Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Medieval Africa, the Future of Higher Education, and the Decline of English

Also: David Drake’s “hackwork pop,” Chinese cliff honey, and more.

Good morning, everyone. Let’s kick things off with a couple of pieces on higher education. In City Journal, Warren Treadgold argues conservatives should create an elite private university. I’m not so sure, but here’s a snippet: “America’s roughly 4,600 colleges and universities do include a handful not dominated by leftists, like Liberty and Ave Maria Universities and Hillsdale and Wheaton Colleges. Most are small and emphasize teaching, rather than research. None grants degrees that carry anything like the prestige of those from elite universities, but some offer good educations to a few thousand students (out of some 20 million now in higher education). As leftists have come to dominate graduate teaching and academic publications, the belief has taken hold that the only intellectually respectable positions are leftist. While some academic books and articles, especially those in the natural sciences, are not explicitly ideological, very few oppose this orthodoxy. The elite universities with real influence have established leftist norms that no prudent professor or administrator can ignore.” In The New York Times, Alice Lloyd praises work colleges and argues that there should be more of them: “There are nearly 10 of them: Private four-year schools known as work colleges, where students put in mandatory hours each week as a complement to their course loads. Through a combination of grants, donations, endowments and hourly wages, work colleges ask for less in fees than any comparable schools and leave their graduates with lighter debt loads. They also keep every student meaningfully occupied, in roles that range from chaplain to dishwasher.”

Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família gets a building permit 137 years after construction was started: “The basilica’s first stone was laid in 1882, but Barcelona officials said there was no record showing whether a building permit first requested in 1885 had ever been granted or rejected. They said the city would be paid €4.6m (£4.10m) in fees under an agreement negotiated with a foundation devoted to completing and preserving the Sagrada Família. Barcelona official Janet Sanz said the agreement between the city and the foundation had put an end to ‘a historical anomaly in our city’.”

The quarterly literary magazine, Tin House, will close this month. It will continue to publish books, however.

Go to a Rolling Stones concert, learn about annuities: “If you’re attending a Rolling Stones concert this summer, you might notice something different. And no, it’s not Mick Jagger’s new moves. The tour has what some might consider to be an unlikely sole sponsor: the Alliance for Lifetime Income, a nonprofit organization formed by financial services firms to raise awareness around the need to protect income in retirement.”

Sure, language changes, sometimes for the worse: “We must have all noticed the fast-coming oblivion of the adverb ending in ‘ly.’ Here are just a few of the many instances that I have heard recently from people on air: ‘It is something that comes natural / You will feel different / We did everything correct / It has not worked perfect / She sings it so beautiful / Are you going to take this competition serious / They are doing it safe / We’re doing absolutely phenomenal / What do you say to people who say you are acting hypocritical’—What I say is can you rephrase the question and not mangle the language.”

David Drake is a good, not great, writer—the author of “hackwork pop.” And that’s OK, Joseph Bottum argues. His prose is often “better than it has to be,” and he is a capable story-teller: “Plenty of well-known fiction about war is around, waiting to be read, from Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990). If you want to read something more neglected—lesser-known military fiction that nonetheless rivals (or surpasses) Crane and Remarque—try Isaac Babel’s Red Calvary (1926). Or James Salter’s The Hunters (1956). Or John Harris’s Covenant with Death (1961). David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze (1986), a sci-fi tale about an ancient Roman legion kidnapped to fight wars on alien planets, just can’t march alongside them. The thing is, David Drake probably wouldn’t mind that conclusion. With the publication of To Clear Away the Shadows this month, Drake has now produced 13 volumes in his series about the RCN, the space-going navy of the Republic of Cinnabar. The series begun in With the Lightnings (1998) and Lt. Leary, Commanding (2000) has gradually let its green characters blossom into established figures in their military service, solving the problems of the hegemonic empire that Cinnabar rules: piracy, border disputes, civil wars on client planets, and power struggles with the republic’s great autocratic rival, the Alliance of Free Stars . . . Take Drake’s The Way to Glory (2005), the fourth book in the RCN series. It isn’t War and Peace. But it isn’t Jim Theis’s famously awful The Eye of Argon (1970), either. Within its space-opera genre—which is to say, within the confines the author has accepted—Drake’s book is better than it has to beby a good two or three steps. It tells a coherent and interesting story, keeps the plot bubbling along, and uses its asides to give a reasonable sense of its characters. The prose is serviceable most of the time, and better than serviceable in the scenes of battle.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Review of Books, Howard W. French reviews a handful of books on medieval and early modern Africa:

“There is a broad strain in Western thought that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress; it ranges from some of our most famous thinkers to the entertainment that generations of children have grown up with. There are Disney cartoons that depict barely clothed African cannibals merrily stewing their victims in giant pots suspended above pit fires. Among intellectuals there is a wealth of appalling examples. Voltaire said of Africans, ‘A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.’ Hegel’s views of Africa were even more sweeping: ‘What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.’ One can hear echoes of such views even today from Western politicians . . .

“It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Cliff honey

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