Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hofstadter blogging: I might not sleep until I finish reading this book

I got delayed in picking up this book because I had final* exams to write, administer, and grade, but that is done.  I'm a few pages into chapter 2, and I don't think I will be able to put this book down except to blog about it and maybe attend to a few biological necessities.  (Maybe.)  I decided to start blogging about the books I'm reading because I'm trying to understand certain fixations in the academy.  I have long lamented that I do not understand these fixations, but I feel like they are placing some sort of social mission ahead of the subject itself, whereas I believe that it is impossible to serve my students well unless I serve my subject as an even higher duty.  I have been mystified by the number of people who seem to "drink the kool-aid."

On page 26, Hofstadter reminds me that I am not the first to feel this frustration.  "We know, for instance, that all academic men are not intellectuals; we often lament this fact."  I have often wondered why a few of my colleagues have openly boasted of moving away from reading assignments in classes; now I understand that my frustration is not a sign of some modern decadence but merely the latest skirmish in a constant battle.  The presence of anti-intellectualism in even the academy itself is not something new.  This reassures me.

On page 28, Hofstadter says the things that I have only said to a few close confidantes, rather than openly voicing, for fear that the openly mystical undertones would be mocked:
Some years ago a colleague asked me to read a brief essay he had written for students going on to do advanced work in his field.  Its ostensible purpose was to show how the life of the mind could be cultivated within the framework of his own discipline, but its effect was to give an intensely personal expression to his dedication to intellectual work.  Although it was written by a corrosively skeptical mind**, I felt that I was reading a piece of devotional literature in some ways comparable to Richard Steele's The Tradesman's Calling or Cotton Mather's Essays to do Good, for in it the intellectual task had been conceived as a calling, much in the fashion of the old Protestant writers.  His work was undertaken as a devotional exercise, a personal discipline, and to think of it in this fashion was possible because it was more than merely workmanlike and professional: it was work at thinking, work done supposedly in the service of truth.  The intellectual life has here taken on a kind of primary moral significance.  It is this aspect of the intellectual's feeling about ideas that I call his piety.  The intellectual is engage--he is pledged, committed, enlisted.  What everyone else is willing to admit, namely, that ideas and abstractions are of signal importance in human life, he imperatively feels.
Can I admit here that I detest TED Talks as borderline blasphemy because they tell the listener to feel as though their 10 minutes of listening has made them Enlightened?  It seems cheap, and it always flatters a certain type of shallow technocratic sensibility.  I privately regard knowledge and learning as a pathway to the mind of God Himself, much in the way of a Hellenistic scholar worshiping Sophia, and I do not see how I can serve my students, even in the manner of a humble shepherd, without first serving knowledge.  Indeed, I unironically quote these lyrics to express my views on Wisdom:
And I'll feed your obsession
The falling star that you cannot live without
I will be your religion
This thing you'll never doubt
You're not the only one
You're not the only one
Back to reading.

*We're on quarters.
**Emphasis added.  I think many of my colleagues would use such a descriptor, unfavorably or otherwise, to describe my attitude towards many educational fashions.

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