Inspired by M. Jahi Chappell (title above), Ivan Illich (relationship of energy consumption, social/economic inequality, and specialization) and Joseph Tainter (quote below). Needless to say the arts are subject to the same law of declining marginal returns. Also note that there is immense energy consumption involved in administrators maintaining the social coercion necessary for institutional buy in from the administered.
Whereas art has become as obscure and reliant on specialist knowledge and infrastructure as physics, aesthetics is more akin to ecology, based more in an experiential and observation based rubric.
“It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself.” – A world made of stories
Bill: I think you and I would both say that a traditional experience of wilderness—the kind where you’re living outdoors for an extended period, in a landscape far away from ordinary comforts—is wholly a creature of civilization. It’s an expression of certain cultural values, but it’s still a real experience. It’s still something we can use to take our compass bearings. We can still look to those values for our sense of self in these places.
Michael: I think science can give us a measure, too. When you study how nutrients cycle in a natural environment, for example, you can learn something about how to nourish soil. The study of ecosystems in their untrammeled state can teach us ways to mimic them, and that’s a really important resource for things like sustainable agriculture.
Leaving “wilderness” aside, I do think there’s this wild other —I don’t know what exactly we should call it—that has an enormous amount to teach us. I think the encounters we have with plants and animals are really useful. We learn important things about what it means to be human and what it means not to be human. There is that quality of wildness that’s essential as something to learn from, to reflect on, to measure ourselves against.
Michael: Politics come in as soon as we attempt to define “sustainability.” I think we’re contesting it right now. There are meetings going on now between environmentalists and corporate leaders about how to define the sustainability labels put on products, and that’s a fiercely political argument.
Bill: That’s right. The other trouble with sustainability is that it tends to point toward a future in which the good system is a stable system. But that’s not how history works. History is unstable. Perhaps that’s why the word resilience now gets invoked. Resilience and sustainability together are the territory in which our political and theoretical work needs to be done. We need unstable systems that nonetheless operate within a band of sustainability.
Michael: The idea of resilience—there’s an example of drawing from what we understand about natural systems.
Michael: And there is some role for science in describing those systems and explaining how they work. I find the word useful.
Bill: I do, too.
Michael: The word is useful in many different contexts, because it links to nature qualities we like in ourselves, in our children, and in the social realm, so I think it’s very productive. But where does it come from?
Bill: Out of ecology and climate science. It emerged as more and more scientists began to believe that the effects of climate change are such that we are going to lose ecosystems that we hoped could be saved. As the larger system migrates toward its limits, the question of which systems are going to survive has become more and more compelling.
Michael: But the word also comes out of biodiversity studies, right? The idea that the more species there are in a unit of land, the more it can deal with fire, with changes in temperature, and so on? It’s an interesting measure to apply to certain things. I mean, we need words that constitute value judgments, right?
Bill: We do—so we can tell stories about them. Environmentalism at its best has been good at telling stories about the connections we don’t ordinarily see in our lives. How what we buy in a grocery store has consequences for the earth, for people, for animals. Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.
I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.
Michael: Wendell Berry has this great line about distrusting people who love humanity. You can’t love an abstraction, he says. You can’t love a statistic. You can love the person near you, and your community, and your neighbors.
Bill: Use abstractions as metaphors for humanity, but stay close to people.
Michael: I think that’s true. Another very important lesson I’ve learned from Wendell Berry is about the danger of specialization, the fact that we’re now good at producing one thing and consuming everything else. The sense of dependence that follows from the division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live; it encourages us to feel that change can only come from outside—from government, from disaster—because we can no longer do very much for ourselves. That partly explains the power of gardening, which offers a reminder that, in a pinch, we can provide for ourselves. That’s not a trivial thing. It makes us more receptive to imagining change.
Bill: For me, the moral lesson of the garden—and I’m agreeing with you—is that being attentive to the work of the garden leads to greater appreciation for the work that makes life possible, which involves the work of others.
Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.
Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.
Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.
Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.
Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.
Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.
Activists, academics, and priests – The failures of critique – New Age experiential, pragmatic, somatic practices and the disenchantment of intellectualism
Imagine for a minute that you not only work in English but that you also believe in God. If you did, you might lead a double life, engaged five or six days of every week deconstructing master narratives or tracking knowledge/power, and then on the seventh day, at least for several hours, doing something altogether different. Even if those hours were your most important ones, you would probably keep the secret to yourself – for reasons best explained, I’m inclined to think, by the history of higher learning in the U.S., which began with religious ties but then moved aggressively, over the last hundred years or so, toward secularism, science, and specialization. And given the academy’s astonishing growth, who would want to argue now against this move? By abandoning our claim to “ultimate values,” by becoming producers of specialist knowledge, our forerunners won a privileged place in the emerging social order, an order that no longer needed values anyway, premised as it was on “rationality” in the administration of its human subjects. With so much to gain from this process, and so much to lose – a process, as Max Weber would have it, of progressive “disenchantment” – English studies climbed aboard reluctantly, though since then, we have done pretty well. Yet who can help but notice, in our darker hours at least, that something’s missing from our professional lives, something rather like religion, after all.
…If the humanities have tried for a hundred years to imagine themselves as a science of some kind – of myths and symbols, signs and codes, a “political unconscious” – I believe that they can never get entirely free from concerns and practices they have always shared with religion. Like it or not, we’re in the business of constructing inner lives, and the sooner we admit the need for an inner life, the sooner we can see why religion still counts – and why English studies might count in the same way.
At the outset I should add, however, that our problem is somewhat more complex than the overt suppression of an inner life already there for everyone: the problem is precisely that an inner life has become difficult to argue for on the terms defined by the critical spirit of our day. And given this predicament – this relentless annihilation of interiority – Weber’s description of the modern world as an “iron cage” of meaningless routine strikes me as an understatement.
…practices that range from simple prayer and visualization to yoga and possession by the Holy Spirit. The truth produced by these practices, however, has less in common with the “truth” of philosophy or theology than it does with the knowledge made by scientists, since its merit lies not its propositional character – in claims reached by a purely deductive reason – but in its capacity to produce real-world results – in the self and in one’s relation to others. At least for those who follow the new religions, truth of this kind enables one to act: it frees one from ambivalence and so produces health as well as wisdom, at least ideally.
Yet the pursuit of such a truth paradoxically returns its pursuers to an older, premodern kind of knowledge. Knowledge in the modern sense separates the object and the observer from the larger world that contains them both. We say, for example, that we “know something” when it stands out vividly as a thing-in-itself, amenable to an analysis designed to expose the object’s internal logic – its parts. To know a poem, for instance, is to know how it is “put together,” and the same might be said of knowing a flower or a style of architecture. But the word “knowing” may also denote a kind of fusion, as in the King James Bible: a collapse of the boundary between thou and that. To know a poem in this sense is to see a world “through it,” so that the world, far from receding, becomes intensely present as a whole, and as a part of one’s own self-perception, memory, affect, and so on. This kind of truth feels true, and it feels true in a special way – by dissolving the knower’s sense of isolation. Precisely because such a knowledge extracts the observer from the grip of discriminating judgment, it runs the risk of appearing useless and purely fanciful – just as alleged by early empiricists like Descartes and Bacon – but this older path to truth offers something that our textualist knowledge cannot reliably provide: an experiential solution to the problem of multiple paradigms, which ordinarily intensify our alienation, and it does so without resorting to the authoritarian ideal of a single truth applicable to everyone.
…For them, a more compassionate and useful response to difference is a synthetic exercise of imagination. The point is not to decide who was right, the Buddha or the Christ, or to see the real itself as a simulacrum, but to construct a way of living inclusive enough to accommodate both claims as truth.
…While poststructuralists have correctly understood that encounters among cultures are often “relativizing,” they have generally failed to understand that the “relativity” of “incommensurable” paradigms cannot remain a permanent condition: their view, too, is an illusion of the scholar’s training – the neat divisions of academic labor and the card catalog, which owe far less to the process of understanding than to the logistics of storing and retrieving information.
Syncretism violates the logic of the library, but it makes sense as an ethics of engagement with the “Other” when alternative forms of life have placed in doubt one’s own beliefs. To praise, as Butcher does, “the Tao” that “becomes flesh and dwells among us” is to not to overturn the Gospel, but to renew its inner dimension through the encounter with Chinese tradition. And it would seem that this recovery of a meaningful inner life is the reason many followers of the new religions have embraced a syncretic hermeneutics. If syncretism sanctions all beliefs as potentially true, it also makes each person responsible for creating a private truth, which is true not because it can be universalized – that’s the textualist formula – but because it restores the knower’s sense of connectedness to the world and to others…
While we tend to believe that the best response to an oppressive public image is an energetic critique, the practice of critique may overturn ideas while leaving unchanged more fundamental structures of identification. As we all know, even brilliant social critics can be desperate for approval, and in the theater of political action, quite committed liberators can exploit, manipulate, and even murder the very people they set out to liberate. Those of us committed to critical consciousness have too readily assumed that criticism alone can compensate for relations of power that make it impossible to think or say certain things in public forums where the wrong sorts of speech often carry enormous penalties – the high regard of one’s colleagues, for example, or the possibility of publication in, say, a prestigious journal. Nor, it seems me, have we given much thought to the mechanisms of “inner censorship” – if I can use the language of the new religions.
If equality is our concern, and if the minimum requirement for a relation of equality is the power to say “no” to the other without fear of retaliation, then the making of a “strong” interiority becomes absolutely indispensable. As long as I depend for my self-worth on the powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the famous, and so on – as long as I locate outside my own control whatever I define as the highest good – words like “equality” and “freedom,” “liberation” and “truth” are little more than empty abstractions. And for this reason, a central tenet of the new religions is a return to the idea that “the kingdom of god is within you.” The valorization of the everyday has many dimensions, but the existential and the political seem inextricably related in much of the writing. As J. K. Bailey reasons in Already on Holy Ground:
“For too long we’ve reserved the divine presence for a coterie
of bishops and cardinals, sadhus and gurus, self-appointed
preachers and brilliant philosopher-scholars – as if they were
the guardians of our religious experience. Perhaps we believed
we weren’t smart, holy, or committed enough, or we pre-
sumed the core of spiritual life lay in some grand future awak-
ening. But in waiting for the blinding light to strike us, we
ignored the tiny sparkle of a star in the night sky that could
bring joy to the heart and help us to remember the Divine.
In experiencing this presence, no event is too minute for our
attention. . . . The potential for light is as present with
mechanics amid the grease and grime of the neighborhood
Amoco station as it is with Zen monks at a monastery in
It would be easy to point out, of course, that even the askesis of self-fashioning must be socially constructed and that the self is therefore “social” through and through. Yet to adopt “the social” as our master metaphor is not to get to the “real” bottom of things, but only to choose a bottom of a certain kind, since bottoms too are inescapably underdetermined: they are, in other words, political, if we consider politics as Aristotle did to be the realm of possibility, not necessity…
If religion as a practice may trouble us, the “New Age” has taken a still more alarming turn, though it may ultimately prove to be a miracle in its own way: a turn toward arts as practice, toward the making of art and away from its consumption, critical or otherwise. As we know from the historical record, the idea that a poem or painting exists primarily to be “analyzed” is actually quite recent. English departments, for example, were created to “teach literature” before anyone actually knew what “teaching literature” might concretely involve…As the sociologist Eric Livingston alleges, our critical practices serve primarily to preserve qualitative distinctions between the “informed” readings of experts and the “misreadings” of ordinary people, who generally read for pleasure or “life-lessons.” And as other observers have pointed out, criticism helps preserve the boundary separating lay people from the august ranks of “real writers.”
The rarification of the arts – their sequestration from everyday life and their metamorphosis into objects of abstruse expert consumption – typifies the very essence of disenchanted modernity as Weber described it, and this development corresponds quite closely to other forms of political and social disenfranchisement. But the academy’s appropriation of the arts may have social consequences more important in the long run than even the plummeting rate of voter participation or the widespread dissatisfaction with, say, the public school system. Fundamentally, the lesson of all the arts is the same: ways of seeing, ways of thinking, ways of feeling can be changed, and each of us can change them. The arts, we might say, dramatize the human power of “world making,” to take a phrase from Nelson Goodman, and they do so by freeing the artist from the ordinary constraints of practical feasibility, empirical proof, and ethical uprightness. Once the arts have become nothing more, however, than an object of specialist inquiry, they often cease to teach this crucial lesson and teach instead exactly the opposite: ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling might be changed, but only by exceptional people.
Once again an insight from the “New Age” may be more truthful than we wish to admit – the insight that the arts share common ground with the kind of experience we think of as religious. It seems to me, in other words, that unless English studies can offer people something like an experience of “unconditional freedom,” we have nothing to offer at all. If a poem or painting is always only a product of social forces, an economy of signs, or some unconscious mechanism, then why not simply study sociology or economics? If all we have to show for our reading and writing lives is a chronicle of ensnarements, enslavements, and defeats, then why should anybody tramp so far afield – through, say, the 600 pages of Moby Dick – when we can learn the same lessons much more easily from People magazine or the movies? In itself, the forms of activity we speak of as “the arts” can be put to countless uses for countless reasons, but we might do well to ask if ideology critique is the best of those uses. Does it seem credible that the millions of years of evolution which have brought forth humankind’s marvelous intelligence have now come to their full flower in our disenchanted age? Was it all for this? Or could it be, instead, that disenchantment, the failure of all our narratives, is now impelling us toward the one encounter we have tried for several centuries to avoid, having failed, perhaps, to get it right the first time around: I mean an encounter with the sacred.
Theory, in other words, has outlived its own “death,” but its survival gives cold comfort to all the former converts who have irretrievably lost their faith. For those of us no longer charmed by the magic, by the myth, of the pursuit of signs-what other path remains if we want to be more than perpetually “post-“? What we need is nothing less than a paradigm shift: turning from the threadbare ideology of “the text,” we might start to explore an alternative so mundane that we have passed it over time after time in our scramble for sophistication and prestige. That alternative is ordinary sensuous life, which is not an “effect” of how we think but the ground of thought itself, or so I want to argue here. At this late hour, when theory’s successors can teach us nothing really new, what prevents us from returning to the idea of “the arts” by a long-forgotten path-the arts imagined as traditions of experience that intensify our sense of living in and with the world? If the humanities have, as I believe, very nearly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, then the future of English may well lie with those arts and the worlds they open up.
Yet there has been, I think, more to theory’s success than the lure of celebrity can explain-and this “more” has to do with the character of theory as a resource for preserving our profession’s prestige. Like every other form of information dignified with the name of “knowledge” today, theory gets produced by specialists. But theory differs from a piece in Harper’s or a report on the CBS Evening News, whose writers are no less specialized than we are, because theory is uniquely the discourse of privileged and declining institutions whose concerns have grown so distant from everyday life that a sense of crisis overtakes the specialists themselves. To justify the privileged status of their work, these specialists must show that their thinking is somehow superior to common sense – more inclusive, more penetrating, more rigorous. But theory wins the battle at the cost of the war, since the discourse that strays too far from the everyday world runs the risk of losing its lay clientele as well as the confidence of neophytes, who no longer see themselves figured in its ghostly narratives.
But think, if you will give yourself the freedom to, about the different kinds of pleasure people get from their most mundane involvements with the world – watching leaves shake in the hot summer wind, listening to the sound of rain, tracing the smooth, wet curve of a child’s spine with the palm of a soapy hand. And think, if you can stand it, about all the essays written ten or fifteen years ago that began with the claim to be writing “on the margin”; or of all the works today that call themselves “genealogies”; or of all the dissections of cinematic gaze that open with a summary of the mirror stage. The writers of these works are not simply sycophants or opportunists. To write in this way is to become Derrida, to become a second Foucault or a little Lacan. In the same way, Madonna’s fans dress like Madonna, walk and talk like her, and read books about her life.
For all our celebrations of resistance and revolt, no alternative is more revolutionary than our resistance to disembodiment and the pursuit of wholeness in our immediate experience. But how might such a wholeness lie within our reach, when theory and critique have unmistakably become the preeminent forms of knowledge in our time, as highly valued by Peter Drucker, the Wall Street savant, as they are by Marxists like Etienne Balibar? If theory and critique free us from nothing finally, but contribute to a routinizing of expression unparalleled in our history, then perhaps the way out lies in a domain that the “linguistic turn” has caused us to overlook: I mean the domain of “the arts,” understood not as the cunning lies told by an elite, nor as the property of specialists whose goal is technical virtuosity, but as traditions of attunement with the world, available to everyone everywhere but also now diligently suppressed.”
What our society needs most urgently is not another theoretical “advance” – toward a new discipline called grammatography, let’s say, or psycho-dialectical materialism – but a better understanding of the practices through which everyone might enter the open space where Cezanne felt himself at home. Yet, in order to discover and protect such practices, English studies needs to undergo a change more profound than many people might like. We will need to become ethnographers of experience: I do not mean armchair readers of the “social text,” but scholar/teachers who find out how people actually feel. And far from bringing English studies to a dismal close, the search for basic grammars of emotional life may give us the future that we have never had, a future beyond the university.
…We do not think that studying the Great Books or any other canon will necessarily make our students better people, and we reject the haughtiness of those who think their knowledge is Knowledge. However, confusion arises because the questions raised in traditional liberal studies still seem central to human life. We feel that education — real education — cannot neglect the questions, Where do I stand in the world? What has my life amounted to? What might I become? … What is the meaning of life? Is there a God? What is my place in the universe?
It is true that these questions arise and are explored in impressive ways in the great works associated with liberal education, but they may also be asked and explored in other settings. Zane Grey’s cowboys ask them while riding the range under starry skies. Old ladies in their rocking chairs, shelling peas or knitting, ask them as the evening cuts off the light of a summer day. Lone fishermen standing on rocky jetties in the Atlantic twilight ask them. Moreover, studying what great thinkers have said about immortal questions is no guarantee that one will be more honest, decent, loving or even open-minded. Without mentioning names, I can easily think of four or five superbly educated persons (all of whom deplore the condition of the American mind) who are themselves incapable of hearing or responding generously to views that differ from their own. Again we have a performance gap.
Thus I believe a grave mistake is made when we argue for the traditional liberal studies as the arena in which immortal conversations must take place. Specialization has killed much of what was liberal in liberal studies…. But the questions remain, and teachers today should muster the courage to discuss them.
American higher education lacks the sense, MacIntyre argues, of a common enterprise. Rather it is dominated by an opportunism wherein universities seek to enrich themselves and fight the prestige battle, and students are motivated by careerism. The hallmarks of these places are professionalization and specialization, and in the process they lose sight of the one (truly liberal) question that would help make an education coherent: the question of what it is to be a human being. To ask this question would raise issues of the limits of scientific knowing, of the nature and quality of a moral life, of understanding the depths of self-deception, inquiring into the social dimensions of human activity, and so forth, and in a systematic rather than haphazard way. (There may be individual faculty who raise such questions, but such questioning is not woven into the curriculum.)
We are not inclined to pursue such an approach to education. Most colleges and universities have been thoroughly corrupted in the sense that as they become more specialized and professionalized in their internal functioning, they encourage the development of a faculty who are invested in not raising the larger questions about the purpose of education, and a student- body who will increasingly mimic this professionalization and specialization in pursuit of a well- paying job. When embedded in a culture that sees upward mobility and deracination as primary goods, the labor market begins to unify the shaping of student preferences. In that sense, once the servile arts are introduced into the liberal arts context, they quickly overwhelm it and reduce the liberal arts into a mere “value added” good.
What we won’t do is provide them with answers to the question of what it means to be a human being that takes seriously issues of contemplation or leisure. Newman argued that a liberal arts education is one wherein modes of action have their ends in themselves: they are not primarily directed to extrinsic purposes such as satisfying a requirement or getting a good job…
…frees us from mere idleness or mere labor, and places us, Pieper claims, into positions of worship and festive hope. In that sense, knowing born of leisure cannot be directed by anything other than its goal, and can serve no purpose other than itself – else it would be servile rather than liberal. To subsume liberal education to the needs of the state or the economy (which is much the same thing) is to destroy liberal education, for then it becomes merely a means rather than an end. A liberal education by the nature of the thing limits the power of the state and its coordinating administrative impulses.
…Not understanding leisure, neither can we understand work. And not understanding work, neither can we understand how to fill student’s hours, or our own, in any meaningful way. We vitiate the classroom of its noble purposes and we create an indulgent but not coherent education.
Any sensible conservative critique of the university must, I think, take seriously the problems concerning what technology wills for itself; how the impulse to universalization and abstraction destroys that which is particular and near; and how questions about who we are and what we are destined for are occluded. It must see the interrelatedness of these problems. It should see college life not as primarily directed toward the formation of skills and habits that prepare one for engagement in the modern economy, but as an interval in life where students are encouraged to the most useful of activities by pursuing useless ones.
It is now more imperative than ever that liberal arts colleges rethink who they are and what they are doing. In an age of centralized state authority, crony capitalism, and military expansion, the call goes out once again for social institutions dedicated to alternate modes of community. Surely this is what MacIntyre was getting at when he noted that resistance to the Roman imperium coalesced when individuals “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with that imperium,” but rather began to form new communities where the moral life in its wholeness could be sustained amidst the coming barbarism. For that reason, the liberal arts college that serves the American imperium least serves it best. And that is what Bloom didn’t understand.
The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center – Donald Oliver, Julie Canniff, and Jouni Korhonen
…authentic face-to-face communication may not be necessary in the short run, but in the end it is a requisite for a compassionate and balanced culture and society.
…What one is or what one will be “worth” is determined [in modernity], not by some inner connectedness to the people one cares for, or the natural world that sustains one, or a transcendent reality that unites all being, but rather by the price a product or even one’s own being can “command” in the market place [also by how well one performs within the highly reductive and specialized arena of institutionally defined “cultural production.”].
Actions such as bonding with a mate, playing with children, or eating a meal with friends are not generally characterized as “progress,” while constructing a new airport or highway is [or say making a “significant” or “critical” art work].
What happens when the specialization and fragmentation overtake a society to the point that only verbally complicated and clever people can function and adapt well to the pace of novelty and change generated by innovative engineers? And what happens to the more primal qualities of life for everyone under these circumstances?
…as the larger and more universal forms of social structure (governments, economic corporations, media, schools and universities, etc.) gain virtually monopolistic control over the livelihood and information provided to common people and their meaning-making organs of communication, the opportunity to participate in constructing and negotiating one’s culture and identity within local to middle level settings is reduced and with it one’s multilayered and authentic relational identity. The world then comes to be constituted only by powerful corporate places populated by really “significant people” in “important but distant places” who appear in the newspapers or magazines or on the TV screen or even the internet who drive rapid changes. And all of this drama is virtually inaccessible to marginally significant or insignificant “local places,” i.e. one’s private dwelling or neighborhood or church or coffee break at work.
This organic view of society…associates goodness with health – but not necessarily with continuing progressive change or improvement…It is important to point out that our theory includes balance between deeply encultured traditional institutions and modern, novel, pragmatic modes of functioning. It is, in fact, the compulsive modern use of our rational pragmatic gifts as we engage in the constant effort to “improve” things which may undermine the quality of life and sustainability of many “living places.”
…It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. No, the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.
The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself…
…there’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart. But what that Harvard student didn’t realize—and it was really quite a shock to her when I suggested it—is that there is a third alternative. True self-esteem, I proposed, means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.
She also claimed, this young woman, that Harvard students take their sense of self-efficacy out into the world and become, as she put it, “innovative.” But when I asked her what she meant by innovative, the only example she could come up with was “being CEO of a Fortune 500.” That’s not innovative, I told her, that’s just successful, and successful according to a very narrow definition of success. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities.
But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.
Moral imagination is hard, and it’s hard in a completely different way than the hard things you’re used to doing. And not only that, it’s not enough. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: moral courage. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.
Think of what we’ve come to. It is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel like they’re being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You are all told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you’re being “self-indulgent” if you actually want to get an education. Or even worse, give yourself one. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.
…The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.
In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it.
…Still, capitalism’s success in this case is particularly elegant: by bringing education to heel, by forcing it to meet its criteria for “success,” the market is well on the way to controlling a majority share of the one business that might offer a competing product, that might question its assumptions. It’s a neat trick. The problem, of course, is that by its success we are made vulnerable. By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.
Triply protected from criticism by the firewall of their jargon (which immediately excludes the non-specialist and assures a jury of motivated and sympathetic peers), their economic efficacy, and the immunity conferred by conveniently associated terms like “progress” and “advancement,” the sciences march, largely untouched, under the banner of the inherently good. And this troubles me.
It troubles me because there are many things “math and science” do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really.
Not content with trivializing itself through the subjects it considers important, nor with having assured its irrelevance by making itself unintelligible, the study of literature, for example, has taken its birthright and turned it into a fetish; that is, adopted the word “politics”—God, the irony!—and cycled it through so many levels of metaphorical interpretation that nothing recognizable remains except the husk. Politically neuter, we now sing the politics of ocularcentric rhetoric. Safe in our tenured nests, we risk neither harm nor good.
…colleges and universities are essentially diploma retailers obsequiously bent on making the shopping experience of their customers enjoyable and painless.
For education presently conceived and presently practiced has but one goal: the mass production of idiots.
I’m speaking—I hope—in fairly precise terms here.
An “idiot,” from the Greek idios (“private,” “own,” “peculiar”), is someone who is peculiar because he is closed in on himself or separated or cut off. In short, he is a specialist. If he knows anything, he knows one thing.
The idiot may have extensive knowledge of a given thing, but to the extent that he has no sense of where to place that knowledge in the larger context of what is known and knowable, and to the extent that he doesn’t know that the context for the known and the knowable is the unknown and the unknowable—to that extent his knowledge ceases to be knowledge and becomes a collection of mere facts, which, as Cervantes said, are the enemy of truth.
Again, I would not be misunderstood. In a manner of speaking we are all idiots, and anyone impertinent enough to get a Ph.D. flirts with idiocy every day of his life by virtue of the requisite and necessary specialization that attends the enterprise. That there are benefits to such specialization is, I think, unquestionable. It took a specialist to operate on my knee. It takes a specialist to make a fine cabinet or a good bookcase. But specialization is a limited, not an absolute, good, and it should never mistake itself for true intelligence. You may be an eminent Harvard biologist who knows a great deal about ants; you may be a brilliant if wheel-chair-bound British physicist who knows a great deal about string theory. But no amount of ants or strings or knowledge of how many ants can dance on the head of a string qualifies you to say that God is a delusion or human love a brain state. The world, said Thoreau, and rightly he said it (playing a variation on Hamlet’s theme), is bigger than our ideas of it.
Against University Uniformity And For The Provincial Institution – Localization – Place Based Education – Intra-diversity vs. Inter-diversity
This may rub my progressive friends the wrong way, but there is much to think about here. There is a powerful critique of universality to be made, and this piece does so, showing how the notion is related to the abstraction of (economic) exchange. There is something Baudrillardian about that line of thinking, although I’m sure Wilson would not embrace the comparison. The localization of education at the university level is not something progressives/liberals talk enough about (if at all).
If contemporary diversity leads all departments, all schools, and the character of all graduates to look roughly alike, it would seem reasonable to propose an alternative account of diversity that takes the word more seriously and makes it conducive to a substantive good that cannot be measured with a calculator…what if an institution were to commit itself not to attracting students and faculty from every possible state and a smattering of foreign lands, but to building up a faculty composed whenever possible of persons from a specific region and committed to educating the youth of that region? This used to be quite common, but in the impossible chase of the Ivies, even schools that stand no realistic chance of attracting a “world class” elite faculty nonetheless burn their local bridges in the attempt to do so. This reduces the cultural capital otherwise available to universities through nurturing and retaining their native population, and makes it difficult for an institution to manifest the particularities that naturally arise in a settled culture. Mobility and geographical cherry-picking homogenize more than civilize.
So, I ask, what if universities began hiring according to specific, exclusive, and perhaps even ungeneralizable criteria about what kind of knowledge is valuable? Currently, most scholars are more loyal to their profession and the standards and interests of their field of expertise than they are to their institution. They have to be, because the institution offers little of substance to which they might feel profound intellectual fidelity. Rather than seeking to have the best-available scholar in every field, schools might specialize more, and coordinate that specialization across departments and disciplines, reaching a provisionally local but robust consensus on the attributes proper to the life of learning.
…building upon a less widely “imported” faculty, and a newly circumscribed curriculum that makes substantive choices about what constitutes the essential knowledge of the liberally educated person of a particular institution, we may entertain the prospect of universities’ provisionally abandoning the attempt to establish a global, banal, and diluted consensus regarding the attributes of a good graduate’s character.
…yet schools restrict this celebration of “difference” to admissions criteria and superficial demographic festoons on an otherwise homogenous institutional coat rack.
…We would then realize real diversity between institutions, rather than a uniform diversity within them. That this would result in inferior and superior character formation at different schools would be an obvious consequence, but I am not sure why we would shy away from ambitious experiments in character and virtue, in an age where nearly everyone is convinced—for often opposed reasons—that universities are failing their students both intellectually and morally.
[All bold emphases mine.]
“Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is as relevant for art as poetry and as urgent today as it was in 1991. A must read. Really.
American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
…Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.