University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

We raced through...

...the gorgeous early evening, early spring streets of Washington, and got to the Warner Theater just in time to stand and sing the National Anthem. The chair of the NEH introduced the event, heaping praise on Harvey Mansfield and saluting Lynn Cheney, who sat a few rows in front of us.

The Warner Theater is a dark dusty DC space with brooding ceilings and heavy curtains along its walls. You feel, at the Warner, as if you're sitting inside a low-wattage Tiffany lamp. I surveyed the crowd, which seemed mainly young people outfitted in the dull suits they wore to their federal government day jobs, and I tried not to hear the chair's litany of cliches... meaningful dialogue... civic health...

He reminded us that the Jefferson Lecture is the "highest honor the federal government bestows in the humanities," and called Mansfield a worthy recipient, with his extensive scholarship, his "outspoken defense of standards in higher education," and his "eloquent criticism of faddishness and triviality in our schools." When he mentioned Mansfield's well-known attacks on grade inflation, the audience burst into applause.

Mansfield, rather like last year's lecturer, Tom Wolfe, is a natty and extremely well-preserved old guy with a mellifluous voice and an ingratiating manner. A full head of hair past seventy appears to be one of the selection requirements, as both Mansfield and Wolfe have this remarkable attribute. Both men, too, are adorably vain, aware of their charm, good looks, and mild roguishness.

Indeed both men chose the same subject: the human quest for status. [See UD's remarks on Wolfe's discussion of the subject here.] Wolfe's speech was a mess, but Mansfield's had a clarity and a structural integrity that allowed his argument to emerge clearly. What fiction offers, Wolfe and Mansfield suggest, is what science lacks: the particularity of individual human beings as they go about asserting their importance in the world. The hard and social sciences offer us universal propositions based on survey research about us in the aggregate. But "we don't live in abstraction," said Mansfield. "All human life takes place in an atmosphere of proper nouns."

Psychology - another social science - has reduced the soul to the self: "The self is a simplification of the notion of soul. The self is meant to be used by psychology, which wants you simply to be happy." But you, with a sense of your self-importance, want a good deal more than that -- you want honor, respect, equal rights. You want the freedom to pursue grand worldly and personal ambitions.

You enter the political fray, perhaps, because you've been angered by some felt absence of those goods in your life. (Or the life of others? Mansfield said nothing about altruism - One's desire to be politically or socially active not on behalf of one's own sense of self-importance, but on behalf of others whose importance is denied.) The ideal life dedicates itself to the assertion of this sense of the self's importance: "It is up to you to improve your life by insisting that it is important, by having an ambition toward greatness."

Most people, though, prefer to rest in "safe niches." They are like "tenured professors, willing to settle for less." Full expression of your self-importance calls for "nerve, which is not often found at universities." [UD enjoyed these digs at professors and universities.]

My problem with Mansfield's talk is that it reiterated an important and well-known truth -- fictive truths are as crucial to our self-understanding as empirical truths -- without doing anything new with it. The speech was a kind of "two cultures" soft shoe, reminding us for the hundredth time that the hard sciences cannot do without the soft.