What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals? | The Chronicle Review

Mark Greif has written a long, lovely meditation on the heyday of public intellectuals and their audience in mid 20th century America. That period, in his view, was best epitomised by the Partisan Review.

My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.

It was born of unique influences: a world emerging from unutterable darkness and eager for the light; a prodigious influx of the finest European intellects before and during the war; and, a widespread sense that bettering oneself was not only desirable, but possible. We can hardly wish for such a confluence to reoccur; no period of intellectual excellence could justify the cost. Nevertheless, Continue reading

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‘Why Academics Stink at Writing’ | Steven Pinker

In this dryly amusing essay, Steven Pinker tries to figure out “Why Academics Stink at Writing”.

He quickly discards the conventional explanations: that “bad writing is a deliberate choice” designed to “bamboozle”; that “difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of [the] subject matter; and, that “the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. There’s a smidgen of truth in each but none stands up to proper scrutiny.

For Pinker, the gold standard of expository prose is the classic style:[1]

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

While academic writers generally do want to convey some particular information, this straightforward goal is undermined by a deeper need. “[T]he writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.” Continue reading

The Two Cultures, Then and Now | Books and Culture

In “The Two Cultures” in 1959, C.P.Snow lamented the growing, almost wilful, mutual incomprehension that divided science and the humanities. Despite an initially muted response the lecture and subsequent article became famous and even today remain the touchstone for this perennial (and occasionally tiresome) debate.

Snow also had another, more pragmatic concern; because the political elite was drawn almost entirely from the humanities, they were in his view ill suited to make best use of the stunning advances in science and technology.

As Alan Jacobs argues in “The Two Cultures, Then and Now”, this concern didn’t necessarily accord all that well with the facts.

I don’t suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow’s time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow’s picture of the “traditional culture,” But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher’s status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

At any rate, for much of the essay Jacobs concerns himself with what seems to me far more interesting territory. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much this intermittent antagonism between the two cultures but the degree to which our current education systems cripple both. Continue reading

What would Maggie do now? | Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson can be a funny guy.

People aren’t remotely interested in how much tax these characters pay. That does nothing to palliate their primary offence, which is to be so stonkingly and in their view emetically rich.

Emetically, for those who (like me) haven’t run across it before, means vomit inducing.

He loves stirring things up, saying the unsayable, tweaking friends and opponents. By all accounts, he rides easily over his own stumbles and idiocies, an irrepressible, privileged, well educated, scruffy and oversized urchin.

Last week, he gave the Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Somewhat careless comments about the uses of greed and the distribution of IQ in “our species” got most of the critical attention. Still, alongside this, and his boosterism for Britain, and his unabashed enthusiasm for free markets and meritocracy, worries about rising inequality dotted the speech. I rather liked his summary of the dilemma. Continue reading

Play-deprivation experiment | Aeon

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems.

via Children are suffering a severe deficit of play