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Amor Mundi: Academic Impurity

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Academic Impurity

Joy Connolly values the Ph.D. highly. But Connolly recognizes that not all Ph.D. recipients can be or should be academic specialists. Connolly argues that we need to rethink the Ph.D. to train specialist-generalists, those impure thinkers who can reason deeply and also across disciplines.

“When Antoine Lavoisier, the great chemist and discoverer of oxygen, was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary tribunal in 1794, the president of the tribunal is supposed to have declared: “The republic has no need of savants.” There are different ways of translating the word “savant”, but perhaps the closest word now would be “expert”. Guillotining the experts is not the exclusive preserve of the French revolution or even any one president. A more contemporary way of translating the original would be: Beware of people with PhDs.

In recent times we have seen experts derided and demeaned on both sides of the Atlantic. During the Brexit campaign Michael Gove argued that “people have had enough of experts”, mainly, it seemed, on the grounds that they disagreed with him. Here in America President Trump has preferred his own beliefs and opinions to any informed scientific consensus about, say, climate change. The public at large has been given effective permission to ridicule and ignore professors.

This makes me angry, because I am a professor, and a classicist to boot, a scholar of Roman literature and political thought – a member of one of those fields, like art history, that critics see as disconnected and irrelevant, non-aligned with market forces, impossible to quantify and thus somehow suspect, even corrupting. But while I in no way condone the politician’s self-interested scepticism towards expertise, I believe academics should think afresh about how we train our graduate students – and how we describe that training to ourselves and to the world.  

I am the provost of the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York – the largest urban public university in the United States. When asked what a doctoral education is for, many of my colleagues at other schools would likely answer, “to create specialists in their own fields who will go on to become academics and professors and teach the next generation”. This has been the standard account since the founding of modern graduate education in the 19th century.

But I can no longer offer such a clear and coherent response. Academia must always be the space where specialists can acquire years of focused training in methods and skills applicable only in a single field of study – say, the analysis of texts written on centuries-old damaged papyrus.  The reality is that, just as in music, dance, or sports, where a lot of young, highly talented aspirants will not make the cut, so too in the academy not every graduate student will become a professor. Right now, only roughly half of the professors in the United States find full-time employment in universities and colleges. Yet, I say, we need more people with PhDs.

True, there aren’t enough jobs to go around in the academy alone. But doctoral study is not and should not be aimed purely at creating academics. When I answer the what-is-the-point question, I say today’s doctoral education trains specialist-generalists, people who understand how to think across disciplines, absorb and evaluate complex, conflicting points of view, and are capable of adapting to new and unpredictable environments in the future. We live not in a rational, linear world but a world that is complex, pluralistic, irrational, impure.  We academics need to embrace impurity.”

Connolly is right that doctoral study should not be aimed simply at creating academics. Within the humanities—the field I know best—we need to rethink the specialized training offered to graduate students. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us who we are today.

The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Hannah Arendt argues precisely for this connection between the humanities and politics in her essay The Crisis in Culture. She relates the political significance of culture to humanism—both of which are said to be of Roman origin. The Romans, she writes, knew how to care for and cultivate the grandiose political and artistic creations of the Greeks. Arendt cites a line from Pericles at the center of Arendt’s reflections. “We love beauty within the limits of political judgment.” The judgment of beauty, of culture, and of art is, Pericles says, limited by the political judgment of the people. There is, in other words, an intimate connection between culture and politics. In culture, we make judgments of taste and thus learn the faculty of judgment so necessary for politics. And political judgment, in turn, limits and guides our cultural judgments.

What unites culture and politics is that they are “both phenomena of the public world.” Judgment, the primary faculty of politics, is discovered, nurtured, and practiced in the world of culture and the judgment of taste. What the study of culture through the humanities offers, therefore, is an orientation towards a common world that is known and understood through a common sense. The humanities, Arendt argues, are crucial for the development and preservation of common sense—something that is unfortunately all-too-lacking in much humanities scholarship today.

What this means is that teaching the humanities is absolutely essential for politics—and as long as that is the case, there will be a rationale for residential colleges and universities. The mania for distance learning today is understandable. Education is, in many cases, too expensive. Much could be done more cheaply and efficiently at colleges. And this will happen. Colleges will increasingly bring computers and the Internet into their curricula. But as powerful as the Internet is, and as useful as it is as a replacement for passive learning in large lectures, it is not yet a substitute for face-to-face learning that takes place at a college or university. The learning that takes place in the hallways, offices, and dining halls when students live, eat, and breathe their coursework over four years is simply fundamentally different from taking a course online in one’s free time. As exciting as technology is, it is important to remember that education is, at its best, not about transmitting information but about inspiring thinking.

To say that the humanities should engage the world does not mean that the humanities should be politicized. The politicization of the humanities has shorn them of their authority and their claim to being true or beautiful. Humanities scholarship can only serve as an incubator for judgment when it is independent from social and political interests. But political independence is not the same as political sterility. Humanities scholarship can, and must, teach us to see and know our world as it is.

—Roger Berkowitz


Roger Cohen turn to Rudyard Kipling’s “If” to think about the seemingly unthinkable state of the American Republic.

“If this is America, with a cabinet of terrorized toadies genuflecting to the Great Leader, a vice president offering a compliment every 12 seconds to Mussolini’s understudy, and a White House that believes in “alternative facts,” then it is time to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”…

If this is America, where the Great Leader wants you to believe that 2+2=5, and would usher you down his rabbit hole, and struggles to find in himself unequivocal condemnation of neo-Nazis, and you recall perhaps the words of Hannah Arendt, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist” — if all this you have lived and felt and thought across this beautiful and spacious land, then you must be prepared to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.””

Political Theatre and Political Protest

Chris Martin interviews John McWhorter about protests against certain speakers on college campuses. McWhorter says that the people worried about college protests today are not simply out-of-touch like those in the 1960s who said the students needed to cut their hair. Today’s protesters don’t want to argue against the speakers; the protests seek to silence anyone “saying things that could be taken as supporting X, Y and Z. Even people like this should not even be allowed to open their mouths.” For McWhorter, the protests are theatrical in the sense that they seek to make ideas and persons anathema.

“When I say theater, yes, there’s theater in any kind of protest. The very fact that you’re making a loud noise in a public forum is theater. The very fact that you’re trying to attract people’s attention who otherwise would not be inclined to give it, that’s theater. That’s part of politics. But there’s a particular theatrical aspect to all of this in that I find it simply incoherent—it’s not believable—that a psychologically healthy person and one intelligent and ambitious enough to have gotten into a selective school, in particular, is somebody who is constitutionally unable to bear hearing somebody express views that they don’t agree with, or that they even find nauseous. It’s one thing to find views repugnant. It’s another thing to claim that—to hear them constitute a kind of injury that no reasonable person should be expected to stand up to. That’s theatrical because it’s not true. Nobody is hurt in that immediate, lasting and intolerable way by some words that a person stands up and addresses, in the abstract, to an audience at a microphone.

There’s an argument as to whether somebody can be harmed by being called names directly over a longer period of time. But the idea that hearing ideas that can be construed as being complicit in something as abstract as societal racism—hearing these ideas constitutes injury along the lines of, for example, somebody calling you a nigger to your face once a day—it’s not that I don’t agree with this idea; it’s that it doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t true.

To claim that is a kind of theater in itself. You are pretending—and that really is the only appropriate word—you’re pretending that something that you find unpleasant to behold is injurious. And I think that the theatricality of that kind in the argument is a response in part to the fact that to make your case otherwise—that somebody just shouldn’t be heard—is difficult. You have to pretend that it’s hurting you like a punch in the stomach, because otherwise it becomes a little inconveniently transparent that, really, you’re just insisting that you have your own way because you’ve decided that a certain way of thinking is what’s on the side of the angels.”

Points of Connection

Tim Whitmarsh reflects on the refugee crisis consuming Europe and the Middle East by offering a historical meditation on the porous borders separating Europe and Asia. At the center of his story is the body of water separating Greece and Turkey, water in which so many Syrian refugees have drowned over the last decade. Whitmarsh sees the boundary between East and West as less of a border, and more a “point of connection.” He argues that Crossing the sea between ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’ is not an act of transgression. It is what human beings have done since ancient times.”

“The waters around Çanakkale have a particular significance as an intercontinental crossing-point. Here the warm, blue waters of the Aegean Sea narrow into a passage now known in the West as the Dardanelles. This strait, at its thinnest less than 1.5km wide, leads east into the Sea of Marmara and to Istanbul, the former Ottoman capital, which straddles the two sides, and which serves as the portal to and from the Black Sea. For millennia, this sliver of water – ‘where Europe flees from Asia’, as one Roman poet put it – has been evoked as the frontier between continents, as if nature herself were shaping the contours of our political imaginations.

At this point, where east and west could not be more geophysically proximate, the tensions between the two have historically been at their most intense. If we wish to understand the wider resonances of the current refugee crisis – why it matters so much to refugees to make the short but perilous sea voyage from Turkey to the eastern Greek islands, and why it matters so much to the European Union to return them – the Dardanelles is the place to start.

In the modern era, the northern, ‘European’ side of the strait, known as the Gallipoli peninsula, has long been Turkish territory; in fact, the modern state stretches some way further north into Thrace. It was the Ottomans’ annexation of the peninsula in 1354, and subsequent expansion into the fertile Balkans, that marked the starting-point of their own imperial age – and the crumbling-point of that of their rivals, the Byzantines, the heirs to the Roman empire. Culturally, however, there remained in Gallipoli a heavy cultural, linguistic and religious Greek presence until 1915, which saw the beginning of a grim period of ethnic cleansing.

Gallipoli is best known now for the First World War campaign that saw the British and French and their allies from New Zealand, Australia, India, and Canada attempt to occupy the peninsula in 1915 so that the fleet could force its way up the sea passage to capture Istanbul. The Turkish victory was partly the result of the tactical nous of a young lieutenant colonel called Mustafa Kemal, who would receive the name ‘father of the Turks’ (Atatürk) in commemoration of his role in the foundation of the modern state.”

The Future of Surveillance

The Chinese are undertaking an experiment in the restless autonomous region of Xinjiang with consequences for civil liberties in China and around the world. To deal with threats from the Uighur separatist movement, China has turned the region into perhaps the most heavily surveilled area on the planet. According to Josh Chin and Clémente Bürge, the surveillance in Xianjiang “offers a preview of what is to come nationwide.”

“Security checkpoints with identification scanners guard the train station and roads in and out of town. Facial scanners track comings and goings at hotels, shopping malls and banks. Police use hand-held devices to search smartphones for encrypted chat apps, politically charged videos and other suspect content. To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.

China’s efforts to snuff out a violent separatist movement by some members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group have turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang, of which Urumqi is the capital, into a laboratory for high-tech social controls that civil-liberties activists say the government wants to roll out across the country….

Near the Xinjiang University campus in Urumqi, police sat at a wooden table recently, ordering some people walking by to hand over their phones.

“You just plug it in and it shows you what’s on the phone,” said one officer, brandishing a device similar to the one on Meiya Pico’s website. He declined to say what content they were checking for.”


The Heart of Autocracy

Donald Trump Jr. suggested that the FBI and Justice Departments were “tainted” with bias against his father, the President: “There is, and there are, people at the highest levels of government that don’t want to let America be America,” the younger Trump said. “My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign, and people were like, ‘Oh, what are you talking about?'” he added. “But it is. And you’re seeing it.” For Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and Director of the National Security Agency, the younger Trump’s accusations were an appeal “to the heart of autocracy.” It is worthwhile watching Hayden’s response.

The Real Truth

We hear a lot about truthtelling. What we often forget is how hard it is to tell the truth. J.M. Coetzee writes about one example of the near impossibility of telling the truth.  

““The real truth”: that was what she demanded, or perhaps implored.

She knows very well what the real truth is, as do I, so it should not have been hard to speak the words. And I was angry enough to do so—angry at having to come all this way to perform a duty for which you or Helen or I will get no thanks, not in this world.

But I could not. I could not say to her face what I have no difficulty in writing here, now, to you: The real truth is that you are dying. The real truth is that you have one foot in the grave. The real truth is that already you are helpless in the world, and tomorrow you will be even more helpless, and so forth day after day, until the day comes when there will be no help at all. The real truth is that you are in no position to negotiate. The real truth is that you cannot say No.

You cannot say No to the ticking of the clock. You cannot say No to death. When death says Come, you must bow your head and come. Therefore accept. Learn to say Yes. When I say, Leave behind the home you have made for yourself in Spain, leave behind your familiar things, come and live in—yes—an institution where a nurse from Guadaloupe will wake you up in the morning with a glass of orange juice and a cheery greeting (Quel beau jour, Madame Costello!), do not frown, do not dig in your heels. Say Yes. Say, I agree. Say, I am in your hands. Make the best of it.

Dear Norma, there will come a day when you and I too will need to be told the truth, the real truth. So can we make a pact? Can we promise that we won’t lie to each other, that no matter how hard it may be to say the words, we will say them—the words It is not going to get better, it is going to get worse, and it is going to go on getting worse until it can get no worse, until it is the very worst?”

Posted on 24 December 2017 | 8:00 am

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