detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, November 25, 2002


: . The Place of the University:

From The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand:
    A lot has changed in higher education in the last fifty years...What has not changed, though, is the delicate and somewhat paradoxical relation in which the university stands to the general culture. It is important for research and teaching to be relevant -- for the university to engage with the public culture, and to design its investigative paradigms with actual social and cultural life in view...To continue to be relevant today, I believe academic inquiry ought to become less specialized, less technical, less exclusionary, and more holistic. I hope that this is the road down which postdisciplinarity is taking us. At the end of this road, though, there is a great danger, which is that the culture of the university will become just an echo of the public culture. That would be a catastrophe. The academic's job in a free society is to serve the public culture by asking the questions the public does not want to ask, by investigating the subjects it cannot or will not investigate, by accommodating the voices it fails or refuses to accommodate. Academics need to look to the world to see what kind of teaching and thinking needs to be done, and how they might better organize themselves to do it; but they need to ignore the world's insistence that they reproduce its self-image.

Louis Menand's essay is part of the Occasional Paper series of The American Council of Learned Societies. Also included in this series are the transcripts from the annual, ACLS-sponsored Charles Homer Haskins Lecture during which some the country's leading scholars -- like John Hope Franklin, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Clifford Geertz -- discuss 'A Life of Learning' or their intellectual development.

By the way, last week's issue of the New Yorker carried Louis Menand's trenchant critique of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate is a campus bestseller and although I found the book's subject matter utterly repellent, I had wanted to give the book the benefit of the doubt by actually reading it -- after all, one can't be too complacent about the rightness one's ideas. After reading Menand's critique, however, I realized that reading The Blank Slate isn't worth a day's worth of intellectual agony. While hurling a book repeatedly across a room can be considered a form of exercise -- and this, I suspect, is what reading the book will compel me to do -- I'd rather spend my time doing something mindless and sedentary, like watching cheesy programs on the WB.

From What Comes Naturally by Louis Menand:
    An obsession with the mean point of the bell curve has sometimes led scientists to forget that the "average person" is a mathematical construct, corresponding to no actual human being. It represents, in many cases, a kind of lowest common denominator. Yet scientists like Pinker treat it as a universal species norm. The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the kind of study, reported in the Science Times, in which the ideal female face is constructed by blending all the features identified by people as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with no aesthetic or erotic charge at all, far less alluring than many of the "outlying" variants used to derive it. Pinker's evolutionary theory of beauty has the same effect. "An eye for beauty," he says, "locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility -- just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate." Elsewhere, he explains that "the study of evolutionary aesthetics is also documenting the features that make a face or body beautiful. The prized lineaments are those that signal health, vigor, and fertility." But...[p]eople don't go for faces that deviate from the "ideal" because they can't have the ideal. They go for them because the deviation is what makes them attractive.
    So it is with most of the things we care about -- food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed (by natural selection, if you like) to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its overriding instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state; it is (as Wallace Stevens said) never satisfied. And it induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity. The more defiant something is of the instinctive, the typical, and the sufficient, the more highly it is prized. This is why we have the "Guinness Book of World Records," the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm...
    What the new sciences of human nature seem to show, for all their investigations down there among the genes and the neural networks, is that "human nature" is as much an abstraction as "God" or "the universal law." It is a magic wand that people wave over the practices they approve of. If that makes them feel better, who can complain? Human nature is never the reason for their approval, though. It would be nice if we could justify our choices by pointing silently to our genes. But we can't. Our genes, unfortunately, are even stupider than we are.

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