Friday, November 25, 2011

Old guys in bow ties

The internet has taken the donkey-work out of academic research, and devalued personal memory and expertise. Much of my research time in the past was taken up leafing through neglected volumes in 'research collections' (i.e. the stuff nobody reads anymore if they ever did) of academic libraries, scanning back-of-the-book indexes, and very occasionally turning up unexpected links between thinkers and bringing to light forgotten comments and analyses and predictions which often seemed to give the lie to commonly accepted views on intellectual history (where the focus tended and perhaps still tends to be on a few intellectual 'stars' who are credited with more originality and prescience than they had in reality).

Now, thanks to search engines etc., one can do in a few minutes what previously took months of searching. The dusty research collections have been or are being digitized - but what of the experts, the old guys with bow ties whom one valued highly for their lifetime's worth of knowledge? One of the pleasures of researching a topic was interacting with these often-eccentric people, chatting with them, making hurried notes as they gave one important clues and names to follow up on. Such mentors are fading out of the picture as so much of what they had to tell can be found now online.

But still there are questions of a type which Google doesn't really seem equipped to answer. Specific questions that an individual might have come up with in the course of reading or research require interlocutors who can put themselves in the position of the questioner - who can empathize intellectually. Or sometimes one is interested in the relationship between this and that - and a Google search will give one all there is to know on this and all there is to know on that, but never the twain shall meet (or at least not in the way one wants).

And then there are fundamental questions about the worthwhileness (for me or in general) of this or that subject area, this or that profession. This type of question is often the most important of all - and a human mentor (preferably old and learned) is definitely called for.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

No tears for Massimo

Massimo Pigliucci is a self-styled public intellectual who runs a blog misleadingly called Rationally Speaking. It is in fact highly politicized, a vehicle for Professor Pigliucci to promote his left-liberal views – and himself. Which (apart from the misleading blog name) would be fine, if it wasn't for the site's (and Massimo's) loyal followers, and the feeling that one is dealing here not with a group of freely thinking individuals but with a sort of cult. [Update Nov. 2013: Whether or not this was true at the time, I have to say that this is no longer how I see the site. For one thing, one of the secondary writers there who was very political has gone, and my sense is that Massimo himself (with whom I have had some productive interactions) has focused more on non-political topics in the last couple of years. Also, there is much robust debate in the comment threads, and a variety of views on display.]

So I had a sense of Schadenfreude (unworthy, I know) when I read this post by Pigliucci on an imminent restructuring of the curricula at the City University of New York where he is employed as a philosophy professor.

The proposal incorporates a reduction of the compulsory general education requirements from more than 50 to 30 credits (out of a total of 120 credits necessary for graduation). And within that 30 there is a 'required core' of 7 credits in English composition and 8 in mathematics and science. Professor Pigliucci alleges that this is part of a national trend towards "dismantling liberal arts education" and that these efforts are motivated by an attempt to produce not "intelligent and critically thinking citizens" but "workers who are trained to do whatever the market and the reigning plutocracy bids them to do." Unfortunately, the phrase "reigning plutocracy" gives him away.

It's my view that many - too many - academics in the humanities have betrayed their calling by allowing the content of what they teach to become politicized to an extreme degree. Too often divergent views on controversial issues are not welcomed and students are required to echo the politically correct clichés of their teachers in order to succeed. Feminism, multiculturalism, standard liberal views on social issues, geo-politics and capitalism dominate teaching and writing in many areas within the humanities and social sciences. And so the process continues, as indoctrinated college graduates become teachers themselves or journalists or public employees of one kind or another or occupiers of Wall Street.

So I'll not be shedding any tears for Massimo and his like if they lose their battle to maintain their power and influence. All in all, I think some good may come from the withdrawal of funding from the humanities as certain particularly noxious forms of indoctrination will be curtailed.

And whatever there is of abiding value in the areas affected by funding cuts will more than likely be incorporated - under other names perhaps - into new curricula, or find other modes of survival.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The meaning of life

Having a cause to stand for or to fight for can give meaning to life. As well as meaning and purpose, a cause can also confer on its upholders a sense of psychological security, a sense that one knows things that others are unaware of, that one is committed to something important which the mass of humanity does not recognize as such (or at least does not actively support). There is a danger of smugness, arrogance and complacency here, but such pitfalls can be avoided.

A cause also gives one allies and adversaries – even, in some cases, a sense of excitement and adventure. Think of communists (and fellow travellers) in Western countries during the Cold War. Just the right amount of secrecy and excitement, and no real danger to life and limb. (Professional agents on both sides did, of course, face great dangers. But then they were paid for it.)

The onetime MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) agent David John Moore Cornwell (writing as John le Carré) depicted that world as one in which the moral and political issues were dark, complex and ambiguous, but his great creation, George Smiley, managed nonetheless to retain a simple sincerity and goodness.

In The spy who came in from the cold (1963), Smiley makes only a brief appearance as a colleague of the main character, Eric Leamas. Leamas also stands for certain moral values. There is a passage in which Leamas, waiting for an important and fateful meeting on the Dutch coast, thinks about a girl called Liz (a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause) who had recently looked after him when he became ill in a rented room in London.


... At about eleven o'clock the next morning he decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things - the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ...



Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is tempting to go along with this line of thinking, but perhaps it is just a bit too facile.

The dichotomy between activism and quietism, between cause- or ideology-driven behaviour and the still passivity of just being, does not in fact demand an evaluative choice – activism bad, quietism good, or whatever. It is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

As we shuttle between conviction and doubt, activity and stillness, sickness and health, a sense of meaning and well-being just bubbles up from time to time.