Links for December 31st, 2017

The issue of "making a case for the humanities." — "Instead I wish to address the other question: the reason for studying them in the first place. That question has assumed a paramount importance in the current academic context—in which university officials, deans, provosts, and presidents all are far more likely to know how to construct an HBS case study than to parse a Greek verb, more familiar with flowcharts than syllogisms, more conversant in management speak than the riches of the English language. Hence, the oft-repeated call 'to make the case for the humanities.'"

Donald Davidson's "Swampman" thought experiment.

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty." Did Burnham really say it?

A modern retelling of the Truth of Silenus, from a University of Cape Town professor.

NPR's Rational Conversation series on Leon Bridges: Neo-soul innovation or "hollow" expression of anodyne nostalgia?

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in conversation on religion, mythology, ethics, and epistemology.

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.