Monday, April 20, 2015

Terry Eagleton: The Slow Death Of The University (Or, At Least, The Humanities...)

   Eagleton touches on half of the story here.
   The other half of the story is: the humanities really are currently largely bullshit.
   I mean, I, too, am concerned about universities being turned into vo-tech schools... And the humanities do, in principle, have something important to offer students. However, (and as Fareed Zakaria also notes), the humanities (and some of the social sciences) have earned their reputation for being (a) easy (b) bullshit by dint of long effort. Though e.g. philosophy and econ are largely immune, many other disciplines in and between the humanities and social sciences have long been infected by a mish-mash of bad continental philosophy (the dregs of postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, and others) and far-left politics. It's uncool to see STEM being promoted as the only legitimate course(s) of study...and far more distressing to see the humanities afforded less prestige even than business...but, well, the damage is largely self-inflicted. And the problem is not fictitious.
   Incidentally, an anecdote: I had a student in my office last week, a soon-to-graduate double-major in philosophy and English. Without prompting she enthusiastically reported that she was excited to be studying arguments for and against relativism in my class, because the view, she said, is basically just taken for granted in many of her English classes, and she'd never studied the arguments before. Then she said: And if you question that sort of thing in many English classes, you aren't just're a bad person.
   And, though I'm sure I've infected some students with my crackpot views, I don't think I've infected this one... That's a pretty scary report, IMO, though it doesn't exactly surprise me.
   The humanities aren't intrinsically easy, nor intrinsically bullshit...but right now, they're (largely anyway) contingently so.


Blogger Aa said...

There is a movement, mainly by administrators, to make STEM disciplines more "fun" and "easy" to lower DFW rates. As one colleague recently put it, "This isn't even a rigorous middle school chemistry class". And this is happening in many universities so it's not just the humanities, it's not just the humanities.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Holy crap.

Holy, holy crap.

7:45 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

WS -

If you recall, I mentioned a good while back a book called "The Great Conversation" which serves as the introduction into the Great Books of the Western World series which I love dearly. In it, I find an extremely valuable, wonderful, and excellent definition of and argument for a liberal education.

While it's hard to find a way to reliably purchase the book apart from the set, I found this online:

Which looks like it'll probably have some typos and other various textual corruption artifacts, but I think it's worth a read. In print, the text is only about 100 pages, and it strikes me as the best orienting force for the idea of "the humanities" which I have encountered.

Give it a read - I think you'll really love it. Aside from the authors' always proficient observations regarding the human condition, its relationship with the great works of history, and the value of studying the latter as a means to bettering one's understanding of the former, you get the added benefit of reading yet another historical work in which well-studied humans bemoan the downfall of civilization.

That last part gives me a little comfort in knowing that, though we may consistently seem to be falling, we somehow make progress and have yet to hit the ground.

4:28 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

One of my favorite parts:

"The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends."

and another:

"Whatever work there is should have as much meaning as possible. Wherever possible, workmen should be artists; their work should be the application of knowledge or science and known and enjoyed by them as such. They should, if possible, know what they are doing, why what they are doing has the results it has, why they are doing it, and what constitutes the goodness of the things produced. They should understand what happens to what they produce, why it happens in that way, and how to improve what happens. They should understand their relations to others cooperating in a given process,
the relation of that process to other processes, the pattern of
them all as constituting the economy of the nation, and the
bearing of the economy on the social, moral, and political
life of the nation and the world. Work would be humanized if understanding of all these kinds were in it and around it.

"To have these kinds of understanding the man who works must have a good mind. The purpose of education is to develop a good mind. Everybody should have equal access to
the kind of education most likely to develop such a mind and
should have it for as long as it takes to acquire enough intellectual excellence to fix once and for all the vision of the continuous need for more and more intellectual excellence.

This is the educational path to the humanization of work.
The man who acquires some intellectual excellence and in-
tends to go on acquiring more will, to borrow a phrase from
Dewey, "reconstruct and reorganize his experience." We
need have few fears that he will not be able to learn how to
make a living. In addition to performing this indispensable
task, he will inquire critically about the kind of life he leads
while making a living. He will seek to understand the manner in which the life of all is affected by the way he and his fellow workers are making a living. He will develop all the meaning there is in his work and go on to see to it that it has more and better meaning.

"This set of books is offered not merely as an object upon which leisure may be expended, but also as a means to the humanization of work through understanding."


"Do you need a liberal education? We say that it is unpatriotic not to read these books. You may reply that you are patriotic enough without them. We say that you are gravely cramping your human possibilities if you do not read these books. You may answer that you have troubles enough al-

This answer is the one that Ortega attacks in The Revolt of
the Masses. It assumes that we can leave all intellectual ac-
tivity, and all political responsibility, to somebody else and live our lives as vegetable beneficiaries of the moral and intellectual virtue of other men. The trouble with this assumption is that, whereas it was once possible, and even compulsory, for the bulk of mankind, such indulgence now, on the part of anybody, endangers the whole community. It is now necessary for everybody to try to live, as Ortega says, "at the height of his times." The democratic enterprise is imperiled if any one of us says, "I do not have to try to think for myself, or make the most of myself, or become a citizen of the world republic of learning. " The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Man, I could go on forever. I love this book. I need to re-read it.

5:11 PM  

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