Friday, October 26, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Dawkins is a decent popularizer of science but compared to Kepler, Newton, and Einstein he is a Lilliputian
Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006).
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high. By Mary Lefkowitz October 23, 2007 HOME MyLATimes
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them-Democritus by name-conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology.
About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.
The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders-ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.
Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages. It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths.
Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.
To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question-these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.
To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind's most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth's language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.
To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper.
To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word "idiot." A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.
And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.
Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.
And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to give you a glimpse of the Athenian way, to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. You are young and it is not given to us to see your future. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.
Thank you, and congratulations.
The Athenians and the Visigoths: A Graduation Speech -- by Neil Postman
by RY Deshpande on Mon 15 Oct 2007 02:10 AM PDT Permanent Link
[Apropos of our current discussion about Maheshwari and Mahasaraswati in academic and educational institutions, (http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2007/9/26/3253926.html)
I thought it apposite to post Neil Postman’s very living speech to reflect on some of the related issues. The original is at http://www.ditext.com/postman/mgs.html ]
Neil Postman, a critic, writer, communications theorist, and professor of communication arts and sciences...
Saturday, October 06, 2007
Thursday, October 04, 2007
By ROGER KIMBALL; NYT: April 5, 1987 THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. By Allan Bloom. Foreword by Saul Bellow. 392 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $18.95.
Let me say at the outset that ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is essential reading for anyone concerned with the state of liberal education in this society. Its pathos, erudition and penetrating insight make it an unparalleled reflection on the whole question of what it means to be a student in today's intellectual and moral climate. But such qualities also make the book difficult to summarize briefly. Mr. Bloom ranges freely over centuries of thinking about freedom, values and the ends of education, moving with ease (to quote one of his more ambitious chapter headings) ''From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede.'' Yet the book's scope and considerable learning have not made it any less immediate or compelling. In fact, one of the things that distinguishes it is its successful blending of erudition with great particularity. Among the more noteworthy examples of the latter is Mr. Bloom's harrowing description, near the end of the book, of his experiences at Cornell University in the late 1960's when students seized buildings at gunpoint, held professors hostage and intimidated a pusillanimous administration into a policy of appeasement.
As his title suggests, Mr. Bloom's assessment of liberal education is not optimistic. In essence, he argues that over the last 25 years the academy has all but abandoned the intellectual and moral principles that have traditionally informed and given substance to liberal education, becoming prey to the enthusiasms - increasingly politicized - of the moment. While the eruption of violence and political activism in the 60's marked the high point of those enthusiasms, in Mr. Bloom's view, the university has yet to recover from the aftereffects of those disruptions. And because the university epitomizes the very spirit of free inquiry, which in turn is at the root of a free society, he concludes that ''a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis'' for a modern democratic nation.
Mr. Bloom devotes a large part of the book to analyzing the character and intellectual disposition of those students who form his main subject and raison d'etre, liberal arts students ''who populate the twenty or thirty best universities.'' Among much else, he describes the extent to which even such privileged students have in recent years ''lost the practice of and the taste for reading,'' forsaking the companionship of books for the more accessible but less sustaining pleasures of movies and rock music. He discusses how changes in the family, especially the high incidence of divorce, have impinged upon the character of students, leaving them at once more cynical and less questioning, less critical. And he considers how the revolution in adolescent sexual mores not only wrought radical changes in sexual attitudes and behavior, but also has tended to dampen what Plato described as the ''erotic'' element in education, the element of mystery and longing that has always been part of the excitement of discovering the world of liberal learning.
Mr. Bloom makes it quite clear that he considers ''the good old Great Books approach'' the ''only serious solution'' to the crisis in education; and, as he stresses again and again, liberal education consists precisely in ''knowing the alternative answers and thinking about them.'' At the same time, Mr. Bloom is skeptical about what he describes as ''the Great Books cult,'' enumerating its deficiencies - from its tendency to encourage a kind of autodidactic amateurism to its penchant for ''a certain coarse evangelistic tone'' - with greater penetration than many opponents of the approach.
In fact, one of the chief things to appreciate about ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is that its dominant stance is interrogative, not prescriptive. Everything problematic that the term modernity implies, all the doubts about the meaning of tradition, the legitimacy of inherited values, the point of preserving high culture - all this Mr. Bloom is perfectly cognizant of. He, too, has read Nietzsche, and his discussion betrays none of the naivete that many conservative treatments of such matters display. Nor does he imply that the answer to the problem of liberal education is to return to some simpler, less encumbered past. About changes in the American family, for example, he notes that he is ''not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.''
Of course, this book will find many enemies - mostly, I suspect, because of its avowedly traditional vision of what it means to be an educated person. And no doubt many will object that this portrait of liberal education is in many ways a caricature or an exaggeration. Certainly, there are exceptions to the rule of mediocrity and ideological posing that Mr. Bloom anatomizes in these pages; but the question remains whether his general assessment is not in fact accurate.
Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book, born of a long and patient meditation on questions that may be said to determine who we are, both as individuals and as a society. And while Mr. Bloom's indictment is severe, it is by no means despairing. As he notes in his concluding remarks, despite the fragmentation and disorder in the university today, ''The questions are all there. They only need to be addressed continuously and seriously for liberal learning to exist; for it does not consist so much in answers as in the permanent dialogue.'' With ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' Mr. Bloom takes his place as an articulate participant in that dialogue. ROGER KIMBALL REGULARLY CONTRIBUTES TO THE NEW CRITERION AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS.