Tag Archives: liberal arts

Another misattribution: be careful out there!

It happened again today. Just now, a philosophy Twitter bot posted this quotation, attributing it to Cicero.

A noble sentiment. As of this writing it’s been retweeted 54 times and favorited 16, just an hour or so after it was first posted.

The only trouble is, these are not the inspiring words of the orator and statesman Cicero, but the words of Orfellus, “a peasant, a philosopher unschooled and rough,” as rendered by the poet Horace at the close of Satire II.ii.

Like Horace himself, Orfellus was dispossessed of his property; and he understands that neither he nor the new landlord, Umbrenus, has a legitimate claim to the land. It belongs to “no one for good,” but is ceded for use (cedet in usum). The Loeb trot continues:

Nature, in truth, makes neither him nor me nor anyone else lord of the soil as his own. He drove us out, and he will be driven out by villainy, or by ignorance of the quirks of the law, or in the last resort by an heir of longer life. Today the land bears the name of Umbrenus; of late it had that of Orfellus; to no one will it belong for good, but for use it will pass, now to me and now to another. Live then, as brave men, and with brave hearts confront the strokes of fate (quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus).

I can’t figure out the source of the confusion, how or where the quotation came to be attributed to Cicero, how Cicero’s prose and Horace’s verse could be confused, and I don’t really know what to make of it all, except to reiterate that most books of quotations and nearly all quotation bots and sites proffering quotations are borrowing, cutting and pasting, or sloppily compiling from other compilations, and never working from original sources. Maybe that sort of spadework went out with the keeping of commonplace books. No matter, don’t trust any attribution that doesn’t cite chapter and verse; and even then, verify.

And if fortune is averse, front its blows with brave hearts. No, that’s not Mel Gibson.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals And, Now, What’s Eating Me

In yesterday’s post about what’s troubling American intellectuals I arrived at what I considered a fairly uncontroversial point of view, namely, that the diminished social stature of the intellectual – and, in some quarters, the scorn and mockery of educated “elites” — indicates something disturbing about our attitudes toward education and where we are headed as a society.

Just what that something might be is up for grabs, but I was tending toward the dramatic and alarming view that this is the first stage of the eclipse of liberal arts education in America, the onset of a dark age. I tried to hint at that in the final paragraph of my post.

Not a single comment all day — until last night, when someone registered his strong disagreement on my Facebook page, and I had the sinking feeling that maybe everybody had strongly disagreed with what I wrote, but was just too polite to say so.

Michael commented that he “lost all faith in the ‘liberal intellectuals’ long ago,” and he goes on to say my post fails to register how badly intellectuals of all stripes have failed us, so they might just deserve our scorn.

…it was a bunch of Ivy Leaguers who got us into the damn mess we’re in–the latest version of “the best and the brightest.” Your intellectual aristocracy has failed us, Louis. They’ve screwed up the environment probably beyond redemption, they’ve brought us war without end, they’ve totally fucked up the global casino economy. This last half century of downhill slide wasn’t the consequence of bunch of climate-denying yahoos and creationist boobs; it was all the brilliant scientists at MIT, all those glorious minds at the Kennedy School of Government, all those experts at G’town International relations, all those Harvard Business School MBAs. Thanks a million, minds.

Just to be clear, I am not out to defend tenured Ivy League professors, the best and the brightest, or an intellectual aristocracy (if there is such a thing). They don’t need me to defend them. Nor am I trying to put them at ease. I am simply trying to understand why they are so ill at ease these days, and what that might mean.

If I widen the historical lens I begin to wonder whether a certain idea of the intellectual is passing from the American stage and maybe from the world stage. Technocrats and scientists still garner our respect and admiration (despite what Michael says about the folks at MIT and elsewhere), and we are still captive to a narrative of scientific and technical progress; but we may have lost our faith in the idea that we can ever learn anything of consequence about human affairs or the human condition. That’s not something I can lay out arguments to prove; it is simply something I wonder about, and it’s a possibility I dread.

On the other hand, I can’t really go where Michael is going with his comment, partly because I recognize the inherent fallibility of all intellectual undertaking — it’s no surprise that the best and the brightest would fail to deliver us from evil; nobody can — and because I admit that most human endeavor ends in pure folly, no matter how noble and inspired and smart it might at first seem.

That is no reason to give up on education or enlightenment. This is a point Russell Kirk made, snidely, but powerfully, in a passage quoted by Bainbridge:

Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what the Bergers call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.

To be sure, the current wave of populism will pass. My concern is that after the revolution, we’re going to have to start rebuilding, and it’s difficult to do that in darkness.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.