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

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Monday, June 5, 2017

A few links: There must be some way out of here

I'm still trying to work up a post on Dewey, but Dewey is a heavy read and finishing up the academic year is absorbing all of my mental energy.  In the meantime, a few links on the general sense that something is wrong in the world.

1) From The American Conservative, Is The West Spiritually Impoverished?

2) Writer Jacob Siegel, whom I'd not encountered previously, takes up the issue of how hollow the modern left and right are.  Being an academic I of course like what he says about Evergreen State, but that's not all that I like. Something is hollow and the center cannot hold.

3) Michael Lind wrote this article last year on the realignments taking place in our political parties.  I must quibble with this part:
From the Reagan era until recently, the GOP’s economic policies have been formulated by libertarians, whose views are at odds with those of most Republican voters.
GOP economic policies were not always formulated by libertarians.  Libertarians (or facsimiles thereof) formulated GOP economic rhetoric.  There's a difference.

4) From The Hedgehog Review: I want to agree with this lament about the fall of general education, but then I get to this part:
In that first meeting, my colleagues and I from the School of Arts and Sciences quickly came to the same conclusion as my class. Our students shared less a curricular life than an extracurricular one. What bound them together was not their classroom experiences, their chemistry labs, or the books they read, but, rather, the clubs they led, the basketball games they worshipfully attended, and the parties for which they diligently planned.
I'm not much of a fan of NCAA Division 1 football and basketball, but I'm a huge fan of extracurricular activities, and I think that college sports other than D1 football and basketball are excellent for developing character and teamwork.  In fact, I think that half of what I got from my university was a culture of networking and extracurricular activities that has served me well in my career.

Also, the author makes a point about research universities eclipsing colleges as the crown jewels of US higher education:
To answer that question, we must go back to the late nineteenth century, when the research university eclipsed the college as the most important institution of higher learning in the United States. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, as research universities such as the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cornell grew in national and international prominence, their critics and advocates alike began to worry that a coherent and morally edifying body of knowledge was missing from American higher education.
While his point is factually correct, it's worth noting that the universities in Europe and other industrialized countries are even less undergraduate-focused than US institutions, and have even fewer (if any) general education requirements than US institutions.  If we've lost something, we've at least retained more than anyone else.

5) Also from The Hedgehog Review, a nice article on guilt in our modern secular world.  I like this part:
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.” One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Much of what maddens me about the modern academy could probably be traced to modern secularists lacking traditional outlets for guilt.  Interestingly, a colleague recently accused me of posing as a saint when I invoked the Parable of the Talents to explain some of my views on academic work and duty.

I also like this bit, regarding people who posed as victims of the Holocaust or other tragic events:
What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public? 
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world? 
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
Yep.  But I would go farther and offer that offering oneself as a victim in need of sympathy also provides a service to those who are looking for an outlet for their own guilt.  One person shifts the burden of guilt and in the process provides another person with a means of discharging their own burden.  If we don't need to actually work to improve the material conditions of others, but only express the right sympathies and throw administrative budgets (which never come out of our own pockets) at the proper events and displays, then sins can be forgiven on the cheap.

So what's to be done?  Well, science offers no hope:
Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for. 
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.
Science has done so much for us but we remain who and what we are and were.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

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