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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.

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2 Responses to ““A terrible absence of mind…””

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    The US and Britain (McGhee is at Liverpool) are facing similar issues, but we in the US have a surprising advantage: largely because of the importance of general education in undergraduate programs, American universities’ reputations are heavily based on the liberal arts (disproportionately, in terms of resources and degrees). Compare the much-maligned US News rankings with Britain’s disciplinary “league tables.”

  2. Michael McNabb, Attorney Says:

    For more on education v. vocational training and the priorities of a university see the video of the remarks of Eva von Dassow to the Regents of the University of Minnesota. See the July 27, 2010 post on University Diaries for a link to Inside Higher Education that includes the video.

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