what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

anticipating post-modernism

Every day, 3-4 articles or blogposts catch my interest and have me surfing and collecting url links for future reference. Occasionally I do a post which incorporates those hyperlinks. It’s the small bit of public service I do these days.

As someone who benefited from university education in the 1960s when it was very much a privilege, I have mixed feelings about their subsequent growth – and about the slavish worship of neo-liberal principles and language which has followed. So I’m always a sucker for a rant about how the “bean counters” (accountants) and management thinking are destroying universities and, in particular, the social sciences and humanities.

Last week saw a good example in a catholic journal which had me surfing nicely. It is one of the many recent (and worthwhile) challenges to the prevailing conventional wisdom that humanities (and “liberal studies”) need to be scaled back if not abolished. It is a rallying cry for such things as scepticism, inquiry, originality  
The language, as one might expect, is a trifle ornate – but bear with me,,,,,”there’s gold in theme there hills….”
In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.
One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: …..
 “An undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted. The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully.” The key to this process is “developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice.
It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions.” So it comes down to an effort at self-culture, as Emerson would have said. And self-culture involves an inward turn: it is “through this act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. And that is what it means to develop a self.”…… 
The preoccupation with process over purpose, means over ends, has long been a feature of the technocratic mind, which despite occasional countercultural protests (as in the 1960s) has dominated American universities since the late nineteenth century and now seems poised to render other forms of thinking invisible.
The focus on mastering technique rather than grappling with substance means that too often higher education “does nothing to challenge students’ high school values, ideals, practices, and beliefs,” as the author of a new book (Deresiewicz) observes. How can it, if it has no vision of what an educated human being should be, as Allen Bloom complained nearly thirty years ago in “The Closing of the American Mind”.
It is interesting how often Deresiewicz cites Bloom, the bogeyman of the politically correct left in the 1980s, who was nothing if not a passionate defender of the humanities. Resistance to technocratic imperatives cuts across conventional political boundaries. In recent decades, au courant educational ideologues have put technocratic imperatives in a determinist idiom—“the train has left the station” etc.—and have added a dose of management jargon.
The most egregious management-speak is the near universal use of a customer-service model for what universities do. As Deresiewicz observes, commercial values are the opposite of pedagogical ones. If you are interested in students’ long-term welfare, don’t give them what they want—don’t be afraid, he tells professors, to stand on your own authority, to assume you know something your students don’t, which they might profit by learning. The very fact that he has to make this obvious point suggests the parlous state we are in. The easy equation of students with consumers confirms Deresiewicz’s conclusion that the schools “finally don’t care about learning at all”—or about teaching.
 “Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another,” he writes, implicitly challenging the current fashion of online education.
On the contrary: “‘Educate’ means ‘lead forth.’ A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. A teacher awakens; a teacher inspires.” Not every teacher can measure up to this exalted standard, but its presence at least can make us try.
By comparison, when it comes to motivating teachers, the commercial model offers nothing. The emptiness of management jargon, applied to traditional moral concepts, is nowhere more apparent than in the ubiquity of the word “leadership.” Once upon a time it was something that was considered a duty, an accompaniment of privilege. Now, Deresiewicz writes, it’s little more than “an empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods.”
Like so many other ideals of the meritocracy (“innovation,” “creativity,” “disruption”), indeed like the meritocrats themselves, “leadership” lacks content. And where content is absent, power pours in. We are left with Mark Edmundson’s witty summation, quoted by Deresiewicz: a leader is “someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge.”

As often happens it was one of the discussants who led me in the most interesting direction – simply referring us to a book written in 1944 I had never heard of – The Abolition of Man – penned however by a very well-known figure CS Lewis. The argument of the (short) book is summarised here – and the full version can actually be downloaded here. Amazingly the book seems to anticipate the threat which the “anything goes” strand of post-modernism would bring (what I have taken to calling - the “whatever” response
It seems that Lewis (father of Daniel D) took this so seriously that he wrote a dystopian novel about it – That Hideous Strength whose plot is summarised in great detail here; serialised here; and available (courtesy of Gutenberg) in entirety here

Now I have to find the time (and inclination) to read the 2 books…..

The painting is one of three I bought this week at one of the small galleries underneath the Military Club....by a great book illustrator Alex Ivanov.....

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