Andrew Sullivan on Commentary Magazine.

Commentary is a propaganda sheet, directed, as degenerate movements often are, by a beneficiary of nepotism, in order to advance a moribund ideology and the interests of one faction in a foreign country. It’s an almost text-book case of intellectual decline and fall.

As recently as May, he gave remarks…

… at an all-Berlioz concert in his honor in San Antonio, where he had lived for many years.

Jacques Barzun is dead at 104.

Important Announcement from the Chief Academic Officer of Mississippi State University!

Read carefully, because there are many nuances.

Jurgen Habermas on the European Union

Habermas spells out precisely why he sees Europe as a project for civilization that must not be allowed to fail, and why the “global community” is not only feasible, but also necessary to reconcile democracy with capitalism. Otherwise, as he puts it, we run the risk of a kind of permanent state of emergency — otherwise the countries will simply be driven by the markets.

… [Why does Habermas take] the topic of Europe so personally[?]. It has to do with the evil Germany of yesteryear and the good Europe of tomorrow, with the transformation of past to future, with a continent that was once torn apart by guilt — and is now torn apart by debt.

“A stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

Paul Krugman says what UD‘s thought as she’s watched Newt Gingrich over many, many years.

Gingrich has the worst traits of the worst stereotypical professor: Vain, irritable, cynical, superior, verbally fat and polemically thin.

Yet stupid people read his fast-talking smooth-operator thing as smart; they think being a smug and dismissive know-it-all is what it means to be a smart person.


On the first – and last – day that Mr UD attended one particular graduate course offered by the University of Chicago, the professor cast his eye ’round the seminar table and began the semester with the following statement: “You’re looking at the world’s most distinguished living political philosopher.” That’s a stupid person’s idea of a smart person – farcical self-regard plus a James Deen-hard conviction that you’re right about everything.


UPDATE: This is what a smart person sounds like.

At a Natural Resources Committee hearing Friday on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) mistakenly addressed the professor as “Dr. Rice“ while calling his testimony ”garbage.”

Brinkley interrupted, saying: “It’s Dr. Brinkley, Rice is a university,“ and ”I know you went to Yuba [Community College in California] and couldn’t graduate — ”

Then it was Young’s turn to interrupt. “I’ll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair,” he told the witness. “You just be quiet.”

Brinkley countered: “You don’t own me. I pay your salary. I work for the private sector and you work for the taxpayer.”

I recognize that Brinkley looks pretty irritable and self-regarding in this exchange. But I’d like to suggest that there are good reasons for his insolence, having had his ideas called garbage by a congressional bully. Young insults not just Brinkley, but the entire discussion, calling it “futile.” He calls Brinkley an elitist when it is Young (“I’ll call you anything I want to call you…”) who’s the elitist throughout the exchange. Brinkley’s what a smart guy sounds like when he’s speaking truth back to power (“You just be quiet.” – Infantilizing power at that.). Brinkley is one of Paul Fussell’s X‘s – people “impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit.” Gingrich may share the insolence, but the rest of his list is very different.

Via David, a UD Reader:

This memory of Robert Wilson, a physicist who in 1969 testified, in front of a congressional committee, on behalf of a proposed particle accelerator.

[Senator John Pastore asked] Wilson — a veteran of the Manhattan Project — … “Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”

… “No sir, I don’t believe so.”

“Nothing at all?” Pastore asked.

“Nothing at all.”

Pastore pressed further: “It has no value in that respect?”

… “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

The incident introduces an essay in Scientific American about “the sheer joy of discovery, of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, as essential a component of the human spirit as the greatest works of art, of music, of literature.”

Life of the Mind, Florida.

[Florida legislator and Brevard County Community College lecturer Mike] Haridopolos got paid $154,000 [by the college] to write a book titled Florida Legislative History and Processes.

[T]he book is light on content, has errors and – are you ready for this – there is exactly one copy.

One copy.

Really. $154,000 for one copy.

No, he didn’t teach during that time. Too busy on the book.

Excerpts from the book here.

David Held, the London School of Economics, and the Gadhafis.

From The Daily Telegraph:

… The Gadhafis … ingratiated themselves into the upper echelons of British society, handily aided by Saif’s charm and the sage-like status apparently conferred by his [London School of Economics] doctorate.

… So successful was his adoption of British ways that he was lauded at the LSE by Professor David Held in a speech. It described his former student as: “Someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration.”

Now keen to prove that it is not as amorally venal as many suspect, the LSE has announced it will not take more of the $2.3 million pledged by Saif than the $472,800 it has already spent on its weighty purposes.

… [Perhaps] London’s …academic circles might be more fastidious … about consorting with such a grotesque as this ghastly murderous man.

Score One for…

no morality without religion.

The evolution of the university president.


(Headline, Pioneer Press, Minnesota.)

The politics of competitive parochialism…

… as Nina Martyris nicely calls it, in an article about censorship at an Indian university, always identifies intellectuality as the enemy. Reflective people who value unemotional deliberation and an openness to the complexity of human life and thought are intellectual snobs – as Michael Gerson calls President Obama in a recent opinion piece – unable to appreciate the higher wisdom of plain-spoken people. Gerson joins Sarah Palin here, who in her speeches relentlessly uses the word professor to condemn Obama.

In his response to the scandal of the University of Mumbai having dropped a novel from its syllabus in response to political pressure, the author of The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay reminds us that “it’s one thing to be scandalous but quite another to be scandalously stupid.” Stupid is influential people in the world’s largest democracy choosing repressive parochialism over free thought.

In response to Sarah Palin and Michael Gerson and others, who insist that a president who openly values ambiguity, intellectual depth, and the free play of the mind — a president who voices his belief that there are stronger and weaker uses of reason in thinking about civic life — threatens the country, Michael Kinsley writes:

If an intellectual snob is someone who secretly thinks he’s smarter than the average Joe, we’ve probably never had a president — even Harry Truman — who wasn’t one. It’s true, I think, that Obama hides it worse than most. But having a president who thinks he’s smart, and shows it, is a small price to pay for having a president who really is smart. Or would people really rather have a stupid president?


UD thanks Jack, a reader in Ontario.

Read All About It.

University of Chicago professor Robert B. Pippin, in the New York Times:

… [T]here is no particular reason to think that every aspect of the teaching of literature or film or art or all significant writing about the subject should be either an exemplification of how … a [particular] theory works or an introduction to what needs to be known in order to become a professor of such an enterprise.

… [L]iterature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language. This response can certainly be enriched by knowledge of context and history, but the objects express a first-person or subjective view of human concerns that is falsified if wholly transposed to a more “sideways on” or third person view. Indeed that is in a way the whole point of having the “arts.”

[S]uch works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge — exemplified in what Aristotle said about the practically wise man (the phronimos) or in what Pascal meant by the difference between l’espirit géometrique and l’espirit de finesse — is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy…

Last week, UD taught Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” in her aesthetics course; and readers familiar with that 1964 essay will recognize exactly the same argument, though the theories Sontag cites mid-century (Marxism, Freudianism) are different from those Pippin cites today (structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, new historicism).

She’s quite precise about the sort of ‘naive’ intellectual work we need.

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. On film, drama, and painting respectively, I can think of Erwin Panofsky’s essay, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” Northrop Frye’s essay “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres,” Pierre Francastel’s essay “The Destruction of a Plastic Space.” Roland Barthes’ book On Racine and his two essays on Robbe-Grillet are examples of formal analysis applied to the work of a single author. (The best essays in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, like “The Scar of Odysseus,” are also of this type.) An example of formal analysis applied simultaneously to genre and author is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov.”

Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.

Edward Frenkel…

… a mathematician at Berkeley, has made an intriguing short film, Rites of Love and Math. It’s based on “Rite of Love and Death” by Mishima.

It’s currently in competition at the Sitges Film Festival in Barcelona.

Frenkel kindly sent UD the film, and she watched it, together with the Mishima.

Both films seem to UD to want to think about our self-damaging pull toward pure truth and ultimate beauty. But while the lover in the Mishima film is happy to go with the loved one to a purer realm (both commit suicide), there’s none of that self-annihilating spirituality apparent in Frenkel’s film. It’s got the same stark intensity as the earlier film, but seems a cautionary tale: The pursuit of pure truth and ultimate beauty will destroy you, because once you discover it, everyone else’s passion for it will make you a marked man.

Whistle a Happy Tune

From Culture Kiosque:

The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera is a work-in-progress adopting the dramatic musical form to stage the major themes and philosophical insights of one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. In this adaption of Foucault´s great work, the philosopher will encounter one student, two rivals, and a sworn enemy — perhaps all of them are ghosts. Nothing less than a grand opera is required to stage the epochal theory of self-emancipation that is Michel Foucault´s unique legacy. The performance will be set against a backdrop drawn from Foucault´s biographical details; including his activism on behalf of prisoners´ rights, and his death from AIDS.

Intellectual Quotient

My definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.

It’s not clear, from Googling around, who originated this line, but I thought I’d use it to begin a kind of Part Two of my post the other day about the nature of a serious university education.

UD can’t listen to the Overture without thinking of a 1960 tv ad for Lark cigarettes. Have a Lark have a Lark have a Lark Lark Lark…


In an opinion piece titled “The Slow Death of the Intellect,” Jonathan Jansen, a South African professor, laments the absence of an intellectual culture at his country’s universities. He describes such a culture as featuring

critical activities (film, drama, seminars, special lectures, open debates, musical performance, architectural display, critical dialogues, scholarly book launches, thoughtful protests — more about this later — and speakers) that together act to encourage, excite and evoke thoughtful discussion and deliberation.

An intellectual culture in this sense is a felt experience, not localised events in isolated parts of that campus. It is not busyness but quality activities that breed curiosity, creativity and dissent.

“Felt experience” is I think the most important part of this — all of the critical activities share a certain characteristic seriousness and energy; they act together, as Jansen says, to provoke people’s curiosity about the world, to draw them into disciplined thought and discussion, and thus to create an environment of collective reflection.

You could think of it by invoking a couple of other statements about intellectuality, the first from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts live.

And the second from Jacob Bronowski:

To me, being an intellectual doesn’t mean knowing about intellectual issues; it means taking pleasure in them.

Making them live; taking pleasure in them; this is the felt experience Jansen’s getting at: A real university campus feels different from any other place because everywhere there’s a seductive, perceptible, pensive buzz. All around you, people are being changed by new thought, led forth, as the word educate has it, from wherever they were before they entered university culture.

Jensen notes the irony that apartheid, and the galvanizing, widely shared moral debate it generated, turns out in an odd sense to have been good for universities. Now, “with the anti-apartheid motif gone, there is no longer a higher appeal to organise, mobilise and cement intellectual cultures on campuses anywhere.” In its place, “creeping managerialism [has] turned the scholarship of teaching and inquiry into a parade of ‘measurable units’ used by university bureaucracies to satisfy the constant demands for numerical accountability.” Bad presidents, “ignorant of the purposes of the university and the threats to it,” have also done their bit.

Jansen goes on to propose reasonable and unsurprising changes — a new, rigorous liberal arts curriculum; a critical mass, on each campus, of intellectually serious professors who would organize seminars and invite speakers and do other things to energize moribund schools… But he knows the task is daunting, that “building cultures is not the same thing as changing a curriculum or erecting a new lecture hall.”

Indeed, “intellectual culture” will always be a rather inchoate idea; but we know of its intense attractiveness to people: Students at Harvard and Princeton routinely complain of its lack on their campuses, and they’re at two of the best universities in the world.

Clearly we’ve all got in mind here some sort of ideal, an entire way of life, a deep and rich existence, in which our minds and bodies and hearts and souls are constantly and delightedly roused by the pleasure of transformative thought.

UD thinks the heart of this ideal involves our conviction that when we’re thinking most excitedly and authentically, we’re actually feeling what it feels like to be free.

Come again?

Liberty, according to my metaphysics is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power.

John Adams seems to point here to the connection between the intensest moments of free inquiry in our lives (these moments take place for most of us during college) and the felt experience of personal and political freedom itself. At the heart of intellectual culture is the radically free exercise of the human mind. It is hard to think of a more seductive prospect.

Next Page »

Latest UD posts at IHE