"Immigrants to the realm of thought"

From the acknowledgements of Nozick's Philosophical Explanations:

"Isn't it ludicrous for someone just one generation from the shtetl, a pisher from Brownsville and East Flatbush in Brooklyn, even to touch on the topics of the monumental thinkers? Of course it is. Yet is was ludicrous for them too. We are all just a few years past something or other, if only childhood. Even the monuments themselves, so serenely in command of culture and intellect, must have been children once and adolescents—so they too are immigrants to the realm of thought. It wouldn't hurt for an acknowledgment of this occasionally through their magisterial prose to peep."

How philistinism wrecked The New Republic

From 2015: "The broader world of high criticism is badly endangered, but not because of creeping academic mandarinism. The threat has to do only superficially with the latest digital wizardry and the apparent shortening of postmodern attention spans. The taproot of the problem is much older—a fixation on profits, now measured in hits and clicks, which betrays no trace of respect for what one former TNR hand, Steve Wasserman, has called the culture’s 'zone of seriousness.'"

What's in an education?

Walter Kirn, writing on his Princeton education:

I assumed that my classmates and I would study the classics and analyze their major themes, but instead we were buffeted, almost from day one, with talk of "theory," whatever that was. The basic meanings of the poems, short stories, and plays drawn from the hefty Norton anthologies that anchored our entry-level reading lists were treated as trivial, almost beneath discussion; what mattered, we learned, were our "critical assumptions." 


With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I'd reached myself. The deployment of key words was crucial, as the recognition of them had been on the SATs. With one professor the charm was "ambiguity." With another "heuristic" usually did the trick. Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable."

The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.

I came to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were actors. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedimentary study habits were ill adapted, I concluded, to the new world of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was a con, and I—a born con man who hadn't read any great literature and was looking for any excuse not to—was eager to agree with them.

From St. John's College tutor Matthew Linck's recent piece on the position of mathematics and science among the liberal arts: "The study of mathematical physics is inherently interesting in a number of ways: for its conceptual foundations; for the phenomena it both attends to and brings to light; for the rather mysterious fact that physical phenomena can be captured in mathematical expressions; for the insights it offers into the workings of powerful minds; and for the discernment it engenders concerning the power and the limits of modern natural science." [...]

"Taking up science as part of a liberal education means taking it up as something worth doing as its own end. We don’t need to ask what such study is good for. We only need to see that doing it is good."

Aristotle on the role of musical virtuosity in general education

From Book VIII, section 6 of Aristotle's Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett: "The flute, or any other instrument which requires great skill, as for example the harp, ought not to be admitted into education, but only such as will make intelligent students of music or of the other parts of education.

"Besides, the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it is too exciting. The proper time for using it is when the performance aims not at instruction, but at the relief of the passions. And there is a further objection; the impediment which the flute presents to the use of the voice detracts from its educational value. The ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen, although they had once allowed it. For when their wealth gave them a greater inclination to leisure, and they had loftier notions of excellence, being also elated with their success, both before and after the Persian War, with more zeal than discernment they pursued every kind of knowledge, and so they introduced the flute into education.

"At Lacedaemon there was a choragus who led the chorus with a flute, and at Athens the instrument became so popular that most freemen could play upon it. The popularity is shown by the tablet which Thrasippus dedicated when he furnished the chorus to Ecphantides. Later experience enabled men to judge what was or was not really conducive to virtue, and they rejected both the flute and several other old-fashioned instruments, such as the Lydian harp, the many-stringed lyre, the 'heptagon,' 'triangle,' 'sambuca,' the like- which are intended only to give pleasure to the hearer, and require extraordinary skill of hand.

"There is a meaning also in the myth of the ancients, which tells how Athena invented the flute and then threw it away. It was not a bad idea of theirs, that the Goddess disliked the instrument because it made the face ugly; but with still more reason may we say that she rejected it because the acquirement of flute-playing contributes nothing to the mind, since to Athena we ascribe both knowledge and art."

On the supposed illiteracy of scientists

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?" (C.P. Snow: "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution")

Liberal Arts, Inc.

According to Glen Edward Avery, Barr thought St. John's had grown too large and feared that its land was about to be seized by the U.S. Navy for its own academy. The first such threat had been made in 1940; St. John's was saved only by the direct intervention of President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. A 1946 newspaper story says that "the college's Damocles sword again threatened to drop in 1944, by which time St. John's had lost its two greatest friends in the government." The college's board of trustees was unable to get a definite answer from Congress, then in control of Federal land-taking, on whether St. John's land would be taken, and Barr wanted to secure "a home free of the endless menace of eviction."

Adam Smith and the future of higher education

From the Boston Review: "In contrast, at Scottish universities the salaries were fairly small, and professors depended on course subscriptions for the majority of their income. At Glasgow, students paid tuition to gain access to the university, but they also paid honoraria to their particular professors. The fees were small, but taken together, they provided a substantial part of a professor’s income, giving him a strong incentive to become a superior teacher. Smith saw in this system the institutional secret to Scotland’s success, and he encouraged its export to universities across Europe."

The New Humanities

The New Humanities