Notes and Comment Blog


Eating Your Cake and Having It

Feb 26th, 2003 11:26 pm | By

There are some strange assumptions in this review of Adam Sutcliffe’s Judaism and the Enlightenment. For one thing there’s a confusion throughout between Jews and Judaism. For another and related thing, there is a confusion between Judaism as a religion and Jewishness as nationality or ‘ethnic’ ‘identity’. As a result, there is a confusion between criticising a religion and hating people or a people.

There is also a lot of familiar and none the less annoying sneering at the Enlightenment.

The British-born historian is not the first writer to knock Enlightenment thinkers off their pedestals. The period’s “dark side” has been a recurring theme for more than a century now. Critics (among them Friedrich Nietzsche, the Romantic poets, and Michel Foucault) have charged the Enlightenment as an accomplice to a range of crimes that include not only racism, sexism, and “phallologocentrism,” but also bureaucracy, technocracy, ecological devastation, Western imperialism — even fascism.

And that’s the end of it. Did the charges stick? Is the evidence any good? Are the witnesses reliable? Have those zany ‘Enlightenment thinkers’ actually been knocked off their pedestals, or is it just that people have been trying to shove them for a long time. (Not to mention the vagueness on the dates of the ‘Romantic poets’ and the silly gossippy ‘dark side’ business, and the question of what pedestals.) Postel doesn’t trouble to say; just announces the off-knocking and moves on. And ends up with this untrue bromide:

And the prospect of a world without myth is neither possible nor desirable, Mr. Sutcliffe argues: “We need both reason and myth.” The “mythic resilience” of Judaism calls attention to the limits of the Enlightenment. “Enlightenment fundamentalism,” Mr. Sutcliffe says, can distort our understanding of the Other, or that which we deem to be irrational. Mr. Sutcliffe thus sees his book as more than a contribution to intellectual history. It is also a philosophical argument, he says, a cautionary tale against what he calls “the seductions of rationalist absolutism.”

We need myth, do we. What then? Are those of us who become aware that the myths are in fact myths supposed to keep quiet about the fact, lest we fall into the dangerous embrace of ‘rationalist absolutism’? Are we supposed to lie? Cover up? And what does it even mean to say we need both reason and myth. What, one minute we believe Jesus walked on water and the next we don’t and the next we do again? Is it possible the two are not compatible? Unless we redefine myth so thoroughly that it no longer means what everyone takes it to mean, in which case we have what? A myth about myth? Unvacated pedestals, is what it looks like.



Are We Like Sheep

Feb 24th, 2003 11:55 pm | By

By way of addendum to my Note & Comment of yesterday, here is the essay ‘Dolly and the Cloth-heads’ that Richard Dawkins and others discussed on ‘Start the Week’. The subject is one that has interested and annoyed me for a long time. For instance when I read Stephen Jay Gould’s strange little book Rocks of Ages in which he, very oddly it seemed to me, simply took it for granted that the way to carve up the world between science and religion is that science should tell us the facts about the world and religion should tell us about morals. What a very peculiar assumption. Also a very common one, to be sure, but not well-founded; I don’t expect unexamined conventional wisdom from people like Gould. Why should religious people have a monopoly on moral issues? Indeed, why should they have any claim to expertise at all? Why are they not on the contrary disqualified, because they rely not on actually thinking about moral issues, but on authority. What good is that? Especially if you take a look at the authority in question. The Bible, for example: not entirely a paragon of ethical wisdom.

So Dawkins is not convinced of the utility of the ‘representatives’ of the various religious ‘traditions’ and the ‘voices’ from each ‘community,’ which all have to be heard lest any one feel slighted.

This has the incidental effect of multiplying the sheer number of people in the studio, with consequent consumption, if not waste, of time. It also, I believe, often has the effect of lowering the level of expertise and intelligence. This is only to be expected, given that these spokesmen are chosen not because of their own qualifications in the field, or as thinkers, but simply because they represent a particular section of the community.

He then goes on to suggest, daringly, that a certain minimum qualification in the brains department ought to be expected along with being a spokesman for a particular ‘tradition’ or ‘community’. It’s the kind of thing that ought to be blindingly obvious but of course is also the kind of thing that drives people into frenzies of irritation. Not us though.



Genes, Yanks, Ethics

Feb 23rd, 2003 5:09 pm | By

When I have an odd moment, or forty five of them, I listen to archived editions of BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. Yesterday I listened to this one from February 10, with Richard Dawkins and Janet Radcliffe Richards, as well as Robert Harvey and, finally extricated from a traffic jam, Andrew Roberts. This is a highly interesting show which touches on a number of issues we are interested in at B and W. Just for one thing, we get to hear Andrew Marr tell Richard Dawkins ‘You’re not a genetic determinist, are you,’ and Dawkins reply that he’s long been plugging that line: that the way we have evolved does not determine the way we have to be. The brain has evolved, he explains, to over-reach what the genes would want if genes could want anything. He cites contraception as the most obvious example of our doing what our genes wouldn’t ‘want’ us to do. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, he elaborates: it can be difficult to wean ourselves off things that have come to us from our Pleistocene past. In reply to a question from Robert Harvey, Dawkins draws a distinction between what Darwinism can tell us about what we ought to do, which is nothing, and where we get our ethical feelings, which is something. Janet Radcliffe Richards adds that a Darwinian understanding of where we get our ethical feelings tells us nothing about which ones we should follow, that’s an entirely separate question, and Dawkins says ‘Exactly’.

So: there you are then: Richard Dawkins is not a genetic determinist. So it’s time for people to stop calling him that.

The discussion then gets into the equally fascinating territory of why panels and committees that are convened to discuss ethical issues such as cloning always include religious figures. It’s not, Dawkins points out, because they’re especially good at reasoning or arguing, it’s not because they’ve earned a place in such discussions, it’s simply because they represent a tradition, and what an odd reason that is for including people. Indeed. There is also some rather painful chat about how weird Americans are, at which I burst into tears and sobbed ‘Not all of us!’ But I can hardly blame anyone for thinking so.



Down With Indifference

Feb 22nd, 2003 9:09 pm | By

There’s been an interesting convergence lately of worry about passion and its absence, detachment and its dangers, or on the other hand about the intrusiveness and intolerance of passion and engagement. The two stances – passion and dispassion – have been exemplified in two thinkers: Richard Dawkins and Louis Menand.

David Bromwich took Louis Menand to task in the New Republic in January for his lack of a ruling passion or driving enthusiasm, excitement or anger, for being too easily unimpressed, too cool, too responsible and distant.

The idea of a radical break in thought is alien to Menand. The leveling of distinctions also serves as an intellectual labor-saving device. Nothing is very new; nothing, maybe, ever was; nothing matters as much as you think it matters.

Then last week Leon Wieseltier renewed the charge, again in the New Republic. This time the subject was George Orwell, and an essay Menand wrote about him for the New Yorker. Wieseltier is far more indignant than Bromwich (in fact it would be an interesting exercise to set up a Passion-o-Meter for all the participants in this argument).

“We don’t live just by ideas,” he observes in his sedative way, as if anybody believes that we do live just by ideas. Of course, it is precisely because we don’t live just by ideas that we must live also by ideas; but I am getting heavy. Menand sneakily makes Orwell over in his own diffident, perspectivist, mildly anti-intellectual image, so as to relieve us of Orwell’s obligations.

It’s exhilarating to see all these middle-aged or elderly intellectuals speaking up for passion and extremism of opinion. But then we hear from a former Anglican bishop who reviews Richard Dawkins’ new book A Devil’s Chaplain in the Guardian. He makes a very interesting comparison between Dawkins and Darwin, comparing the latter to the polite tactful non-interventionist Anglican (this is an ex-bishop, remember) and Dawkins to the pesky intrusive intolerant Evangelical.

A friend of mine once remarked that he liked Anglicanism, because it didn’t interfere with your religion or politics, whereas Evangelicalism couldn’t leave anyone alone and meddled endlessly in people’s lives. If Darwin was a non-interventionist atheist, Dawkins is a great believer in the pre-emptive strike.

Well possibly, but then again it’s important to remember that Dawkins is a writer and teacher. They are supposed to intervene, that’s their job, that’s the even socially-approved work they do. Teachers are meddlesome and interventionist when they teach pre-literate children to read, too, and innumerate ones to do math, and ignorant ones history and biology and poetry. And a good thing too. Personally I’m with the old geezers speaking up for passion and excitement and commitment. Leave languid tolerance and not caring much to the young, they’re so much better at it.



Chaplains and Evangelists

Feb 16th, 2003 8:28 pm | By

So, we’re agreed then. Comfort and safety and enjoyment are not what’s needed, not unless one is ill or injured or a refugee from a war zone. We need our gadflies and lecturers and correctors and reformers, our troublers of the peace. We need our evangelists.

The Guardian has a review of Richard Dawkins’ new book, A Devil’s Chaplain, today. The reviewer (who, a correspondent tells me, used to be the bishop of Edinburgh) makes an interesting distinction between Darwin’s ‘classically Anglican’ atheism and the classically Evangelical variety Dawkins goes in for.

A friend of mine once remarked that he liked Anglicanism, because it didn’t interfere with your religion or politics, whereas Evangelicalism couldn’t leave anyone alone and meddled endlessly in people’s lives. If Darwin was a non-interventionist atheist, Dawkins is a great believer in the pre-emptive strike.

Well what else are teachers for? That’s their job, isn’t it, that’s what they do and what they’re supposed to do. Isn’t it? Not leaving people alone and meddling endlessly in the contents of their heads? Surely if one actually cares about politics and religion, ‘interfering with them’, i.e. arguing that there are better versions, is the logical thing to do. But then I’m an Evangelistic type myself, so I would think that.



Thorns, Ice, Danger

Feb 15th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

The article by Harvey Mansfield we linked to in today’s News section examines a number of ways students are coddled or spoiled or pampered at Mansfield’s Harvard, coddled rather than being challenged and stretched as he thinks they ought to be and as, surely, is the whole point of education. If we are all perfectly all right just as we are, what do we need education for at all? Decoration? A status symbol, a positional good, bragging rights? A pretext for playing football or getting drunk? An expensive way to postpone getting a job?

The article is accompanied by a colloquy which offers some hair-raising personal testimony on the subject.

A questionnaire I gave students in every class to test their general knowledge led to one minority student claiming that it made him “feel stupid.” I suggested that perhaps the student was reacting in an overly sensitive manner and was informed by the department chairman that there is no such thing as hypersensitivity. (I’m sure this will come as news to paranoid schizophrenics.)

A repeated theme is the idea of education as a consumer item. This is also the subject of an article in Harper’s from 1997 which points out the way student evaluations tend to make teachers want to please and entertain their students more than provoke or push them. The classroom becomes just one more stand-up routine, and students have a good time but are left as they are.

Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function — and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s — is to divert, entertain, and interest…I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says that she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind.

Just so. Enjoyment, pleasure, amusement, and especially ease, comfort, and self-satisfaction are all very well in their way, but they are not enough, and they are not what people need at age eighteen. Discomfort, agitation, fear, excitement, hunger, are what’s needed. Not soft pillows and fluffy blankets and a spot before the fire and a basin of Mr. Woodhouse’s nice thin gruel.



Sue the Teacher!

Feb 14th, 2003 7:08 pm | By

Education. It keeps coming back to that, doesn’t it. Especially education in the broadest sense, which emphatically includes self-education and education as an intrinsic good, along with institutional and instrumental education. Education, especially the institutional variety, can be where one gets infected with fashionable nonsense, but education, especially the intrinsic good variety, is also the way to inoculate against it, and the way to cure it once infected.

We posted a link a couple of weeks ago to a story about Michael Dini, a Texas biology professor who is being investigated by the US Justice Department for refusing to write recommendation letters for students who cannot affirm a scientific answer to the question of how the human species originated. Now we get to write a blog about a blog about a blog on the subject. (I wonder how many levels blogs can go. Infinite? Or only six billion or so.) The writer is Chris Mooney, who as he mentions here, wrote a piece for The American Prospect on the inadequacy of ‘Intelligent Design’ theory (a piece which, ever-alert, we linked to in early December). The core of this article is Mooney’s ‘I think higher education should challenge deeply held beliefs’ and Dini’s expansion on the same thought.

Nor is one guaranteed that his/her most cherished beliefs will go unchallenged. Indeed, many students find it difficult to communicate with friends and family after completing a college education because they no longer share the same beliefs and values. College has introduced them to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. For many, especially those raised by parents who were not college-educated, college is a time of “de-acculturation,” wherein one gives up the culture in which one was raised, and subsequent “re-acculturation” wherein one takes on a new culture. My hope for all of my students is that they will become acculturated in “the life of the mind.”

Of course, this is not what most people think college education is for. College education is vocational training, after which one will be able to get a job that pays better than flipping hamburgers, so that one can buy a Sport Utility Vehicle and intimidate everyone who is still stupid and poor enough to drive a smaller car or even walk. That’s what education is for. There are still some poor idealistic wretches who think otherwise, but a good lawsuit usually shuts them up. Mooney cites this discouraging article we just did a Note and Comment on yesterday, written by a classmate of his.

So which is it going to be? Education for the sake of critical thinking, and some understanding of why one believes what one does and whether one ought to go on believing it? Or education for the sake of Loadsa Money and an undisturbed set of evidence-free beliefs. Perhaps litigation will decide the question in the US.



Your Restriction is Their Freedom

Feb 13th, 2003 7:54 pm | By

This is a bottomlessly depressing story, which resonates with several other stories we’ve linked to over the past few months. This one about students who made death threats against a teacher being temporarily re-admitted to the school, for example, and this one from only three days ago, which reports that the Welsh teachers’ union is calling for new legislation after a student who actually did shoot a teacher, albeit with a ‘toy’ gun, was also readmitted. In the Welsh case, as the Guardian reported, ‘Headteacher Dr Michael Norton permanently excluded the pupil after the incident and was quickly backed up by his board of governors. But the boy’s parents appealed to an independent panel, which overturned the school’s decision and forced it to take him back.’ Hands up, prospective teachers who would like to go teach in that school! Or any school subject to that kind of second-guessing.

It was not one of Jesse Jackson’s finer moments, when he attempted to do the same thing – force the re-admission of students who had been suspended from school for fighting – in the autumn of 1999. Many people were bewildered at his sympathy for the fighters and lack of sympathy for students and teachers who would like to learn and teach in a violence-free zone. It was a simple fist fight, he said blithely. And the nonsense is not even confined to the Anglophone world: I saw a story on a French tv channel in November about teachers on strike in a provincial French town over exactly such an incident: student violence, expulsion, reinstatement. ‘These boys will now be heroes to the other students,’ a male teacher said passionately to the camera, ‘what sort of atmosphere is that going to create in our classrooms?’

But I doubt the French can match the level of muddle-headedness the Kaplowitz story reveals. I hope they still hang on to enough Gallic cynicism and irony and je ne sais quoi to insulate them from the bizarre priorities Kaplowitz encountered during his training.

But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training.

Alas, his story makes horribly clear that sensitivity was the last thing he needed. Stony indifference is probably the only quality that might have got him through his first year of ‘teaching’ unscathed.

Exiling my four worst students had produced a vast improvement in the conduct of the remainder of my class. But Ms. Savoy was adamant, insisting that the school district required me to teach all my children, all the time, in the “least restrictive” environment.

Oh yes. Least restrictive to whom? one wonders. Least restrictive to the students who want to wander around, assault other students, and make noise, which of course translates to very restrictive indeed to the students (the majority) who want to learn something. This is a large subject, and one we’ll be returning to on Butterflies and Wheels.



Watch

Feb 12th, 2003 6:01 pm | By

There is an argument in progress about America-hating among American academics. We’ve linked to a number of entries in this argument ourselves in the last couple of weeks. There is for instance Daphne Patai’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on accusations of attempted stifling of free speech by two Web sites, Campus Watch and No Indoctrination. There is Alan Wolfe’s review of several ‘American studies’ books in The New Republic. And today there is an article by Dave Johnson on the History News Network which examines the funding of conservative commentators and think tanks, including the above-mentioned Campus Watch. Johnson cites an article by Eric Foner and Glenda Gilmore also on History News Network, an article which does indeed express misgivings about ‘a broader trend among conservative commentators, who since September 11 have increasingly equated criticism of the Bush administration with lack of patriotism’.

Moreover, in equating opposition to government policies with hatred of our country, Pipes displays a deep hostility to the essence of a democratic polity: the right to dissent.

I certainly wouldn’t equate opposition to government policies with hatred of one’s country, to put it mildly. So who has it right? Is Patai right that the left only raises the free speech cry when its own ox is being gored? Are Foner and Gilmore right that it’s the other side doing the goring? And who is funding what and why? Maybe we need a Campus Watch Watch, and then a Campus Watch Watch Watch, and then–



Things Fall Apart

Feb 7th, 2003 4:47 pm | By

Well now…I must say, I’m a bit shocked. My comfortable certainties are all upset, what I thought I knew is sous rature, my binary oppositions are problematized, and things are just generally messed up. If the trendiest of trendy hippest of hippy French philosophers doesn’t like Seinfeld, well–well why bother, that’s all.

Earlier on in the film, an interviewer from South African television chooses to open her questions with a reference to Seinfeld : does Professor Derrida see any affinities between his thought and this ironic, situation comedy? Derrida’s eyes narrow. “Deconstruction as I understand it doesn’t produce any sit-com,” he says in English, audibly putting the last words into pointed italics. “Stop watching sit-com. And do your homework. And read.”

Read? Read? Can he be serious? Read instead of watching television? Do our homework instead of just sitting around being knowing? What the hell kind of injunction is that? What’s the matter with the guy? Has he come over all elitist and bourgeois and logocentric in his old age or what? And what’s with the scorn for darling sit-com? What’s up with that, huh? Sit-com is, like, the art form of the 21st century, doesn’t he know that? I think he needs to get out of Paris and smell the coffee.



Stop That This Instant!

Feb 4th, 2003 8:10 pm | By

Oh my. We are in Alice country. A principal tells a teacher off because her students were engaged in an activity other than…watching television.

Why, the little slackers! The naughty little skivers! What were they doing? Talking? Throwing spit balls? Composing new rap lyrics? Copulating? No. They were…it’s almost too painful to relate…they were reading.

Well. We don’t want that kind of thing in the American school system, thank you. That sort of behavior leads to literacy, and elitism, and intellectual curiosity, and wanting to know more about things like history and philosophy. We don’t want that, now do we, no, because we’re glad to be a Beta. So the principal took to spying on the teacher to make sure she wasn’t letting those children read during television period any more. It’s heartening to know the US school system has such dedicated professionals at the helm, isn’t it.



Not Just a Fashion Problem

Jan 29th, 2003 10:37 pm | By

This is a frustrating but typical article about psychoanalysis in the New York Times. It talks about the long time analysis takes and how expensive it tends to be, but entirely fails to address the very serious substantive questions there are about the scientific status of psychoanalysis: questions about evidence, falsifiability, and outright dishonesty on the part of Freud. The news seems still not to have reached the general public, including even the branch of it that writes for the newpapers, that psychoanalysis is not just out of fashion, not just not altogether cool anymore, but rather, largely considered a fraud by scientists in the field.

The article presents a false dichotomy throughout, between cheap and quick fixes on the one hand, and on the other, more profound, searching mental changes that psychoanalysis can offer. Not considered is the obvious possibility that any therapy that lasts for years and gives someone a chance to discuss her mind with an attentive listener would produce such changes. Not to mention what spending a similar small fortune on the right books might do.

At its best, Dr. Galatzer-Levy said, what analysis has to offer is change that is far deeper than what may be achieved in the 6 to 20 sessions of therapy covered by most insurance plans, change affecting ‘the way people think and feel about things, the way they act in the world.’

Certainly. But some of that change could be deep but in the wrong direction. And other, scientifically based forms of therapy, or simply some good hard thought, could produce equally deep change, and in less dubious directions. Freud was more than just a fad from last century, he was wrong. The word needs to get out.



Just Say No!

Jan 28th, 2003 5:53 pm | By

Since everybody and their dog seem to be sending me anti-war petitions, I thought I’d get in on the act.*

Dear Friend

As the world slides towards war in Iraq, we all feel at times as though we
are powerless. Well we are. But let’s just pretend for a minute that we’re
not. It will make us feel better, honestly.

No-one likes war, right? So we’d better oppose this one, right?

Please send this email on to everyone you know NOW!

STOP THE WAR IN IRAQ!

We, the undersigned, have no idea to whom this petition is being sent or how
seriously it will be taken. We don’t like the idea of war in Iraq and so are
prepared to say that we don’t, although we’re not going to get bogged down
in “what ifs” and so on. We know that Saddam Hussein is no angel, but he
can’t be worse than George Bush or Tony Blair, can he? Bastards!

We urge Bush and Blair to follow international law and respect Iraqi
sovereignty.

In the event of a second UN resolution, we urge Bush and Blair not to hide
behind international law and instead to respect the Iraqi people’s right not
to be attacked by anyone other than their own armies.

To all those ‘liberals’ who claim not to be hawks but who say things like “it’s
all rather complex and we can’t rule out an attack” we say: you’re either
with us or you’re with the imperialists. (Shame on you, the Observer!)

As the Kosovan conflict showed, the US and Britain are solely motivated by
their desire to control foreign countries and their oilfields. We deplore
all their repeated attempts to meddle overseas and their shameful refusal to
get involved in Rwanda before it was too late and sort out the Israelis.

The issue, like us, is very simple and clear-cut. NO WAR!

*With thanks to JB



Two Border-Crossers

Jan 27th, 2003 9:17 pm | By

Consider two writers and thinkers who are in the news at the moment, one because he’s just died and the other because he has a new book out. The New York Times said of Hugh Trevor-Roper that:

His approach to history was essentially belletrist – based not so much on original research as on wide reading and an ability to bring to bear insights derived from other disciplines on his subjects. He sought to appeal to a wide cultivated audience. In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor, he defended this approach, saying modern history would have “dried up and perished long ago” without the contribution of economists, sociologists, philosophers, art historians and even anthropologists and psychologists.

Surely his approach is indeed defensible. Research is essential too, of course, but the house of history presumably has many mansions, or at least, room for both specialists and generalists, original researchers and synthesizers, depth and breadth. It’s not as if the borders around history are all that sharp anyway, or as if economics or sociology or philosophy seem exactly irrelevant. And if the goal of inquiry is better understanding, surely the way things tie together rather than fall apart is one of the subjects we want to understand.

Richard Sennett is another who draws on many disciplines, as this review of his new book in the Guardian says:

But he doesn’t really write academic sociology, and is often criticised for it, from within academia and outside it…His material is an elegant mix of interview, anecdote and wide, deep book-research. His key terms have to do with common personal predicaments, understood as socio-historic formations: love and power, dignity and humiliation, impersonality and self-absorption, self-worth and self-blame.

Trevor-Roper drew on sociology to write history and Sennett draws on history to write sociology, and both produce a rich thick brew for the general reader.



Mind Readers on Radio 4

Jan 26th, 2003 8:37 pm | By

A recent Start the Week on Radio 4 discussed not one but two issues that we’ve been talking about here on Butterflies and Wheels. Nancy Cartwright, a philosopher of science, here asserts the trendy notion that the discoveries of science are a product of negotiation and agreement among scientists, and that the idea of universality (of science as well as of any other kind of knowledge) is one we should all be very suspicious of. Fortunately, there is also a working scientist on the premises, who disputes her views. Also present is Germaine Greer, who voices one of my favourite exasperations, with the fashion for gossippy biographies of poets and writers that give short shrift to the mental life of such people in order to concentrate on the really important business of what they got up to in bed. Greer gives a fine old rant about the fact that poets only get biographies written about them because of their poetry so why ignore the poetry in favor of the sex life eh? Just exactly what I always wonder! Her particular focus is Byron, and her outrage that the annual biography of him sells like mad while no one reads the wonderful ‘Don Juan’. I couldn’t possibly agree more.



Sigmund, Will You Never Leave?

Jan 22nd, 2003 6:53 pm | By

Oh honestly. Does nonsense never go away? Well I shouldn’t complain, it certainly keeps us busy and entertained here at B and W. But it would be nice to think humans could pay attention once in awhile. Take
this article about Freud in Time magazine, for instance.

At the same time, post-Freudian psychotherapists are figuring out that the old master still has something to offer the science of mental health: an understanding of the human mind and its many malfunctions that’s richer, fuller and more exciting than anything invented since.

Really? Well I suppose it depends how you define ‘richer’ or ‘more exciting’. It would be rich and exciting to be told our brains were full of gremlins and talking spiders and extra-terrestrial visitors and reincarnations of Cleopatra, too, but it wouldn’t be true. If the science of mental health is actually a science, does it really want the evidence-free speculations and faubulations of Freud to help its work?

One of Freud’s key insights was to divide the mind into the conscious and the unconscious: he showed us that beneath the surface banality of everyday thoughts and gestures lurk subterranean caverns of forbidden longings that reach all the way back to our earliest childhood memories.

Oh honestly. That old chestnut. Has no one on the editorial desk ever heard of Nietzsche? Schelling? The Romantics? Freud expanded on other people’s work, he was not the originator of insight into the unconscious. ‘But the goal of psychoanalysis is deeper understanding!’ the defenders cry. Good idea! Deeper understanding always a good thing! Start building your library now.



Basketball Rules OK

Jan 22nd, 2003 2:57 pm | By

A few days ago I took issue with a column John Sutherland wrote in the Guardian about the wonderful benefits of US university athletic programmes. Here is a delightful little story about some of the drawbacks of the US approach. College basketball fans harass and make death threats against an English teacher who has the unmitigated temerity to criticise a coach. Clearly, the basketball coach is important and the pesky teacher is just a thing that causes trouble. Could such an attitude possibly be harmful to actual, you know, education?



Burglar University

Jan 21st, 2003 5:58 pm | By

Sorry, but I do think this is pretty funny. It’s the bit about cognitive skills classes.

The cognitive courses all prisoners have to attend – usually Enhanced Thinking Skills – were deemed effective when they first started, but recent studies have shown that prisoners can emerge from these even more likely to reoffend than they were without them…Or it could be that they imbibe the skills without accepting the moral message, so they just come out with an enhanced ability to think crimes through and avoid mistakes like leaving their dog at the scene of the crime or ordering a pizza with a thieved credit card (both real occasions of burglar ineptitude in the past fortnight; the beauty of the prison system is that the people who most need some time in burglar university are by definition the people who end up there).

Oops! Enhanced Thinking Skills for Inept Burglars, this way please! Have pencils and notebooks ready, sit up straight, pay attention, sharpen those wits. Think twice before taking Spot along on your burglaries, and if you do, remember to take her away again. Use stolen credit cards only for major purchases, because it’s silly to get nicked just for a pizza. Don’t tell your victims your name, and don’t ask them to write you a check, and if you do, don’t cash it. Tomorrow: Dos and Don’ts of Getaway Vehicles.



Love That Derrida

Jan 20th, 2003 10:51 pm | By

I sort of hate to agree with The National Review about anything, but then it’s not my fault: if the left will insist on being so silly all the time, they have only themselves to blame. Anyway this is a very funny piece about Jacques Derrida and his inexplicable hold over the minds of far too many literary critics and other “theorists”.

Indeed, the critical point to be borne in mind with regards to Derrida…is that he is not now, nor has he ever been, a philosopher in any recognizable sense of the word, nor even a trafficker in significant ideas; he is rather a intellectual con artist, a polysyllabic grifter who has duped roughly half the humanities professors in the United States…into believing that postmodernism has an underlying theoretical rationale.

This is something I have been wondering about for years. What is it about literary critics that makes them so easy to fool? What is up with them, that they can be buffaloed into thinking someone is a profound and original thinker in a field not their own when all the other thinkers in that field could have told them he’s just a popularizer with a dash of vaudeville? Literary critics used to be such decent, modest, hard-working people, quietly reading their books and pondering ambiguity and metaphor, a nice harmless activity and, when done well, quite interesting and stimulating to youthful minds. But that’s all in the past, now they do Theory, and they are very keen for you to know that they do Theory and how important it is and how omniscient it makes them. Chaos theory, quantum gravity, paradigm shifts, de-centering the discourse of the hegemonizer, valorizing the signifier of Otherness, none of it is too much for them.

The fact that Derrida’s influence is least felt in the very discipline he claims to practice testifies to the ascendancy of dilettantism in the humanities.

Oh dear. It’s true. One has met a few such dilettantes in one’s time, and one has read or skimmed a great many of their books. They are out there, neglecting the metaphors and ambiguities for the sake of a bogus High Theory about every subject except the one they actually wrote their dissertations on. They are the snappiest dressers though.



Not Really Such a Brilliant Idea

Jan 18th, 2003 9:43 pm | By

This is a very peculiar comment in the Guardian. John Sutherland recommends that Blair and Labour imitate the American way of getting more racial minorities into higher education: via athletics. Why? He never really says. He does say he thinks it’s a good idea and that it’s been a great success in the States, but he doesn’t say why he thinks it’s a good idea, or in what sense it’s been a success. He does say that the athletics programmes created open doors through which not only black athletes, but also non-athletic blacks, could enter, but then he fails to explain what he means. He says the figures speak for themselves, but they don’t, at least not clearly enough so that I can understand them. What connection is there between the number of non-athletic blacks and the presence of athletic blacks? Do the athletes make the non-athletes feel safer, or less isolated? Do they have some unspecified effect on the admissions office? Sutherland doesn’t say.

He also says, oddly, that college athletes are held to high standards academically. He says they are required to maintain a B average, but fails to mention the well-known phenomenon of grade inflation, which makes a B a pretty low grade, frankly. Not to mention the pressure on teachers not to mark athletes down. He says athletes have to get 820 on the SATs…but doesn’t add that that is a very low score indeed. The fact is, there are plenty of people, black as well as white, who are not so charmed with athletics as the path to university for blacks. There is the implicit insult, for one thing, and there is also the implicit devaluing of academics as the logical criterion for an academic institution. There are the periodic scandals about corruption or flouting of the rules, there is the diversion of everyone’s attention from pesky old books to ball games, there is the amount of money spent on athletic programmes while teachers are fired and library hours are reduced. It’s not such a raging success as Sutherland says.