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The End of Intellectual Curiosity

At the university, “intellectual curiosity has been replaced by pro forma attention to representation,” Justin E.H. Smith writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education. More:

“As far as I’m concerned, universities are where you go to learn how to read Akkadian cuneiform tablets, the scansion of Ovid, and stuff like that. Of course, someone has to think about how to actually run the universities, and the laudable principle of self-government would seem to require that at least some academics devote a portion of their energies to compiling data on how well higher education works, though ironically this principle is being eroded at the same time as we are witnessing the proliferation of new epicycles of academic self-reflexivity.

“Mine is to some extent an echo of a line Stanley Fish was pushing for a while (Fish’s postmodernism now appears positively humanistic in comparison with what followed it): A university is a place for discovering universes in grains of sand, drawing these universes out for others to see, enriching society by connecting to and preserving bonds with things that lie beyond our society (Mexica temple architecture, quasars, Great Zimbabwe, whales). The large-scale turn to identity-focused topics and the self-referential preoccupation with the university as an object of study — not the history of the university, but the university in its current administrative functions and social dimensions — are a betrayal of the legacy of humanism.”

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“The prevailing air of desperation today makes a temperamentally curious person into a rarity and an oddball in the university setting. You are supposed to affirm the value of including more non-Western traditions in the philosophy curriculum, for example, but only in a way that anchors this change to current social and political goals, even if in the end these goals only ever require fairly small-stakes adjustments that do not so much improve society as display conformity to a new moral sensibility. If you get into deciphering Nahuatl cosmological texts, but really into it, not because it is part of a concern to see greater Latinx representation in the philosophy curriculum, but simply in the same way you are into Paleolithic cave art or Aristotle on marine biology or Safavid pharmaceutical texts — because you are a voracious nerd and you thought when you were a student that that was precisely what made you prime professor material — then you are really not doing what is expected of you to adapt to the new academic ethos.”

In other news: We’ve been discussing book recommendations for the past couple of days here in Prufrockland. An updated list of your recommendations is found here. I’ve had to stop adding to the list (I do have a day job), but if you’d like to add another book, you can do so in the comments section.

If you want predictable recommendations—you know those books you should be reading in order to show people you don’t like over drinks at an Upper West Side brownstone that you’re better than them—the New Yorkerhas you covered. (Of course, there are some good books on the list. I’ve recommend both Neil Price’s The Children of and Elm and Peter Brooks’s Balzac’s Lives, but there are some howlers, too.)

Why not check out a few lists somewhat off the beaten path instead? Slightly Foxed recommends a number of literary books on nature here (scroll down). And why not list to their lovely interview with Jim Crumley on his quartet of seasonal books—The Nature of AutumnThe Nature of WinterThe Nature of SpringThe Nature of Summer—while you’re there. John Wilson published his annual and always refreshingly eclectic list here. Tablet recommends the best Jewish children’s books of 2020. I’m not Jewish, but I want to order the first one—You’re the Cheese in My Blintz—pronto. For those interested in the philosophy of aesthetics, the Fortnightly Review has published a list of its top twelve articles. It includes the wide-ranging Jeffrey Meyers on Brodsky. (We have a review by Meyers coming in one of our spring issues.) There’s also the late Yves Bonnefoy on Seicento, and Simon Collings on Fluxus. Last, here’s Ted Gioia’s favorite 100 albums of 2020. Happy reading (and listening)!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has discovered a new jellyfish: “All told, three individuals were observed by the scientists in three separate encounters with the ROV.”

Richard M. Reinsch reviews the second volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: “The memoir title alone bears meaning here. Solzhenitsyn reports that he lived between two millstones, painfully grinding him. His perennial ‘Bolshevik enemies are now joined by the hostile pseudo-intellectuals of both East and West and, it appears, even more powerful circles.’ So constant and aggressive were the harangues and slanders, that Solzhenitsyn observes they colored American freedom in a dark light: ‘here, in America, I am not genuinely free, but again caged.’ He didn’t face imprisonment or official persecution, but Solzhenitsyn definitely experienced ideological resistance and a systematic misrepresentation of his writings.”

Platonov’s parodies: “When a parody is too successful and becomes a garden unto itself, one forgets upon which corpse’s mouth it sprouted.”

Which Poirot was the best Poirot? “It is a classic puzzler worthy of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction… why some actors who have excelled in the role of Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot have been relatively forgotten, while others are strenuously overhyped.” (HT: Bill Walsh)

Graham Greene’s risky life: “When Gabriel García Márquez, in the presence of Fidel Castro, asked Graham Greene if it was true that he’d played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver, Greene assured him he had, several times. Castro, one of several world leaders with whom Greene had audiences over the years (Gorbachev, Ho Chi Minh and Pope Paul VI were others), calculated the odds and said he shouldn’t be alive. Greene thought the same. He’d expected to die young (‘I’d rather die of a bullet in the head than a cancer of the prostate’) but survived to the age of 86. The Russian roulette story has been disputed; Greene may have played it with blanks or empty chambers. But Richard Greene (no relation) takes it as the central premise of his biography: the novelist as risk-taker and adventurer, with a history of self-harm and an addiction to danger.”

Photos: Pennsylvania

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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