may not have Division I teams – and can’t help but wonder what end that spirit of “one-upsmanship” serves. That base competitiveness, that need to feel better than others, will not leave even if one does away with the corporate culture making things so much worse than they are:

…every “merit pay” scheme demands that increases be determined by a committee within each department. That is, some colleagues are put in charge of determining which other colleagues have been “productive,” and thus compelled to adopt a model of business or corporate competition in their relations with each other.

The colleagues who have been left behind wind up hating the colleagues on the committee — everybody thinks he or she is as “meritorious” as the next person in these situations — and they wind up hating each other, and all hate the people who have been given the largest “merit raises.”

The effect, in short, is to turn what had been a “republic of scholars” into a group of mutually resentful individuals each of whom detests all the others. (William Dowling, “Rutgers after Lawrence”)

I don’t know you’re going to have a “republic of scholars” if we got rid of considerations that are strictly business, stopped fetishizing the sciences to unnatural degrees, and placed more of an emphasis on reading, writing and the liberal arts. In fact, I know exactly what you get and the problems are manifold. Those problems, again, trace back to pettiness. People would rather put each other down than do good for each other. And they find innumerable ways of putting each other down when there are issues of understanding involved.

2. The fight against big-time collegiate athletics is refreshing in that it forces one to account for what the academy does. We know it isn’t just to advance the sciences, although that’s important. We know it isn’t just to form young people into a certain sort of person, although that too is important.

It really is about that clichéd sentiment: the purpose of the university is to allow minds to think independently. Not an empty mind, but an open one. I remember ISI’s “Choosing the Right College” guide being snarky about this once upon a time: there were liberal professors who couldn’t tell you what education was (because, apparently, minds less than Socrates’ can solve this problem). It didn’t take me long to learn that the problems identity politics posed were not unique to the Left.

Of course there are certain goals and standards to be met. No one can tell you “aha! You are thinking independently” at some prescribed moment (well, some can, but they are teachers of the highest order). We do want some reasonable standards set for a body of knowledge that is to be obtained. I will give ISI credit here: distribution requirements are no substitute for a Core curriculum and comprehensive examinations. Whatever says “here’s what you need to know, go learn it” is a good thing given how short and chaotic university life is.

3. But it’s what the Core and comps say that’s truly important. The intangible purpose – the hope – of the university is why the university exists. It ultimately does invest in its students. Every university could be doing more for its students in a multitude of ways. When I read, say, about Yale versus other schools -

There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries. There are also few, if any, of the kind of special funds that, at places like Yale, are available in profusion: travel stipends, research fellowships, performance grants. Each year, my department at Yale awards dozens of cash prizes for everything from freshman essays to senior projects. This year, those awards came to more than $90,000—in just one department.

- I immediately think how much better it would be if every school was just a little bit more like an Ivy, treating their students like they’re deserving, like they’re the future. And by students, I mean more than undergraduates.

Until the academy realizes that it is to be a solid, serious institution for the sake of those it admits, more than just the fight against big-time sports will be lost. The university as a whole is endangered. People really are willing to create places where others go play around with dangerous, experimental ideas. They may get mad at times about these places. They may want a bit of spectacle attached to them. It’s the university squandering the fact it exists that’s the fundamental problem. I noticed a friend involved in educational issues – she’s not formally affiliated with any school at the moment – never wasted a moment online in terms of learning herself or trying to teach something (her command of Shakespeare and Rousseau were something else). There are many like her. Would that universities as a whole adopt that seriousness of purpose. There are places that provide an education, and then there are educated people.

The Accessibility of Philosophy

1. At Barnes & Noble today. It looked trashed from holiday shopping. There wasn’t much left on the Philosophy shelves. Very few volumes of Nietzsche or Plato; couldn’t even find a copy of “Twilight and Philosophy” (my favorite book, besides this).

The store was also reorganized. Philosophy was back in a corner that it took me a little while to find. I realize fully that sales have always been hard to come by. I imagine most of us have put our private collections together through a combination of “needed it for class,” Amazon, university presses, used bookshops.

But it didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that if the basic titles aren’t in print, philosophy as a discipline is going to have some serious issues. For myself: how can I write on philosophy if my readers can’t get access to the primary sources?

2. Ah, but one can say the issue isn’t accessibility. We have the web, where most of these works are public domain. Anyone interested probably will take a class and have an anthology which will contain a number of works. And there are online book retailers selling many works very cheaply. Heck, the philosophy major has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. What’s the problem?

The problem is that none of that, strictly speaking, is the accessibility anyone needs for study. I loved Barnes and Noble and Borders when I first found them, because the public libraries with which I am familiar, for the most part, are full of crap. Nearly everything there is mass-market fiction: we’re not talking Vonnegut. The store I went to today has philosophy shelves. The public library nearest me, last I checked, pretty much has a philosophy shelf.

That’s not to say the library doesn’t have some virtues or some hidden gems. Rosen’s book on Plato’s Symposium is there. I could spend months with that. Last time I looked, he had tucked away in there a few pages interpreting Prometheus Bound.

Let’s say, though, I do as I was planning to the other day and write up a little something on Heidegger’s reading of Parmenides and Heraclitus. That would involve quoting heavily from “Four Seminars,” where Heidegger does his unconventional reading of Greek and argues they are both the same. Obviously, I can’t expect a bookstore or public library nowadays to have this on hand so someone can peruse it. However, that puts me in the ridiculous position of writing a more or less specialized secondary source which will be found far more easily than the primary source.

Do I have to start linking to primary sources when I write? If the shelves laid waste and thrown in the back of the store are an indication, yes, and we’re not talking about “Four Seminars” here. Where am I going to be able to link to those primary sources? 90% of the good translations with notes are for purchase only. What’s going to happen when a good copy of the Republic can’t be found immediately? We need our students to see things like the Cave for themselves: there are a million little details hiding that only the most detailed, over-exhaustive account could hope to convey the import of. It’s up to a serious student of philosophy to figure out for themselves what details they want to focus on.

3. Accessibility for the study of philosophy means quality and on demand. A translation of Plato from 1910 with no notes is not acceptable. I need the notes telling me about the Greek and the culture and I’ve been doing this for years. A student of philosophy needs to be able to access good primary sources fairly quickly, especially in this environment where the discussion is lively and thorough. You don’t read philosophy for class ultimately. You do it because there are serious people, past and present, who seem to have had serious thoughts and you want to think them through and see if they’re any good.

We’re going to need to figure something out. We can’t just insist everyone get a Kindle or buy Hackett editions. I suspect we’re going to have to dump a ton of quality primary sources online somehow. One other thing about philosophy: it may involve leisure, but it doesn’t exclude poverty. Poorer students, poorer people deserve the access to thinkers like Hume, Xenophon & Montesquieu, access people like Madison and Jefferson had. Asking them to learn Greek or French to make some sense of what’s online isn’t right. My feeling about all this: the business of academia has conspired with our populist, commercial tendencies to keep ideas which changed the world away from the people who most need the world to change.

Paraphrase of Fr. James Schall’s “The Obsolescence of the Colleges: On the Paperless and Placeless Institution”

Not intended to be a faithful reproduction or report of the original talk, not in the least. Fr. Schall was introduced by Dr. Susan Hanssen as one who could show others how to “think with the mind of the Church.” As will be clear below, I got something very different from his remarks. Only under point 4 have I quoted him directly, but completely out of context. I should say I enjoyed the lecture and appreciated Fr. Schall’s insight very much. When I get a link to the transcript of his actual lecture, it will be posted here.

1. Why higher education? It is alien from democracy as it may purposely create inequality. It is alien from Enlightenment as it is not always practical or even particularly glorious:

Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out. But, if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those greater lights of science, which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land!

It is, sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet there are those who love it.

- Daniel Webster, “The Dartmouth College Case”

A slippery-slope argument does not defend the right to know adequately. Moreover: in what does the life of the mind truly consist? One can attempt to say man is a rational animal. Do we act rationally or even in a primal manner when we laugh? Laughter may emphasize the peculiarity of our condition. Unfortunately, not all men laugh. How exactly we can comment on the life of the mind without anything resembling adequate self-knowledge is an open question, if it is a question.

2. The medieval and modern universities have more in common than one might suppose at first glance. The medieval university was completely separated from the world. “Discretion” and “discrimination” were central to teaching and learning. There were standards which were supposedly found in being and thus should have informed who one was. If you failed to live up to the standard, that was a sign of your weakness, not the standard’s. Often your failure could be seen as a moral wrong or lack of virtue.

All of this assumes college to be central to the formation of character. It assumes that people needed to be taken away from their families and the order of the everyday and into a place where there would be truth. And the medieval university certainly claimed to have truth. The movement from “some questions are better than others” to “there are answers to be had” was immediate. One might characterize the notion there are only questions as a “great temptation,” as it seems a book read well can make one’s life better. Surely there must be answers.

The modern university is a massive, sprawling commercial enterprise. Learning can be done anywhere, at any time, in any mode. Perhaps an institution can offer courses in languages it can’t understand with instructors hired through another government about subjects it can only name. Naming itself might be all there is to education: is this not the complete opposite of the medieval university? Place and character are irrelevant. The base acquisition of wealth cannot be compared to the religious imperatives of the past.

What of time? Ay, there’s the rub. The university implies something universal. No matter what is offered, when, it is a good. The problem with this logic is that some things are emphatically not good at a given time. If one is sick before a battle and does not participate, one might have been saved. The modern university’s attempts to be timely marginalize it in the face of know-how from commercial and military life. The medieval university’s complete neglect of anything timely probably led to the end of the medieval world itself.

3. Let us work with a simplified thought of Leo Strauss: perhaps philosophy is the quest for the whole. If so, philosophy may have to engage the competing claims of reason and revelation. This is a tension inasmuch we are wondering about how we live. It may seem reason trumps all, as we finally choose who we are. No less than Socrates, though, claims he knows nothing about teaching nobility directly. Perhaps there is a divine wisdom that allows for the choice we make. At the very least, we find it worthwhile to aspire to be certain people. Not everything about that process can be rational at first.

So now we conceive of college – a place where the liberal arts are taken seriously – as simply the reading of books. Maybe those books tell the truth, but we almost immediately see that as a whole, they contradict each other. Another simplified thought of Strauss: try to substitute the history of philosophy for the study of philosophy, and it is like substituting truth for a series of brilliant errors.

4. Does the truth make sense without opinion? For the hard sciences, absolutely. But if you’re trying to find things like “meaning” or “value,” or even trying to figure out what another age found meaning in or valued, you’ll have to make do with something complicated precisely because it seems intuitive and simplistic. “The used bookstore is one of the great gifts of civilization.” The purpose of college is “not to learn something, but to wake up so we want to learn something.” “Colleges are not social laboratories:” this applies to any university at any time, whether modern or medieval. “Philosophy exists in conversation.” The test of any institution of higher learning is whether it lets people read and talk to each other, whether the leisure Aristotle considered essential for thinking exists. That’s it. Try anything else and the university becomes inhumane. The question of human being needs to be something people address honestly, in their own ways. The medieval university skipped “human being” in order to attempt to access being directly. The modern has buried the question of being completely in order to make as much money from students as possible while declaring itself non-profit. “Colleges are not necessarily obsolete, though many are.”

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