Saturday, October 23, 2010

If You Only Read Stuff You Know, You’ll Never Know Anything Else; or, A Summer Heavy Reading Roundup

Last spring I overdosed on true crime, thrillers, westerns, and other high-calorie, low-nourishment books. I reviewed some of them on this site. But I needed a break. Herewith some quick-hit reviews of my stouter fare from recent months, probably not to everyone’s taste.  But you never know -- something may strike a chord.  I was going to write a separate article about the Nussbaum book and probably should have, but once I got started  .  .  .  .   Anyway, here's some gruel for thought:

Truth: A Guide
Simon Blackburn

Every so often I read a book that’s way over my head, one I could never hope to understand in full. I do so deliberately, and I’ve done it ever since I was a little kid. Even though I slog through concepts that I couldn’t repeat back to you five minutes later, I’ve always felt that a little something sticks. More important, this exercise reminds me there is so much out there that I don’t know and don’t understand, but there are people out there who aren’t frauds who do understand it.  I even try to read a book about math or modern physics at least one a year.

Our first book here falls in this category of stuff I don’t really get but feel elevated by having read it. It is a survey of philosophical attitudes towards the concept of truth. Blackburn examines the relativist and the absolutist points of view and all shades in between and surrounding them. I was doing pretty well until the chapter on Nietzsche. Then my eyes glazed over and I had to switch into hope-some-of-this-sticks mode. Wittgenstein, Rorty, Kant, Hume, and many others stroll across the stage.  On the theory-of-truth scale, Blackburn is somewhere on the absolutist side of the dial but not all the way over, as am I.  Or at least I think I am -- books like this have the salutary effect of rattling one's certitude.

What did I learn? You’ll have to wait for my book.

Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy
Yuval Levin

A slender book, but a rich one. Levin examines the relationship between the enterprise of scientific inquiry and ordered liberty. His point is that in general, science is engaged in a search for knowledge, and that it is aimed at improving our lot generally. That aim is one shared by elected politicians.

He accordingly suggests that government may have some role in how science is conducted. That sounds scarily repressive of free inquiry, but Levin seeks to show that we need not fear legislation on subjects such as stem cell research and the like.  (NOTE:  I am, in general, opposed to such legislation.)   Contrary to caricatures of Neanderthalic Tea Party types, Levin believes that the Left is generally less supportive of science than popularly believed, and the Right more so. It is a humane and careful analysis.

The Age of Wonder
Richard Holmes

This history of the “Second Scientific Revolution” in England that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was an unalloyed pleasure. It focuses on a handful of the most prominent scientists and explorers, focusing on Joseph Banks, the South Pacific explorer who went on to become the head of the Royal Society and whose influence spans the period; William Herschel, the German immigrant who made astonishing astronomical discoveries with his self-designed telescopes, including a 50-inch (that’s the diameter of the concave mirror that collects and focuses the light) whopper that was 40 feet long, although he discovered Uranus with a much smaller one; and Humphry Davy, the brilliant chemist who, among other scientific advances, invented the Davy Lamp, which greatly reduced the threat of coal mine explosions. There is a fascinating chapter of Europe’s obsession with ballooning. Especially welcome is Holmes’s attention to the contribution of female scientists and patrons, especially Hershel’s long-suffering sister Caroline.  She was a prolific comet-finder and recognized then and now as an important scientist in her own right. 

I see in the Amazon reviews for this book that some readers have noted some scientific errors.  I found one myself, a use of "billions" when he should have said "millions."  Minor stuff.  It's a first-rate scientific history about a critical period in the intellectual development of the West.

Speaking of the West  .  .  .

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900
Andrew Roberts

This one’s a bit of a cheat: I’m only about two-thirds through it, but it deserves a place here. The title hearkens back to Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which ends at 1900. You will not read a lot of modern histories like it, as it is unapologetically friendly to the ascendance of Britain (and its dominions) and America.  Roberts also devotes attention to former British colonies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.   These days you’ll seldom find a book of any genre, much less a scholarly work, that:

  -- has some kind words for colonialism;

  -- expresses some sympathy for the Treaty of Versailles;

  -- is decidedly unromantic about Ireland; and

  -- takes the position that not all civilizations are created equal, and that the civilization represented by the English-speaking peoples is mainly responsible for what progress and peace we find in the world today.

Amazing passages on the murder required to sustained communist regimes worldwide, the creation of the British welfare state, the loyalty and sacrifice of British commonwealth countries during both world wars (Ireland excepted), and the relative benignity of such repression and discrimination as is from time to time found in the English-speaking countries. Coming in for special condemnation is the liberal intellectual after World War II, whose blindness to (and sometimes, outright lying in support of) the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, and contempt for political systems based on individual and economic liberty, makes you wonder what pathology could possibly be the source of such eloquent ignorance.

It’s lively, mixes anecdote and big-picture data-gathering, and is rather convincing. If you want a pretty hairy-chested view of world history during the Twentieth Century, this is your meat.  (Approx. 650 pages of text.)

Not for Profit
Martha Nussbaum

Your Cool Hot Center tries to identify the good and the bad about the Left and the Right. Professor Nussbaum holds some claim to being the world’s foremost feminist scholar, which is kind of like having the biggest . . . . nope, won’t go there. In fact, calling her a “feminist scholar” somewhat demeans her, as her academic and philosophical interests range far and wide, and she writes interestingly on many of them. She is also a fine prose stylist. I’ve read many of her articles with pleasure, but this is the first book I’ve tackled.

I agree entirely with her thesis that the decline of support for the humanities in our educational system from top to bottom – but especially in the universities – is deplorable. I also agree with her that a firm grounding in the universal human values examined in art, literature, and history promotes democratic values.  In fact, I believe she would agree with me that such an education nourishes the mindset necessary for informed, common-sense decsionmaking. She argues pretty convincingly that the humanities are being reduced at the expense of programs that purport to prepare students for the world of business and competition. Hence the title.

But there is something a bit odd about her argument. She doesn’t spend much time demonstrating the link between the humanities and a robust democracy – but I didn’t mind that, since I agree with her anyway. What struck me as odd is what she asserts the humanities are mainly good for.  I was cruising along nicely with her until this sentence stopped me:

“These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” (At 19.)

Gosh, I guess I don’t disagree with any of those, and I even think I’d also give pride of place to “the ability to think critically,” but the rest – I dunno. Numbers 2 and 3 aren’t wrong, but I sure wouldn’t have put them in my top few benefits of studying the humanities.  "Transcend local loyalties" -- hmm, well, I suppose it isn't a strict necessity that a humanist believe in American exceptionalism, so OK.  But this odd little list is the first tip that she's up to something.

The reader isn’t puzzled for long. Professor Nussbaum gives up the game less than ten pages later when she writes sarcastically about what she calls “education for economic growth”:

“But care must be taken lest the historical and economic narrative lead to any serious critical thinking about class, about race and gender, about whether foreign investment is really good for the rural poor, about whether democracy can survive when huge inequalities in basic life chances obtain.” (At 28.)

This is what Professor Nussbaum means by the humanities as a requirement to a vigorous democracy. She means humanities that stress the ideology of victimization and redistribution (i.e., “equality”) over the primacy of the individual and political freedom.  (Really -- the humanities should spend some time on "critical thinking" on "whether foreign investment is really good for the rural poor"?  I would be interested in knowing whether Professor Nussbaum thinks that it is or isn't, and what important literature or art takes this as its theme.)   She’s not shy about this – she congratulates the American public on the election of Barack Obama as having “opted for a group committed to greater equality in health care and a greater degree of attention to issues of equal access to opportunity generally.” (I'm sure she'd like a clawback on that one, as it is now apparent that most of the Democratic Party and all of the Left (and a lot of Republicans, too) completely misunderstood Obama's victory.  She later bemoans Obama’s apparent support for growth-friendly educational programs.  The poor guy just can't stop disappointing his admirers.)

This leftish view of the value of the humanities to democracy may be the reason that Professor Nussbaum places sole blame for their decline on the ascendancy of more employment-friendly studies. While I do not disagree with her that this is a factor, I suggest that another reason, which is not mentioned in Professor Nussbaum’s analysis, is that way too many humanities departments have rendered themselves jokes by their politicized emphasis on exactly the issues she thinks crucial, those being race, class, and identity orientation generally.  Not to mention the Poststructuralist/Postmodernist/Deconstructionist rubbish (Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, that crowd) that is the tenure-enforced philosophy in so many humanities departments today.  Nobody with a lick of sense takes it seriously, but university humanities departments are shot through with it.  It is small wonder that such value-free university literature studies (in particular) are regarded as largely irrelevant both by students and those who interact with them after graduation.  You can call it "humanities" if you want, but very little of it connects up with what most humans perceive about their own condition.

So – a legitimate concern on the part of Professor Nussbaum, and a very interesting and readable book (her passages on her experiences with the Tagore school in India are fascinating).   But she exhibits the myopia about what ails modern humanities education that one sees too often from its most celebrated contemporary representatives, and her argument is undercut by her notion that democracy is best served by using instruction in the humanities to heighten race/class/gender/you-name-it awareness.

Yeah, like we need more of that.

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