Two (almost) dead horses at once: the humanities establishment and Obama’s mis- and un-educated view of his responsibilities from The New Criterion,, which can get cranky but isn’t wrong: Instapundit links Mark Bauerlain’s “Humanities”. Flog away he does, but that’s because dead or not establishment academics still educate the next generation and even now some see Obama as a defender of art and light.
The tools of the humanities trade were chucked & replaced with social science in the last decades; one purpose was to expand the canon. Without those tools, as one Bauerlain commentor observes, evaluation can not be thoughtful nor analytic. The very art with which these critics wanted to enlarge the canon was analyzed and judged by criteria that cheapened, made art less universal, less purposeful.
For instance, it brought in popular works not considered art in, say, the fifties. Those old tools helped us appreciate them. But as critics began using social science theories, they flattened art, devaluing great art but also the art they “found” in best seller lists.
This may not be surprising, since these theorists diminish the role of human nature. Why not, then, ignore the power of man’s greatest and most purposeful work that reaches across centuries – even millennia – to touch us? Contemporary ideology & insularity cannot appreciate its ability to delight us, help us understand ourselves. But to some we have no selves – only group identities.
17 thoughts on “The New Criterion’s Crankiness is Well Founded”
“even now some (academics) see Obama as a defender of art and light”
I think a lot of academics voted for Obama because of their sense that he respects what they do, while Republicans (they believe) do not. Parallel to small businesspeople who voted against Obama because of their sense that he disrespects what they do (and he does), but Republicans respect their work or at least pretend to.
Actually, I’m pretty sure that Obama feels great contempt for the average college professor, just as he feels great contempt for just about everybody…exceptions for high-profile Ivy League professors who are involved in “policy.”
Can anyone seriously imaging Obama devoting his life to scholarship and teaching, without pursuing adulation other than among his students?
I took an art history class in school, taught by a man with a PhD in fine art and practiced as a sculptor. We covered art and architecture from prehistoric through Egyptian and Greek, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and on through Modernism.
One thing we did was try to define art. The definition we were led to was that it is a human created medium of communication. That was about the only thing that covered it all and I think it makes a pretty good definition.
We then tried to define great art and important art. Important art was defined as any that pioneers a new form or technique. Great art was harder to define, and more controversial. For that, we ended by defining it as any that timelessly communicates an idea, ideal or emotion.
As close as we ever got to politics was his explaining the political messages in some of the paintings of the Dutch Masters. Flanders was caught between warring French and Spanish kingdoms and was constantly being capture by one or the other. A map hanging on the wall with the borders of Flanders outlined and a Flemish flag in a stand were considered blatant political messages to the contemporary audience, but are invisible to modern eyes.
So all is not lost. There are still teachers doing their jobs, and doing them well.
It is odd to me how it is just taken for granted in the New Criterion article that classics should have such an important totemic status. I do agree with the related point that they are a better candidate for totemic status than most of the claptrap this is being given totemic status in their place, but by doing so I am damning with faint praise. And while just granting that related point does make many of the paragraphs of the article make sense, it doesn’t really make the entire article make sense.
It isn’t obvious that we need very many people who are deep in Milton or baroque architecture. It isn’t even entirely obvious we need people who know who Shakespeare was, although like CP Snow in _The Two Cultures_, I am uneasy about college graduates ignorant of Shakespeare or the second law of thermodynamics. There are some who are sincerely very interested, and that’s fine, and indeed probably good, but it’s not a supremely important good: if a cosmic accident replaced 90% of them with people who are sincerely very interested in radio-controlled aircraft contests, amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, small-boat sailing, and running marathons, it might not be a step in the wrong direction. (One thing those activities have in common is actually making something work in the real world. That tends to teaches you a lot, through things you expect to encounter, through things you stumble over, and through your interactions with other people under pressure to make those things work in the real world, through your observations of what kinds of people are capable of making things work in the real world… It is a problem that many of our politicians and intellectuals have not been taught these things very well.)
More than 25% classics seems likely to be frivolous posing for fashionable status (plus the occasional person who truly is sincerely unusually interested in something obscure). It seems to be implicit in this article that no, it is not frivolous posing, instead it is unquestionably a deeply good thing. I just don’t get that. I’d be considerably more impressed with someone whose college curriculum was perhaps 15% classics (preferably not just history of aesthetics, but with a large fraction of history of ideas — not just Homer and Pope, but Plato and Cato and Galileo and Locke), 25% serious history and that subset of social science that we understand with high confidence (esp. microeconomics and some fraction of psychology), 20% as much fluency in one foreign language as could be achieved with that time investment, 25% textbook STEM with a particular emphasis on reaching useful levels of competence with simple statistics and/or simple programming, and 15% academic lab courses or real-world internships in something involving things not just words and opinions. (And squeeze all those percentages a bit smaller if necessary to leave space for belatedly teaching the college student how to write. And please don’t get me started on having to teach college students how to read…)
…if a cosmic accident replaced 90% of them with people who are sincerely very interested in radio-controlled aircraft contests, amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, small-boat sailing, and running marathons, it might not be a step in the wrong direction. (One thing those activities have in common is actually making something work in the real world. That tends to teaches you a lot, through things you expect to encounter, through things you stumble over, and through your interactions with other people under pressure to make those things work in the real world, through your observations of what kinds of people are capable of making things work in the real world… It is a problem that many of our politicians and intellectuals have not been taught these things very well.)
This is a great comment, thanks.
Time in college is always going to be tight if you have to devote some of it to teaching stuff that should have been covered at school.
I think there is much to be said for Michael Hammer’s proposal: that the best undergraduate education for an aspiring executive would be a double major, in one hard science/engineering subject, and one rigorous humanities major. For example, mechanical engineering and medieval history. He explains his reasoning in passages I excerpted here:
re “making something work in the real world”….Gerhard Neumann, who started out as an apprentice in a German auto shop and wound up running GE’s jet engine business (which he played a major part in creating) wrote in his memoir about the benefits he believed were gained from the German practice of requiring hands-on experience as an apprentice before entering engineering school.
I *believe* this is still the case in Germany….can anyone confirm or disconfirm this?
There’s a wonderful moment in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography when he describes the effect of reading – in his case he learned to read using The Columbian Orator, an anthology of works that, as our text puts it, are in the sentimental Scottish tradition (it was an old book even then, more 18th century than 19th).
He senses – feeling empowered – he is not alone. A friend described her passion for art history came from seeing how much early cave men struggled to produce their art – wanting to know more about what they clearly pursued with so much passion and how much, primitive in so many ways their art and their lives were, she understood them, felt a kinship with them. People need not come to this at a particular time or place (say a college at 18) in their lives, but it isn’t a bad place for that.
Of course, this can lead to exotic pursuits – an employee was not a better employee, though a more interesting one, because he had his Ph.D. in pre-Semitic languages. I respected his passion, though neither school loans nor increased wages should probably subsidize it. People younger and a good deal less educated than he earned a well-deserved more per hour at a fairly menial job. He may not have liked that; I’m sorry, perhaps, but in any sensible and equitable system that was the result.) And perhaps anyone pursuing such interests should have a broad enough education to understand such equity.
What you read makes a difference – those writers who influenced the founding fathers are a pretty good place to start. They do empower – they define themselves and their audience in ways that respect our (and their) frailties but also value the solutions and observations of the public.
I spent a good deal of my life pursuing such interests; my comparison is always with my brother who dropped out of college his first year. He has a 50-year and eminently happy marriage, has started factories and developed businesses that employ hundreds more than my little business. His life has been of more benefit in many ways to society, I wouldn’t argue that. Nor that he deserves the greater profit that has been his. But I don’t think I wasted those years in grad school nor the last twenty teaching English. What I like about the pragmatic, libertarian-influenced vision is that an open society allows for such diversity and allows each of us to grow in our own ways. A top-down one does not.
As the social sciences overtook lit crit, there seemed less a place for either my brother (business was seen from an increasingly Marxist perspective) nor me.
Foster’s posts often here synthesize the two worlds – worlds that often clashed in the past. I really appreciate that. The Scots understood it – respecting artisan & artist, author & printer.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure that Obama feels great contempt for the average college professor, just as he feels great contempt for just about everybody”
John “More Guns, Less Crime” Lott once told of what it was like to work with Obama at the University of Chicago. Doesn’t sound too pleasant.
His affection for constitutional limits, at least, seems limited. If you don’t like the subject nor your colleagues, teaching isn’t much fun.
I was working as an engineer, although without a degree, when I decided to go to medical school. I applied for a student loan (January 1960 when they were first available) and was told that pre-med as a major was not eligible. The loan office lady explained that most pre-med students didn’t get into medical school and were not considered worthy recipients for a National Defense Student Loan, as the program was named.
I left and walked around the block then returned to the financial aid office. The next lady asked my major and I answered, “English literature.” That was fine and I got my loan. I took my pre-med classes as electives while I majored in English Lit.
I thoroughly enjoyed it although I did run a risk of a low grade when I did not memorize the “Lucy poems” of Wordsworth.
Our exam required that I interpret
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
I failed as I had not memorized the poems. I wonder how many English majors today would pass that test. That was 1960 and I remember those lines. Fortunately, I did OK in the class but it was a scare.
I *believe* this is still the case in Germany….can anyone confirm or disconfirm this?
Yes it is. The mechanical Engineering students have to spend extensive time in a shop as part of their education. Sadly, they got this idea from studying American engineers in the late 19th century, who were usually guys who came up as mechanics.
How about non-mechanical fields?….do computer science degree candidates, for example, need to have work experience as programmers or system admiistrators? How about biosciences?
I really do not know about those fields. Maybe programmers have to work as hardware maintenance techs and bioscience types work as lab techs.
One of the young engineers hired here about 8 years ago is a mechanical engineer from Germany. He said he spent a couple of years working in a machine shop while going to school part time. You could not get into engineering school and stay there without doing this first.
For the computer-science student, the experience of writing programs that work and do useful things is analogous to doing an engineering apprenticeship in a machine shop or on a factory floor.
When I was getting my Mechanical Engineer degree once of our classes had quite a bit of shop time (we built a sterling engine). It was one of the more useful classes and we learned far more from the machinist in the shop then from the professor.
The German apprenticeship programs are commendable and are a really great way to train and educate for technical fields. However, the concept comes from their vocational training which is part of their three-tier educational system.
The system is very stringent when it comes to siphoning students into certain fields. In the early primary grades, they’re separated into different tracks that will determine where they end up in life. It can be said that the “earn as you learn” training is based a lot on the assumption that since you were a certain way at 10, this must be what you are capable of doing at 20.
It seems Germany, always good at trying to find more efficient ways of doing things, have over-engineered their schools in this case.
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