I guess there’s a market for his crap, but Alain de Botton’s ravings on the BBC today are worse than Ayn Rand, a form of love of foolishness as opposed to philosophy: a philomoria.
Ayn Rand addressed real philosophers (if sometimes she seems not to have read anything more than an encyclopedia article on some) and had a dedication to her perversion of the truth, but de Buffoon does violence to the truth in the service of the corporate state, if this article is any guide. Let’s take a look at some examples.
(de Botton is writing about Britain’s new “coalition” government of Tories and Liberal Democrats, and their cuts to education funding, especially arts and humanities. His words are in italics)
Speak to anyone working in the humanities within academia right now and you will hear that this country is about to enter a new Dark Age. The reason lies in the coalition government’s decision to impose swingeing cuts on almost all departments.
…except science, engineering and that sort of computer training that guarantees unemployability…
Philosophers, historians, classicists and literary critics feel especially badly let down. They fear a new age of philistinism, a moment when the nation finally gives up on serious culture and focuses instead on making money and inebriating itself on talent contests and celebrity chat shows.
You got that shit right, Alain.
If asked to apportion blame for what has happened to their departments, these academics do not have to search long for an answer, obviously “the government” is responsible. It is the government that has failed to appreciate the valuable work that the humanities do and it must therefore be scorned accordingly.
Well, it is: both Labour’s profligacy and the focus of Tory/LibDem cuts are government actions.
I want to try to respond to familiar stories of our times, with a little more analysis and opinion than is normally allowed in the media. I’d like to provoke thought, analysis – and the occasional disagreement.
And pick up a few shillings…
I’ll be looking at the way museums work, how people talk to one another, what a non-scientist can say about environmental catastrophe and why marriage is a spiritual discipline.
Gee, marriage used to be fun back in the day
Marriage was fun, and, in the old sense, rather gay
“Spiritual discipline” was for the monks and the nuns
Marriage was all about hot dogs and buns.
In your famous old Civil War, the Puritans
Were after Oliver’s fall, also-rans
But now they blight your green and pleasant land
Groaning like clock gods to the commuters in the Strand.
The dialogue with listeners through comments is also part of the pleasure of the exercise.
…until you see comments from a certain obstreperous and scurrilous Yank (me)…
It could seem unfair to knock someone when they are already down,
Not at all, Alain baby. It’s been the occupation of the bully since time, out of mind. Let’s blame the victim and feel all right.
but personally I can’t help but feel this approach and analysis lets academics off far too lightly. I have spent most of my professional life around and in the shadow of academics in the humanities, and have benefited hugely from the stored knowledge that they sit upon.
You cashed out, and like Lenin and many other “intellectuals”, you scorn the losers and the competition as semiotics of the inner contour of your own hidden weakness.
However, right now, at this difficult moment in the history of British universities, there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means “us” – the public at large.
Excuse me, sir. The public voted, narrowly, for the Coalition, which was formed because no one party received a majority. Under your Constitution, the resulting executive has broad and Royal policies to make radical changes in the name of your Queen, changes that in my own USA would have to be approved by Congress.
This is how your mad woman (Thatcher) destroyed popular local councils, including the Greater London Council that staged the Marathon I ran in London in 1983, against the wishes of the majority of Londoners, and many other communities. In the name of a mandate to reduce taxes, she reduced councils that were educating children but retained foolish military expenses such as Trident and the remilitarization of the Falklands as opposed to negotiating their handover to Alfonsin’s democratic Argentina.
She then, late in her term, instituted the medievally regressive poll tax.
These actions were taken without popular approval.
Your Coalition is doing the same thing with a far weaker mandate. And the resources “freed” up by this barbarism will indeed be poured into the rat-hole of popular culture.
Don’t you dare, don’t you dare mock the truth, you swine.
Who is “the public”? The man on the Clapham omnibus? You? And who voted for these cuts? Who voted for aircraft carriers without aircraft when one of these hulks would fund semesters of humanities?
They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to “think” or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important.
Here is why you are no philosopher, Alain, no lover of wisdom, but a philomorion, a lover of foolishness.
You did not think this through.
In a middle class existence as opposed to la vida loca, we do many things as part of what a mathematician would call a partial ordering.
Mum doesn’t gas up the car in the snow because she likes to: my kids enjoyed putting our USA self-service gas in Mum’s car for the direct experience but part of being an adult is learning to defer gratification, and do task A so that task B (getting the children to school) can be performed, as part of an overall mission of educating the children properly.
For each task, we might get direct satisfaction from its performance. Many people like driving cars, although few enjoy stopping for gas.
Or, we may take satisfaction in knowing that task A will allow us to perform a more pleasurable task later on. We go to a crowded mall at holiday time and buy gifts for the children in the aforesaid snow looking forward to the task/pleasure of giving them to the children.
Now, in this complex network of middle class anhedonia, there are moments that are pure gratification such as the love of the children. They are end points on what for a rather strange mathematician would be a graph from which no links emerge.
How does this relate to university education?
It relates because today, the widening of access to university education, unaccompanied by a sort of pre-WWI German nationalism or a single religious faith, has cheapened the experience. The poor and lower middle class regard university tasks as means to an end, and your idiotic radio talk is unreflectingly, unphilosophically, philomoronically infected by the universal acceptance of this narrative of university life…one that is simply not shared by its best faculty, whether in the sciences or the humanities.
Let me tell you a story, Alain. As part of an elaborate draft-dodging scheme during a time in which men my age were being sent to Vietnam to kill and die, I learned computer programming. A student in the humanities, I found it tedious at first. But in order to learn it I had to become passionately interested in programming, a common experience of computer geeks.
It became a ding an sich, a thing in itself, a for-itself, and remained so for thirty years. The science became my art in the sense that art and philosophy are best pursued as we pursue love, for their own sake.
Aristotle and the best faculty (the only worthwhile faculty) believe that one of humanity’s final ends is not home ownership, nor vacationing in Spain, nor swilling vintage Port wine, but Truth and Beauty, and your nation of poets and philosophers has come a cropper in the last two years not because your best university faculty were playing Soduku or jerking themselves off, but because the end of life was defined by politicians, corporations and the media as the cheapest kind of financial pseudo-prosperity.
One middle-class narrative admits as much, admits that The Higher Things might be ends-in-themselves, but must be deferred. If there are children, certainly, their needs take precedence; your boy Bertrand Russell was a good father because during his fathering years, he avoided the mental exhaustion caused by his earlier work on the foundations of mathematics.
But since Russell’s time, when children’s needs could be met for shillings and pence at the cornershop with a set of Britain’s Limited toy soldiers, the corporations have ensured that there is no “upper bound” on desire, and make sure the kids always have one more new product to lust, rage and nag after.
Which, along with the government’s preference for keeping labour in one place while capital runs all over the world, by over-encouraging home ownership, ensures that the parents can never pursue cultured pursuits. Their culture turns into its evil twin, entertainment, for by the time the children are abed, Mum and Dad need a program which does all their emotional work for them.
Aristotle’s Truth is eliminated, and while this assassination creates the pathologies you’d like the universities to address, it may not be able to cure them on return, especially if you wish it to be therapeutic.
Now they have learnt that if they couldn’t say in clear terms why they still mattered, then an impatient, harried government might just decide that they didn’t really, and a bored, stressed, stoical wider public wouldn’t bother to raise a hand in protest.
Today, “clarity” means telling people what they want to hear.
Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply for the humanities and believe they have a vital role to play in a healthy society. I just think that the way culture is currently taught in universities is a travesty of its real potential, and that the government cuts are an understandable, if not at all nice, consequence of the failure of current teaching methods and goals.
Here it comes…the public image of the academic, who slaves in fact to write acceptable peer-reviewed journal articles while grading half-literate papers and teaching year in year out, as a lazy and obfuscating sod. The Leninism of the “intellectual” telling the public that all those other intellectuals are lazy sods who write bullshit.
My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live.
Tolstoyan bread and salt, but it’s bullshit, Alain, for very precise reasons, reasons that you’d anticipate if you were a philosopher and not a philomorion.
First of all, the humanities should also help us to die…as you seem to know.
But far more important is that the very question, “do the humanities help us to live?” (and/or die) is not outside the humanities in the way that the philosophy of mathematics is not itself part of mathematics, and the philosophy of science is outside science.
Whether the truth helps us to live or whether it might actually be rather depressing is internal to the humanities, and your idiotically simple answer should be a question.
Hamlet’s learning the truth from his father’s ghost causes his depression to deepen, from “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” to the suicidal “to be, or not to be”. But when he learns another truth from Fortinbras’ Sergeant, that men can be motivated not only by comfort and pleasure but for pure recognition as seen in Hegel, his depression disappears.
The truth affects us different ways as does beauty. Seeing the paintings in the National Gallery might lead to frustration if one must return to a bedsit in Earl’s Court. Reading Hamlet might spoil the copywriter’s zippy style.
Or, the gallery goer might get new hope and a print for his bedsit at the National Gallery, and the copywriter may discover that ad copy in iambic pentameter has a great deal of oomph.
It depends on the person, not the subject.
We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.
This is what some Victorians certainly believed. But to put it into words does violence to the language…what are “suggestions about value”? Certainly, as a teacher, if I were bear-leading a flock of students through the Louvre, I might certainly explain Poussin’s Wedding of Orpheus by recounting the myth, and ask the students if it’s healthy to grieve a relationship as did Orpheus, or whether he should have paid more attention to Eurydice during the wedding ceremony, instead of riffing out on his lyre.
But this could be done with a print bought at the National Gallery. The whole point of ferrying a mob of urchins to the Louvre is to give them, not only Improving Lessons, but a sensory experience of painting: the smell of the aging varnish, the strange silence, the diffident guards.
This could in some cases become an end in itself outside the middle class rat race, one just as precious as the clamor of kids who’ve got what they wanted at Christmas.
Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,
And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.
But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.
Louis Macneice is writing about personal gratification, which is frowned upon today as far as the downsized middle class is concerned. Complementary to the over-gratification of British and American children, such pursuits are frowned upon.
But the university might teach such pursuits, and under the Coalition’s attack lies the suggestion that time itself should reverse, and that gratification, for all but the upper crust, should not be sought in, but replaced by, Church, which deadens and endures.
And when you’ve lived long enough, as I have, and read enough, as I have, you ask with Auden, must we suffer it all again, must you English suffer it all again: the return, not of the repressed, but of repression, and its enforcer, the drunken brutality which is returning increasingly a feature of British life and a throwback to the 18th century.
The university cannot reverse this process but its downsizing is, if not a cause, an epiphenomenon of the overall trend. Basically, a society that defunds the humanities is one in which bullying increases.
It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.
Nothing wrong with this (apart from the fact that you forgot to mention that some of us would like to benefit ourselves by being more cultivated individuals for the sheer goddamn hell of it).
But: the elimination of the university, its down-sizing, will certainly cause more people to pursue low amusement, whereas we do not know if the down-sized university will be up to the neo-Victorian task.
You’re asking it to work harder and do more with less. You’re starving it of capital while expecting too much. That is like those cute K-12 experiments in which half the teachers in a school are laid off pour encourager. The results here in the States? Kids spending study hall watching kiddie slasher movies like Spawn of Chuckie, to mention one typical example.
You’re also forgetting brain drain. I met the eminent Cambridge mathematician John Horton Conway at our local convenience store when I was at Princeton…he was examining logic puzzle magazines. He’d been lured to Princeton with a princely salary. If British universities are cut, your faculty are going to flee…to the USA, and anglophone Asia such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
(Conway has since returned to Britain, but before the era of cutbacks.)
Do we learn more from Oprah Winfrey?
No. I admire her, but we don’t.
I’m certainly not the first person to express these hopes of education. You start to hear them in mid-19th Century Victorian Britain, when men like John Stewart Mill come out with statements like: “The object of universities is not to make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.”
Mill’s sunny optimism was belied by men like Eichmann, who told Hannah Arendt that he’d studied and admired Kant. Since for the most part, cultivation of the mind produces good people (Eichmann an exception that proves a rule), and the end of life is truth and perhaps beauty as opposed to tawdry hollow riches of the sort that produced 2008′s crash, we should just “do it”…fund the universities.
His contemporary Matthew Arnold sounded similar notes, expressing a view that a liberal education should help to inspire in us “a love of our neighbour, a desire for clearing human confusion and for diminishing human misery”. At its most ambitious, Arnold added, it should even engender the “noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it”.
These well-meaning, mid-Victorians wanted to use humanistic culture to replace scripture. They wanted universities to become our new churches, places that would teach us how to live, but without dogma or superstition.
Claims that culture could stand in for scripture – that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine’s City of God – still have a way of sounding a bit eccentric, or just insane in their combination of impiety and ambition. But I want to argue that we are wrong to be suspicious of such claims. Culture can and should change and save our lives.
John Stuart Mill did not argue that we should pursue Culture in order to be more effective in more tawdry pursuits such as business or putting up with Mothers In Law. Instead, he recognized that for Cultured gents, their pursuits were ends in themselves, and that these chaps were usually better ratepayers than the flash chaps, who would, in the absence of any lust for Truth and Beauty, ruin girls and waste family fortunes crying “bring in” or at the gaming table.
Arnold, writing about fifty years later, did make an argument of that form, and it is for that reason weaker. We Yankees say that you can lead a horse to water, and students, exposed to Higher Things strictly to avoid their spending their twenties, in Shepherd’s words from The Winter’s Tale,
…getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting…
usually get wenches with child, wrong the ancientry, steal and fight simply out of human nature, and in resentment at the burial of the very idea that it might just be droll to read Shakespeare.
Alan Bennett’s History Boys was about lessons in life
Though it was at first hoped by men like Arnold and Mill that universities might be our new churches, these centres of learning have never offered what churches invariably focus on – guidance. It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows.
It’s a detail, but one that should be noticed if you call yourself a philosopher: churches haven’t always focused on guidance. The Augustinian strain in Christianity preached “predestination”, and this meant that the reprobate could not be guided.
St Augustine and Luther realized, through a glass darkly, something that Baruch Spinoza put into words: “blessedness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself”. The good man doesn’t have to put out an effort (or go to university) to avoid wronging the ancientry, getting wenches with child, stealing, or fighting.
St Augustine and Luther thought this virtue was God’s election. Spinoza was more university-oriented in that his good man would desire knowledge more than wronging the ancientry. But in all three, it is an uncaused state, one that cannot be inculcated through guidance, whether secular or spiritual. Spinoza said, “needs must it be hard”, and “everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare”, and probably believed that it could not be inculcated, especially today, in a society in which parents insist on their children going to uni.
Now, it is true that universities of the Middle Ages and Reformation were founded and funded in a spirit parallel to, if different from, that of today. As Max Weber has shown, Capital jostled Religion aside, or joined it at the head table where they have sat uneasily together ever since, demanding that all institutions justify themselves in service to them, like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
A (the monastery before Henry VIII, the Lutheran seminary, the American land-grant college for the training strictly of ministers or teachers) was for B1 (religion). Then, in the 20th century, A became for B2 (the corporation). That was because otherwise, the old Reformation suspicion would arise in the popular mind that the clerisy were not carrying their own weight.
Which they weren’t, and it was a good thing, because sufficient numbers of the clerisy, disguised as far as Parliament or American state legislatures were concerned as servants of God or of Mammon, were actually pursuing a “higher”, or Millsian, form of pure self-gratification, writing poetry and discovering relativity for the hell of it. We all benefited, but that wasn’t the point.
The downsizing of the universities in Britain has to be viewed as a symptom, not even a false cure, of a general brutalization caused by global capitalism. This is because in 1946, in a Britain parts of which had regressed economically and in some respects to the fourteenth century owing to Britain’s two world wars, Labour was nonetheless able to provide National Health while maintaining the reputation of Britain’s private universities (which, I’d admit, received far less funding than they do today, although they did receive some on account of defence spending) and actually creating new public universities!
(Neil Kynaston’s excellent study of this period, Austerity Britain does point out that the expansion after the 1945 Percy report was “spasmodic”, receiving a lot of resistance from the private universities. However, the most significant fact is that investment was not cut back despite the far more desperate situation of Britain at the time.)
The contemporary guardians of culture have a habit of cudgelling anyone who might try to use culture for didactic ends or to open a subject up to a mass audience. When confronted by those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become very disdainful.
This is because the “lessons” of culture are not one size fits all. de Botton wants a “culture” of T shirts and baseball caps.
Many British youths do have a problem in containing sexual impulses, or as Shakespeare would say, getting wenches with child. Others have the older “British” problem that their own sexuality is too well contained, and they can’t express love, so they beat up queers as a result. These differences are best met by therapy.
Whatever the rhetoric of graduation ceremonies and the ambitious tone of prospectuses, there seems a strange and regrettable truth to confront about the workings of the modern university, that the institution has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills – how to love our neighbours, clear human confusion, diminish human misery and leave the world better and happier than we found it.
Nonsense on stilts. Multicultural education does help us love our neighbors. Many of the cutback advocates prefer a more traditional education which celebrates ethnic hatred, and might prefer the students to watch Branagh’s rather pornographically violent and somewhat over the top patriotic Henry V. The cutbacks tend to preserve the worst of the old.
There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.
Eye roll. Crotch grab. For one thing, dying, relationships and self-knowledge cannot be separated.
Universities may well be teaching the right books but they too often fail to ask direct questions of them, declining to advance sufficiently vulgar, neo-religious enquiries because they are embarrassed to admit the true nature of our inner needs. They are fatefully in love with ambiguity, they trust in the absurd modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.
That’s not a modernist doctrine. Instead, the great modernist works (take Joyce), far from having no moral content, address the question of how to live with dignity in a society out of scale with human needs, in which it seems hard to live a decent life: you’re so responsible for your personal means and ends, and the ways and means are so deliberately opaque, that moral choice is obscured; you go to work for a financial firm only to discover when it’s too late that its investments or disinvestments are destroying the environment or people’s lives.
Joyce’s characters are trying to live in a society of bullshitters so clever at narration as to construct a fantasy land in which the “British” were responsible for everything bad, and the Church could not be questioned. Sure, modernism wasn’t about conformity, although that is what de Botton seems to be demanding: that we “contain” impulse and treat marriage like a job so as not to impose costs on a downsized government or damage our all important “performance” at work.
Prior to the current epoch, God and Mammon sat uneasily together despite Christ’s warnings. Today they seem to fuse and the result is monstrous. Spinoza’s, Luther’s, and St Augustine’s message was that the saint does exactly what he wants, not what’s expected of him, but what he wants is the good, which is trivially the only thing we want (the rest is consumerism and its evil twin, addiction).
We have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely dare to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possibly analysis of the human condition, but arguably, in my view, she asks many more of the right questions than the humanities’ professors at Oxford.
Philomoria. Oprah gets her books from professors, or from students inspired to love books by professors!
An insult to humanities teachers that have to, year in, year out, ask the most serious questions of the soul.
I had to teach The Painted Veil the other day. In preparing, I had to ask myself, am I Walter Fane? I asked my ex-wife during a period of half-reconciliation to come to China with me. During my marriage I’d “contained” my sexual impulses, and along with them, like Prince Charles, my ability to love.
I took only one class at Oxford, and that was online, and I left it because it was too dumbed-down and I didn’t want to overwhelm the teacher as I am carpet bombing Alain here. But I find it very hard to believe that in teaching, for example, The Painted Veil, Oxford professors have the students count words to measure Maugham’s vocabulary or treat the story as anything but profoundly about moral growth. But being responsible professors, they have to show how “moral growth” emerges from the nuts and bolts of character and dialogue.
And…if they are looking over their shoulder to see if they are on the chopping block, they will talk far less about the big questions, and instead teach the facts in a measurable way, in order to justify rehire.
Yes, de Botton is worse than Ayn Rand.