UD in the Wall Street Journal

For those collecting UD‘s press clippings, here she is back in 2009 (I hadn’t seen it; UD thanks Shane for telling her about it) playing a condescending liberal in the Wall Street Journal.

What’s funny about the UD excerpt the author cites as evidence of liberal snobbery is that it’s an extremely close paraphrase of something his hero, Allan Bloom, wrote in the chapter Students, from The Closing of the American Mind. In fact, all over that book Bloom writes exactly what UD wrote – that a liberal arts education is high culture’s one big chance to catch you and save you from narrow provincialism.

Like UD, Bloom was attacking there not “an American upbringing,” as the author of the Wall Street Journal article claims, but any upbringing hampered by provinciality… which is to say almost any upbringing anywhere in the world at any time. Education is an obvious good, Bloom and I are claiming, because it offers to lead you out, into a larger world, from where you rather arbitrarily began.

In no way does education want to make you reject your roots or feel contempt for the smaller world in which you inevitably grew up. It wants to introduce you to a larger one.


I mean, look at old UD, reviler of American roots. Look closely. Do you live three doors down from the house you grew up in? UD does.

Now look at Sarah Palin, the WSJ writer’s home and hearth American roots heroine, preparing to move to … Scottsdale? What the fuck is she doing buying a house in go-go new-town Scottsdale? (Her daughter’s also bought a place in Arizona.) Doesn’t she share UD‘s love of her own deep American roots?

It’s just as stupid for the WSJ writer to conflate cultural broadening with anti-American snobbery as it is for UD to conflate buying a second home a great distance from your “rooted” home with a betrayal of your roots.

In fact Bloom’s famous book is largely about questioning roots. It’s about asking whether everything about the “American upbringing” the WSJ writer uncritically invokes is an obvious good. Bloom’s autobiographical essay in Closing, in which he recalls his amazement and excitement at seeing the University of Chicago for the first time, is moving precisely because, like so many writers of autobiographies on the verge of university, he is recording the moment when he glimpsed in himself the possibility of profound self-transformation – aesthetic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual broadening – through a serious liberal arts education.

Bloom is absolutely right that although life may provide other broadening experiences – travel, etc. – nothing is like the (to varying degrees at different schools) coherent four-year curricular discipline of the liberal arts degree. Nothing is like encountering professors who … well, remember, for instance, what Tony Judt wrote in his autobiography about the professor who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

Judt’s provincialism was Marxism; the university introduced him to a person able and willing to go back and forth and back and forth on the subject with seriousness and with respect for Judt in order to transform him. Liberal education takes a certain setting; it takes a certain patience; it takes a lot of seriousness. It has nothing at all to do with snobbery or condescension. In fact it is the opposite of those.

Who says there’s nothing you can do with an English degree?

General Dempsey, 59, earned a master’s degree from Duke University – in English

So if you’ll just let her keep doing it for another year, she’ll be able to do it with a BA.

[Amanda Busch is] accused of stealing more than $70,000 in jewelry and currency from a [Cincinnati] home

… Busch, 27, also confessed to breaking into two other homes – one on Nov. 7 and the other on Nov. 12 – though police suspect she is involved in more area burglaries.

… Busch’s attorney Rich Vande Ryt said his client has just one more year to go before getting her college degree at University of Cincinnati.

As we follow the super-sordid for-profit online …

universities, we should remind ourselves that there’s a whole other world of legitimate education out there, one which students are more and more ably defending.

Here, in an opinion piece titled Fordham Rightly Resists Offering Online Classes, a Fordham student gets it said. His writing’s a bit awkward, but he gets it said. Excerpts:

… The foundations on which Jesuit universities, particularly Fordham, have been built upon are not in accordance with online courses. Though it may be convenient for students, it does not provide the degree of education we are paying for. The realm of learning and studying is completely altered under these conditions, with a less hands on approach.

If Fordham were to offer online courses, its credibility in teaching would be strongly questioned. Even if a student was able to get beyond the idea of no personal interaction with professors and no thought-provoking ideas of classmates, there is still no guarantee that the quality of education in the online classes will be up to par with that which Fordham instills.

… Sure, online classes can reach a larger amount [should be number] of people, especially those looking to attend part time. This, however, compromises the integrity of the order devoted to education by lacking a creation of relationships and the true development of the whole person that cura personalis stands on…

Serious, legitimate education isn’t just for Jesuits.

“A terrible absence of mind…”

In the Guardian, a philosophy professor distinguishes between training and higher education.

Instruction leaves a person trained and better informed – but otherwise unaltered. To stand at the threshold of an education, by contrast, is to stand poised before the possibility of an achieved formation and temper of mind which widens perspectives and matures the power of critical judgment. It is this that we commend when we commend education for itself. To be educated is to stand in a critical and creative relationship to ideas, crucially through contact with teachers, who exemplify in their words and demeanour the life of the mind.

If a university has a soul it is to be found here, in the engagement of teachers with their students, in the critical transmission of ideas, including ideas about human nature, that their students have to struggle with and grasp, a struggle that shapes their souls. But this education is becoming more fugitive and teachers less available through a terrible absence of mind, as the ideas that inform the policy and practice of universities slowly eat into their soul.

Nicely written, and an echo of everything etched on UD‘s template lo these many years… Yet these arguments are difficult to make, vocational training being a straightforward thing, and soulful alteration elusive.

I mean, here’s the deal on soulful alteration:

Not everyone wants it. It sounds weird, intrusive, unpleasant. Plenty of people want to go to football games and learn accounting, and professors aren’t proselytizers. If you don’t want UD to muss your soul, fine.

And don’t tell me that because you teach geology you’re not about the soul. Geology is full of ideas having to do with environmentalism, religious history, evolution, aesthetics, and is an important part of the widened perspectives about which the Guardian columnist writes …

2.) Not everyone has enough soul for me to work with. Soul here suggests a reasonably rich internal life capable of being made richer. If you’re a total product of visual culture, if you don’t even have your own masturbatory fantasies in your own head —

The answer for this cross-species difference, I’m convinced, lies in our uniquely evolved mental representational abilities—we alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads … internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities. One early sex researcher, Wilhelm Stekel, described masturbation fantasies as a kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, “a sort of intoxication or ecstasy, during which the current moment disappears and the forbidden fantasy alone reigns supreme.”

— if you can’t even do that much by way of readying yourself for a seminar in the short story, I’m not sure we can work with you.

[I]n a world where sexual fantasy in the form of mental representation has become obsolete, where hallucinatory images of dancing genitalia, lusty lesbians and sadomasochistic strangers have been replaced by a veritable online smorgasbord of real people doing things our grandparents couldn’t have dreamt up even in their wettest of dreams, where randy teenagers no longer close their eyes and lose themselves to the oblivion and bliss but instead crack open their thousand-dollar laptops and conjure up a real live porn actress, what, in a general sense, are the consequences of liquidating our erotic mental representational skills for our species’ sexuality? Is the next generation going to be so intellectually lazy in their sexual fantasies that their creativity in other domains is also affected?

Teaching basic erotic mental representational skills? Not my job, man.

And oh, 3.): Do you think teaching people desouled by image-life is best done via PowerPoint? Huh? Yes, throw more images at them! That’s the ticket! And smile when they bring their laptops to class…

When even professors can’t form, or convey, mental representations, the theater-like head has gone dark.

Thanks to Three Generous UD Readers…

… who regularly link me to items of interest, I’ve got three things — a poem, and two opinion pieces — rattling around my headlet this morning. They all seem to have to do with the humanities, defense of. Let us see if we can organize them in order to make a point or two.

First, here are the items:

1.) A David Brooks column in today’s New York Times.

2.) A Stanley Fish column in the same newspaper.

A poem by Delmore Schwartz called The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.


Brooks wants to “stand up for the history, English and art classes,” even though few students are interested in taking them. (Students only get excited about econ and related fields that will make them rich.) The Brooks defense of the humanities rests on this:

… Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.

… Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

… If you’re dumb about The Big Shaggy, you’ll probably get eaten by it.

Here we get the humanities as cautionary tale. Know thyself. If you don’t, you’ll make terrible mistakes in life.

Brooks cites a couple of recent, representative mistake-makers: “[A] governor of South Carolina [who] suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or …a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana [who] risks everything for an in-office affair.”

Who says these were mistakes? Maybe they were true love for all Brooks knows. Was the Tipper/Al marriage a mistake? It failed. Did it fail because they failed to understand the big shaggy?

UD doubts this. She proposes that the Gores understand the big shaggy pretty well.


We all know people with very highly educated emotional knowledge who are fuckups.

We’re all fuckups of one sort or another, no?

So what if he has led a stupid life? Anyone with any brains knows that he is leading a stupid life even while he is leading it. Anyone with any brains understands that he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind.

Go ahead and disagree with this statement from Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth. I’ll press on.

Here is a comment from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst: “There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. …[T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.”

I mean, this is your emotional knowledge, no? Part of it? Not that you won’t get eaten by the big shaggy, but that you won’t be entirely assimilated into it when it starts chomping? That you might get a little leverage over it, eventually?

In his defense of the humanities, Fish cites Martha Nussbaum.

[Nussbaum writes that] “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”

Here we shift to a humanities defense based not on mental health, but on civic health.

Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.

Nussbaum, like Brooks, defends the humanities as a force toward the creation of an organized and critical mind. I’m with them on this, although I think that some science and social science courses do the same thing. But as with the humanities as a pipeline to better mental health, I’m less convinced by the argument that a deep knowledge of Henry James will make you anything as grand as an intelligent world citizen. I think it’s liable to make you more tolerant and less provincial, because it will make you feel the vulnerability, variety, and complexity of human beings. But I also think that a true immersion into the humanities will make you very cautious about making big claims about outcomes. Many of the meanings we derive from deep humanistic study, after all, are quite disturbing, and even demoralizing.

Remember what William Arrowsmith wrote (I’ve already quoted him on this blog):

[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship… [The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

Note that Arrowsmith’s understanding of the humanities is far more modest than that of Brooks or Nussbaum. For him, a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos (this chaos is what Roth calls stupidity, and Phillips recalcitrance). The form and order of a great poem or a beautiful argument, we come to understand, suffer into being, emerge from the chaos of another consciousness. Which is to say that these accomplished objects, these solid touchstones, are not touchstones at all, but fragile occasional formal gatherings… The form and the order of literature and philosophy, in other words, can be thought of as a thin crust lying atop a deep fault line. We value many literary works precisely to the extent that they manifest the fault, the underlying chaos.

I’ll turn to the Schwartz poem in a moment. Time to post this.


A Princeton student reckons with the absence of intellectual exchange on campus.

… [O]ur biggest barrier to having these conversations is an unnecessarily compelling desire to be politically correct. We place a great deal of emphasis on being open to other cultural experiences, religious practices, ideals, opinions and principles. This is, of course, a good thing — but in moderation.

Let me explain what I mean by an intellectual conversation. It is not simply the transfer of interesting or unusual pieces of information between two or more people. It is the exchanging of ideas; then, the exchanging of opinions on those ideas; then, suggestions for how those ideas could be edited and improved upon; and finally, either a resultant conclusion, or a respectful decision to disagree that comes after having considered the other’s side thoroughly.

I recently participated in an event called “Speed Faithing” organized by the Religious Life Council, designed to provide a five-minute introduction to different faiths. Zoroastrian funeral rites are one of the more contentious aspects of my faith. Our bodies are disposed of in what we call “Towers of Silence” to either be eaten by carrion or to decay naturally. A friend later approached me and asked, quite succinctly, “I mean, aren’t you scared? Don’t you find it a little — weird?” It doesn’t matter that this could have been interpreted as offensive. If he hadn’t asked, I would not have been able to explain that it comes from a desire to perform “a last act of charity” and to avoid polluting the elements. He would have continued to regard me as mildly eccentric at best (and, dare I say it, barbaric at worst). There would have been no intellectual exchange.

If we are too politically correct in our interactions with each other, we will not push each other hard enough, and we will not ask the right questions, for fear of offending. Listening to a Muslim friend tell you that she wears a burqa at home is not an intellectual conversation, even if the narration itself is interesting. Asking her what she thinks of France’s ban on the garment; asking her whether she wears it because of a personal preference or because of pressure from her family; asking her what her take is on the sexist connotation that some attach to the wearing of it — these would be…

Information delivery systems vs. making sense of reality

… The Nuffield Review report is the biggest independent analysis of education for those aged 14 to 19 in fifty years, taking six years to complete. It was led by Professor Richard Pring and Dr Geoff Hayward, from Oxford, and professors from the Institute of Education and Cardiff University.

… The report says: “The increased central control of education brings with it the need for a management perspective, and language of performance management — for example, levers and drivers of change, and public service agreements as a basis of funding. The consumer or client replaces the learner. The curriculum is delivered. Stakeholders shape the aims. Aims are spelt out in terms of targets. Audits measure success defined in terms of hitting targets. Cuts in resources are euphemistically called ‘efficiency gains’. Education becomes that package of activities (or inputs) largely determined by government.”

It adds: “As the language of performance and management has advanced, so we have lost a language of education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of questions, of trying to make sense of reality, of seeking understanding, of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human.”

Professor Pring told The Times that policy language was “leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and impoverishment of learning”. He added: “We are losing the tradition of teachers being curriculum directors and developers — instead they’re curriculum deliverers. It’s almost as though they have little robots in front of them and they have to fill their minds, rather than engage with them.” …

The Times of London

James Frey was…

… only the beginning for Oprah. Misleading millions of people with patent bullshit is what she does for a living.

[Oprah] Winfrey allowed a physician called Christiane Northrup to claim – in contradiction to almost all scientific evidence – that “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region [after] a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say”.

“Your father…”

… said my aunt, “became more and more preoccupied with Big Bang-type questions as he got older.  Why is there something?  What is nothing?  A colleague of his at NIH was a religious Jew, and your father respected this man, and they had long conversations about belief…”

For most of his life, I guess my father had, along with his faith in science, what Richard Rorty means by a religion of art.  My father’s two cultures were empirical clarity and aesthetic mystery.

Friedrich von Schelling calls beauty “infinity represented in a finite way.”  I suppose my father’s yearnings toward the infinite were no different from anyone else’s.  They might have been more intense than other people’s.  After all, if he were here he’d probably remind me that the realm of science contains its own soul-enthralling depths.

Given his family background, though, science would always be the great liberation for him, making it impossible for him to invest his yearnings in any creed.


Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton’s book about religion, and he quotes Eagleton:

What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women? … [Religion’s] subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.

Like Christopher Lasch toward the end of his life, Eagleton represents a man of the left for whom one particular symbolic form — progress, liberal enlightenment — has failed in its promise to encompass human yearnings. What Fish calls “the tragedy and pain of the human condition,” and humanity’s yearning for “a transfigured future” (the phrase is Eagleton’s), is far more compelling to Eagleton at this point than political, as well as scientific, efforts to relieve our pain.


Update, correction:

A blog is a beautiful thing. I just received an email from a reader in response to my tale of the Czech Torah. The email’s titled They Weren’t Unburied Torahs, and it includes an attachment titled Memorial Scrolls Trust, Westminster Synagogue, Kent House, Rutland Gardens, London.

… Fearful that the deserted synagogues and community buildings would be at the mercy of looters and plunderers, a group of Jews at the Jewish Museum in occupied Prague submitted a plan to the Nazis to save the Jewish ritual and cultural treasures in the vulnerable buildings by bringing them to the museum in Prague so that they could be catalogued and preserved. Why their Nazi overseers accepted the plan is not known. The result was that the Nazi controlled Prague Jewish Community sent out the orders that implemented the plan and permitted the transport companies to carry Jewish goods. With a few exceptions, the Torah Scrolls, other liturgical treasures in gold and silver and ritual textiles were sent to Prague, along with historic archives and thousands of books. The remaining Jews were deported in 1943, 1944 and 1945, and quite a number of these late deportees survived.

… [I]n 1956, the Michle Synagogue, in the suburbs of Prague, became the warehouse at which the hundreds of Torah Scrolls were consolidated from various locations. They had come from the large Prague Jewish community and from the many smaller communities that were scattered across what was left of Bohemia and Moravia, after the Sudetenland had been detached. The Scrolls in the Michle Synagogue did not include Scrolls from Slovakia, which was under a separate administration.

… Eric Estorick, an American art dealer living in London, paid many visits to Prague on business in the early 1960’s and got to know Prague artists, whose work he sold at his Grosvenor Gallery. Being a frequent visitor to Prague, he came to the attention of the authorities, and, on a visit in 1963 he expressed some interest in a catalogue of Hebraica. He was approached by officials from Artia, the state corporation responsible for trade in works of art, and asked if he would be interested in buying some Torah Scrolls.

Unknown to him, the Israelis had been approached previously with a similar offer, but the negotiations had come to nothing. Estorick was taken to the Michle Synagogue were he was faced with wooden racks holding about 1800 Scrolls, in seriously damp conditions. He was asked if he wanted to make an offer. He replied that he knew certain parties in London who might be interested.

On his return to London, he contacted a fellow American, Rabbi Harold Reinhart, of the Westminster Synagogue, one of whose congregants, Ralph Yablon, offered to put up the money to buy the Scrolls. First, Chimen Abramsky, who was to become Professor of Hebrew Studies at the University of London, was asked to go to Prague for twelve days in November 1963 to examine the Scrolls and to report on their authenticity and condition. On his return to London, it was decided that Estorick should go to Prague and negotiate a deal, which he did. Two trucks laden with 1564 Scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in February and March 1964.

After months of sorting, examining and cataloguing each Scroll, the task of distributing them began, with the aim of getting the Scrolls back into the life of Jewish congregations across the world. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to carry out this task.

UD‘s enormously grateful to her reader for this information.

When UD thinks about the fact…

… that today’s the fiftieth anniversity of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures essay, she thinks first about her father.

An immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, a first-generation American embarrassed by the peasant religion his Jewish father brought from Minsk, Herbert Rapp was a belligerent empiricist.

While UD‘s mother – herself the daughter of secular Jews in the same generationally rebellious mode as UD‘s father – retained enough faith to send her children to a Reform temple in Bethesda for a few years, UD‘s father was much the stronger influence on UD.

This was in part because of his clear, principled world view, in contrast to his wife’s vague sentimentalism, but it also had to do with the soullessness of that particular temple, a hip epicenter of social justice. (I called my mother’s sister and asked her about it. “That place? The rabbi didn’t believe in God.”)

Once, my mother and my aunt, in memory of their father, decided to buy a Torah for the synagogue. The rabbi told them about some recently unearthed Czech Torahs that had been buried for safekeeping during the war.

“Your mother,” said my aunt, “went to the airport to pick it up when it came in. The next day we took it to the rabbi. He said ‘You didn’t have to bring it in so fast. You could have kept it in your home for awhile.’ Your mother said, ‘No. I didn’t like the ghosts.’ The rabbi looked at both of us and said ‘You’re pagans.'”

I have a memory – who knows if the memory is real – of my father, with great reluctance, attending the installation ceremony at the temple. As the new Torah was carried joyously through the congregation, the person holding it stopped in front of my father, assuming he in particular — after all, his family bought it — would want to kiss it. My father stood stolid and unmoving. (“I don’t remember the ceremony,” says my aunt.)

Yet he didn’t have the materialist disposition you’d think might accompany all this. He was mad for the Romantic poets, and he liked to recite T.S. Eliot. My mother says she fell in love with him because of the classical music she heard pouring out of his frat room at Johns Hopkins. He was a serious and emotional pianist who spent much of his time playing and replaying the Sonata Pathétique.  He loved nature intensely — in particular, the Chesapeake Bay, where he had a house and a boat.


End of first half.  Must walk dog.  It’s high noon, and even though it’s dreary out there, I guess this is as light and warm as it’s going to get.  Ne quittez pas.

Worrying About the Humanities…

… in the New York Times.

Not really enough meat in the article for UD to chew on, but maybe you’ll find something.

The Closing of the American Professor

Worry about your obsolescence (if you’re a humanities professor) here.


I had an incorrect link earlier this morning. Many thanks to Barb, a reader, for pointing it out.

« Previous Page

Latest UD posts at IHE