This essay from Walter Russell Mead’s blog, though written by Roger Berkowitz, sets out what the role should be of humanities professors. He thinks they basically shouldn’t be doing research and should instead be “well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.” He makes some other claims as well:
While there are exceptions, little original research is left to do in most fields of the humanities.
As a result—and it is hard to hear for many in the scholarly community—we simply don’t need 200 medieval scholars in the United States or 300 Rawlsians or 400 Biblical scholars.
Let me take up his claim that there’s little left to do in most fields of the humanities. I agree that this is sometimes the case. For a comparatively recent figure (like Jane Austen) whose life is mostly known, there is not so much left to be done, and today’s scholars end up doing “pomo” exercises like trying to figure out what his or her attitude was towards, say, homosexuality. Most of this “research” can simply be tossed.
But much of the humanities is about history, and the further back in time one goes, the less documentation there is, which means that much of what is said is speculative. That in turn means that there’s always research left to do, because speculation that one generation finds compelling, a later generation finds unpersuasive.
In my own field of Greek philosophy, for example, the presocratics’s works have come down in nothing but fragments; we don’t even know for certain who preceded whom, but I believe everyone today accepts that Heraclitus preceded Parmenides. But even for someone like Plato, whose works we have in full, there is a lot of speculation because there is no consensus on what was happening in his late period.
In other areas, too, there is a paucity of information which leads to scholars resorting to speculation. Two areas in which this occurs that I’ve touched on in recent days are the early days of Islam and the location of the homeland of the group that used Proto-Indo-European.
Another reason for keeping active researchers around is that both specialists and non-specialists are coming up with new ideas all the time. Those of us in Greek philosophy have suffered from hearing from non-specialists that we don’t take the sophists seriously (according to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and that Socrates was black (according to Martin Bernal in Black Athena).
Lately, leftists have been insisting that medieval Spain was some multicultural paradise, and it takes experts to counter them by saying that they’ve way overstated the situation. Edward Said insisted that the orientalists of the past (that is, the scholars specializing in the Middle East) aided Western imperialists. Then there are the wild claims made by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. There are also locavores, who seem to think that people ate local food until the 1940s, when in fact there was trade in food going back to ancient times. (In the book by Patricia Crone that I just read on trade in Mecca, she happens to mention that in Diocletian’s Rome it was cheaper to get grain from Egypt than it was from farmland that was a mere fifty miles away.) Finally, we have scientists insisting that there was no medieval warm period.
The role of the researcher, as opposed to the “well-read and thoughtful teacher,” is to investigate claims like these to see if they hold water. Unfortunately, these days humanities professors are all too likely to be promoting their own new myths about the world instead of trying to determine what actually happened, and it’s for this reason that I think much of our era’s scholarly output will be considered as junk in two or three decades.
I thought shari‘a finance was nothing other than a scheme to prevent interest being charged as a way to avoid usury (defined in the strictest way possible). But it turns out that it’s more than that. This article in Britain’s Daily Mail tells of wealthy expatriate Brits who were living in the United Arab Emirates, until their finances went bad and they were forced to flee back to Britain. Why? Because apparently shari‘a finance is less forgiving of those who are in debt than British law is; they feared they would go to jail. They even abandoned their expensive cars at the airport. The sidebar of the article mentions that Dubai has no clear bankruptcy laws.
To be fair, a friend of mine who ran a business in Germany said he was in danger of going to jail if his business went bankrupt, so it’s not just shari‘a finance that works this way.
Recently, one Hamilton Nolan argued for a tax of 99% on all money earned in excess of $5 million. (Here; hat tip: John J. Ray) Exactly why $5 million should be the cutoff isn’t clear, but that is the figure he chose. It’s an awfully stupid idea, which several commenters didn’t hesitate to point out. My first reaction was that all that money going to the government would probably not end up in the hands of the poor, and several commenters agreed.
But here is my own proposal. The median income in this country is about $50,000 per year. I propose that everyone who believes in redistributions should be taxed at 100% for all income that is in excess of that figure, to be redistributed to those who earn below that figure. Those who don’t believe in redistributions will be taxed at the current rates.
When I was younger and still believed in redistributions, I mostly knew people who came from the lower-middle class, and the few rich people I knew were either blatantly conservative, or if they were liberal, I wasn’t aware of it. But in recent years I’ve come to know more and more liberals who are rich, or if not rich, at least with incomes above the median, and these people seem very reluctant to spread their wealth, despite what they say. Their insistence on redistributions looks like a pose, a way of looking and talking as if one were generous when in fact one isn’t. The implication always seems to be that other people are supposed to pony up their money, while the person in question isn’t rich enough for that. It reminds me of that silly headline from The Onion that “98% Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others” (here). In this case, it’s 98% of liberals with incomes above the median favor other wealthy liberals giving up their wealth. Naturally, such people will object to my proposal and will prefer Mr. Nolan’s, but if you genuinely believe in redistributions, it shouldn’t bother you in the slightest.
That’s what a commenter on this site calls people like me, since I generally hate vegetables. Someone going by the name maleficent says:
When someone makes the statement that they hate vegetables it makes me absolutely crazy... Have you tried every vegetable out there? I strongly doubt it, have you experimented with different preparation methods? I strongly doubt it.
Don't be a veggist... give them a chance...
Of course I haven’t tried every vegetable out there. Why should I, given that I don’t like most of them? The ones I haven’t tried are likely to be just as awful as the ones I have tried. Preparation methods? Why bother? Or rather, I hate tomatoes, but I like lots of tomato products, like pizza sauce and salsa. If that’s what maleficent means by preparation method, all right, I’ll give some of these things a try. But I suspect that’s not what is meant.
I pretty much like as an adult the same vegetables that I liked as a kid: carrots, corn, and a few others. Vegetables are just a class of food I have little interest in. This post was inspired by Instapundit’s linking to a site asking why men don’t like vegetables (here). The answers they give – that men don’t see the value of eating them as much as women do and that they don’t have control over eating them – don’t apply to me. I just plain don’t like them. I eat a few for health reasons, but that’s all.
By the way, if you do a search on Google for “I hate vegetables,” 165,000 entries come up. And that’s just the people who bothered to say it. This guy probably says it best, though.
Mark Steyn has written a column (here) against those feminists who claim that the Republicans are waging a war against women; he responds that our society, via the Dems, is waging a war against children.
What he should have said is that there are people who are waging a real war against women, except that it’s not the Republicans. It’s the Muslims (some of them, anyway), which makes it abundantly clear that the left’s supporting them has to be their stupidest idea since the Soviet-Nazi pact.
Anyone who knows the slightest little bit about how Muslims in the most conservative Muslim countries treat women should know this. Then these people migrate to the West where the multiculturalists allow them to continue mistreating women. All of this is basically a no-brainer, except that some people just don’t want to hear about it and so are in massive denial (as I argued recently about Martha Nussbaum).
And Mark Steyn knows this stuff as well as anyone, since his book America Alone certainly spells out the fate of the West in the next few decades with respect to the Muslim problem. So, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t take this line.
This article from Press Association (the national news agency of Britain) mentions a scientific article in the journal Science that claims that someone has figured out where the English language originated from: Turkey. The method used was to look at cognates (such as “mother”) in Indo-European languages and to look at their evolution and ... and then I don’t know how this method did anything, given their description, but it allowed the researchers to suggest that English and other Indo-European languages come from what we now call Turkey.
Ok, that settles it, then. But not so fast. Here is a different article on the same subject that gives more information. This article says that most linguists are skeptical of the method used. (See here for more information on the method; the research team also concluded that all languages began in southwestern Africa, which sounds rather strange, given that the human race supposedly got its start in east Africa.) So, maybe it isn’t Turkey.
Anyway, here are some of the problems with the initial article. As I already hinted, it gives no indication that this isn’t a totally accepted theory yet.
In addition, the very term Indo-European will be confusing to those who have never heard the term before (and I know highly educated people who haven’t). The theory about them was invented by Sir William Jones in 1786, because he had noticed striking similarities in vocabulary between Sanskrit, Persian, and European languages. The hypothesis is that Sanskrit, Persian, and most European languages shared a common ancestor. This led to a search for where that ancestor language was spoken, and while there’s no consensus yet, the latest I heard on the issue is that the favorite theory locates it north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (see here), though Turkey is still a possibility.
Another problem is that anyone who knows about Indo-European languages knows that what sparked the theory that they are related wasn’t just a single word, “mother,” but a bunch of words: “brother,” “three,” “seven,” “night,” and so on. But for those who have never heard of the theory about Indo-European languages, the use of the example “mother” suggested that all other languages (like Chinese) that had a similar word ought to be included. It’s only when one looks at some of the other cognates that one realizes that other languages don’t belong.
It’s clear from the comments to the article that many readers were confused.
A couple weeks ago I wrote on corruption in academic publishing. (See here.) Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on this topic, though with a different slant than the one I offered. Their slant is that certain science journals want authors who submit articles to add footnotes citing other articles published in their journal, or else citing articles published in other journals to which the editors have a connection. The reason for this is that journals get rated by how often their journals are cited, and if their articles footnote other articles in their journals, it makes the whole journal look better. Of course, such a system can be manipulated. See here.
A friend recently told me that a couple years ago, before the beginning of the Arab spring, he had been invited to give a talk in Libya. He thought this was rather unusual and declined, but he thought he’d check on who else had been invited. Here is one of the other speakers. Yes, David Duke. He was invited no doubt because he believes in a world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Since the Libyan regime was also supported by leftists, it seems that it's true that the far left and the far right can meet.
Meanwhile, in Tunisia recently a Palestinian who is a terrorist visited, and was almost lynched by Salafists. And why? Because he supports Assad in Syria and is opposed to the Syrian uprising. See here.
The interview (here) I linked to the other day (here) offers a theory on why Chomsky is so revered: he allows others to avoid thinking for themselves. I also quoted from something the person interviewed (Benjamin Kerstein) said to the effect that all the liberal leftists he had grown up with didn’t know what to think after 9/11, so they looked to Chomsky for guidance. This is probably an overstatement because these people have all along suffered from blame-America-first syndrome, so I’m sure they knew exactly what to think. What Chomsky will have done for them was to state their position with better evidence than they could gather themselves.
When I think back to my own Chomskyite days, I remember certain features of his writing that impressed me. First, there was his calling a spade a spade, his ability to look at life in America and to realize that many euphemisms were being used. For example, when the Establishment talked of our presence in Vietnam, he insisted that we had invaded that country. That’s the only one I specifically remember, but no doubt all the people talking about America’s “empire” got this from him. Anyway, it was some years before I realized that others were just as capable of doing this as he was, and doing it to liberals and leftists. It was Thomas Sowell, I believe, who pointed out that our liberal media never likes to admit that homeless men commit crimes, so when such people do commit crimes, the media’s tendency is to call them, not homeless, but drifters.
The second thing that impressed me was that he seemed so widely read in terms of the world’s media. He would quote from the Hebrew-language press of Israel, for example, but also from many papers here in America, papers in Australia, and so on. How did he have time to read it all? The one time I had a chance to talk to him, I asked him about this, and it turned out that he merely relied on a wide network of friends who sent him clippings they thought would interest him. So much for his being widely read.
The third thing that impressed me was his outrageousness in blaming America. You thought that America was innocent in connection with such-and-such an event, but Chomsky would find a connection. A couple years ago I stumbled across something he had written that connected us with the regime in communist Rumania, which is surely a stretch. But this kind of behavior gets picked up on by his followers. A few years ago when the situation in Darfur had actually penetrated the hard heads of leftists, I looked at a discussion of what to do about it on The Guardian website. Most of the commenters tried to change the subject to Iraq or something else where it was obvious that America was to blame. Occasionally someone would try to steer it back to the topic at hand by asking them as forcefully as possible what they thought should be done to help. A few people noted some very tenuous connections between the U.S. and the victims, which allowed them to say, “Oh, well, they’re being supported by the U.S., so who cares about them?” Now naturally if you set out to blame everything on one country, you can probably find ways to do it, and those who agree with you will accept what you are saying, but those who don’t will just think you have tunnel vision.
Let me add that I knew perfectly well that Chomsky had shortcomings. I had heard of him in the late 1960s, but didn’t latch onto him until the 1980s, by which time he had made a huge blunder regarding the killing fields of Cambodia. So to the extent I was one of his followers, I was much more cautious than others appear to have been. Also, I just never could bring myself to accept his nonsense about linguistics. And today I would add that he, like nearly every other leftist professor, has said nothing and done nothing about the adjunct problem in academia (that is, the underemployment of Ph.D.s problem). Plus, I know for a fact that he could have retired sooner than he did, which would have opened up a job for someone else younger than himself; and unlike many other professors, he could easily have continued making money by writing books and giving talks. But he refused to do so. I hope that fifty years from now, that is the way he will be remembered.
Anyway, these are the three features about him that I was impressed by thirty years ago. Whether others were impressed by these same three features or by others, I can’t say.