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Ten Questions

March 15, 2007

Thomas Mallon over at The American Scholar poses ten questions about the future of the humanities in America.

And I respond.  Feel free to chime in via comments!

How can American professors learn to write
about literature in language that isn’t a crude,
pseudo-technical insult to the text it’s supposedly

Personally, I’d settle for "write about literature in language that is engaging".  Far too many scholarly texts are written without the slightest concern for readability.  By this I don’t mean comprehension, but literally the ability to read what is written without being bored to death by dense prose.

Click through for more…

How can current undergraduate instruction in
the humanities, mired as it is in jargon and
political faddishness, hope to inspire at least a
portion of the most gifted students to enter
academic life rather than,
say, business school or TV

It can’t.  That is why it has to move past the jargon and political
faddishness.  In my opinion (and experience), the best way to get
someone to truly learn a subject is to get them interested in it, to
fire their curiosity, to inspire a thirst for knowledge.  Only a small
handful of undergraduate courses I ever took managed to do this.  Far
more managed to extinguish a curiosity that already existed (I’m
looking at you, History of Feudal Japan).

Are we willing to make
the effort to teach a new
generation — one that’s
never known a world
without the wildly
accessible Web — that
words and ideas can in
fact be owned, at least for
a period of time?

The new generation will find out on its own, when it has its ideas stolen and used by the next generation.

Even so, are owners of
intellectual property
willing to realize that longer and longer copyright
terms are doing more to inhibit than promote

Yeah, I wouldn’t put this in my top ten questions.

How can the contemplative mind survive in the
multitasking, ADD-inducing world of digitization?
Are we willing to face the downside of this great
electronic boon? Do we really want students
reading electronic texts of the classics that are festooned
with more links than a Wikipedia entry?
Aren’t a few moments of quiet bafflement
preferable to an endless steeplechase across Web
page after Web page?

Willpower, prioritization, and a general desire to disconnect every
now and then.  It’s the reason I still write by hand, even though I
spend pretty much my entire work day online.

The web, and the digitization of content, have their uses, and lots of them, but that doesn’t mean they are all-invasive. 

Are we willing to consider the irony that our
unceasing communication with one another — the
dozen extra phone calls that we all now make each
day; the two dozen pointless e-mails — is making us
less human? And that we might have more important
things to say if we could re-master the lost art of shutting
up, for at least a half hour every now and then?

I consider the irony every day, often immediately after being cut
off or otherwise nearly run into by some idiot yapping on their cell
phone while they should be driving.

I also wish, quite often, that people could re-master the lost art
of shutting up.  In fact, I always say that if I had to give up one of
my five senses, hearing would be the first to go.

Are American writers, artists, and thinkers truly
prepared to admit that
Islamofascism is a real,
and even imminent,
threat to everything they
are accustomed to thinking,
saying, and creating?

Wow.  Which one of these doesn’t fit with the others?  I do believe
that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to Western-style individual
liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  But I don’t know
if it is an imminent threat.

Can the National
Endowment for the
Humanities, even as it
continues a laudable
effort to make Americans
better acquainted with
their own history, learn
to resist a platitudinous
rhetoric that sometimes
makes it seem like the National Endowment for
Classroom Civics?

Uh, sure it can.  Or something.

Are Americans in general prepared to admit
that their writing and speaking skills are in no better
shape than their waistlines?

No.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  After all, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Then again, America has been many things throughout its history, but
as far as I can recall, it has never been renowned for its eloquence.
Why do you think British actors get all the really juicy villain roles?

Are we also willing to admit that the
universalization of English is more apparent than
real? And that our general failure to know foreign
languages is an act of both laziness and arrogance — one that threatens America’s legitimate claims
to leadership in the world?

I think our ignorance of foreign languages, and our assumption that
English, like Visa, is accepted everyone you want to be, is
detestable.  But I also believe it is a product of environment. 

Anybody who has ever played Risk! knows that the U.S. is
geographically isolated.  Unlike France, or Germany, or Mongolia, we do
not border multipe different countries that speak multiple different
languages.  We border Canada, which predominately speaks English, and
Mexico, which predominantly speaks Spanish.  That’s it.  There is no
reason for the majority of the American population to learn a foreign

Consider my case.  I’m fairly well travelled.  By itself, I have
been to Italy five times, for a grand total of probably thirty days.
Would it be nice to be fluent in Italian?  Yes.  But is it worth what
would amount to several semesters of classes in order to become
proficient?  If I were moving there, certainly.  But for thirty days,
no.  My exposure to Latin allowed me to pick up some key phrases and
read maps and whatnot, and that was fine.

It would be nice if we, as a country, were a bit sharper on our
forgeign dialects.  But until there is a genuine need…or rather, a
genuine, monetary detriment to us not knowing, we aren’t going to start
running out and signing up for French classes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    March 18, 2007 11:25 pm

    These all feel like leading questions. Let’s see. Someone is proclaiming that the youth of today will ruin the world.

    That’s an original thought. The older generation has only been saying that about the younger generation for, oh, at least the last 3000 years.

    It’s all in perspective. “Change” does not equal “worse,” although most psychologists would say that MOST people PERCEIVE that change makes things worse.

    American Scholar = Self-Unaware American Cliched Scholar.

  2. March 23, 2007 2:43 pm

    All these questions gave me tired head

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