Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Porphyrogenitus had a correspondent respond to his recent "clean out the Academy" posts with a suggestion that universities pull all humanities requirements, and let people just take technical courses. The following are parts of one of his replies, and my responses to them.
Cutting through the exposition (already), here is a better and more pithy response to Terrey Cobb's proposal and why I recoil from it:

To me, everything that we think of as Civilization, all the accumulated wisdom and examples of folly, are embodied in the Humanities. The techne is the product, not the source, of that. This again emphasized where I disagree with Marxists: as someone else once put it, ideas matter most.

I think one of the weaknesses of the autodidactic or self-educative approach to learning is a certain disregard for the authority of the academy -“ the need for teachers. On the other hand, one of the strengths of autodidacticism is the recognition that the Academy is not Civilization, and neither is the Humanities. Intellectual life cannot be encompassed by the walls of the University.

To wildly misquote William Jennings Bryan, "Burn down your universities and leave our libraries and your universities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our libraries and grass will grow in the streets of every university in this country!" It might be my state-college disregard for tradition and authority, but I can't help but think that the mighty Academy of Humanities is an efflorescence, a flowering. Flowers die, but the species survives in the seed.

As for the humanist contempt for techne, I have to object that it is exactly that -- a contempt, a Laputaesque disregard for the practicalities in favor of more noble pursuits. techne is the product of successful theory. To study only history, and neglect mathematics, is as intellectually destructive as is a course of study in computer science without history.

I strongly object to the notion that philosophy stands on a higher plane, that it is somehow more noble than those elements of study that find traction in the things of the world. There is not, and should not be, a hierarchy of study. Agronomy is as worthwhile a pursuit as philosophy or computer science. Philosophy will not grow a single grain of wheat; agronomy cannot establish the laws of the state. A body of laws is as much techne, as much a product of civilization, as is the glyphosate family of herbicides, or the latest Linux distribution. I see no functional moral distinction between the three. Each has great potential, for good or ill. Each should be treated with the same respect and an equal degree of caution.
But technical aptitude does not sustain, much less create, Civilization or its advances. It is fostered by the the Civilizational backdrop. This is a insight that many of us all too readily acknowledge when it comes to analysis of What Went Wrong in relation to why Islamic Civilization began to lag behind Western Civilization and does not foster much scientific or technological innovation.

The advantages of the Civilization to which Porphyrogenitus refers is not a creature of the Humanities, or even the University. It is a characteristic of Western intellectual life. We could take the great universities of history and plop them down in the centre of Cairo, endowed with every advantage and a bottomless fund of wealth, and a single generation would leave those universities a blasted expanse, intellectual ruins housing hordes of religious scholars and warring tribes of pseudo-Marxist ignoramuses. Without a general societal interest in the sciences, without a culture-wide embrace of the idea of progress, of the future, Western civilization would wither and die. I suppose the distinction here is that I consider the entire society to be the civilization backdrop, and the University and the Humanities to be equal parts civilization backdrop and techne.
Techne, advancements in method (a concept that includes but is broader than technology or even "hard sciences"), are fostered in a situation where people have the best (humanly) possible access to reliable data on results of past experiments (to use a less "soft, humanities" oriented description) - and, again, this is, when humans are concerned, not limited to the results of "hard science" experiments. It is, indeed, very Hayekian to say that it extends to all human experience. "Look, see, over here and over there and in this other place they tested Rousseau's theorem of forcing people to be free, and the result was a nightmare each time" (to take one of the more obvious examples).

But this Hayekian insight is itself a technification of the Humanities. I don't accept that political economics is strictly falsifiable in the fashion Porphyrogenitus suggests. Any claim to know that an exact input will inevitably result in a specific societal output is, I think, as essentially fantastical as the most doctrinaire Marxism. But I do admit the political utility of such theorizing, and there are certain limited, general cases in which a known class of inputs can be practically described as prone to produce a known class of outputs.
At least when I was at Uni, one of the things that was all the faddish rage among "Progressive" academics (both faculty and "Progressive" students) was that, well, the Western concept of time is linear but "Native Peoples"/"Traditional Peoples"/{fill in favored term of the moment} have a cyclical sense of time and, gosh, isn't that just the bee's knees? Wouldn't we be better off if we understood that things are cyclical?

Not to be a smartass, but cyclism was quite fashionable a couple generations back among historians. Remember Toynbee? I'm not fond of this postmodernist fad for cyclism, but then, it's the primitivism that I object to, and not the cyclism itself. I believe in the future. The past is past. Cyclism is, essentially, a form of reactionary ideology. I can't understand why its modern adherents can't see that.

...There is no real way of passing along knowledge or even forming the sort of decentralized knowledge that Hayek talks about as informing society and which no centralized elite can duplicate unless society is vastly simplified. . .

Well, no, it's called the publishing industry. Quite large, quite prolific, fairly independent of the Academy. If the Hottentots or a Pol Pot suddenly descended upon every Ivy League college in the country and murdered every academic in the country in a sudden orgy of intellectual genocide, the publishing industry would, the next day, go through its back-catalog for the next publishing cycle. Autodidactical professors appointed by shell-shocked boards of trustees would reconstruct the Academy. It would be a rough ten years or so, but it would, indeed, be only that long.
Those "annoying electives" that Computer Science majors are forced to take simply are requirements of a University education (as is at least a basic knowledge of sciences that us Humanities majors are compelled to take). Not necessarily in the form they're taught now. But spreading the meme that "the Humanities are Bunk" is not really a means of passing the torch of this Civilization forward or even keeping its flame lit.

Oh, I quite agree. I've a degree in history, after all. But propagating the "Humanities are Greater than Mere Techne" meme is not a particularly fruitful way to counter the wilful ignorance of the ill-educated.

Update: I've apparently run wild with a misunderstanding, and ended up arguing his point for him. Lesson learned: never try to be clever in the middle of the harvest. A combination of long hours and hyperactivity isn't conductive to critical thought....

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