14 July, 2007

For Cerberus

For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion; and consequently contributes to the shortening of our lives.

— Lemuel Gulliver, Works, Vol. IV, Book III.
And so, too, every word we type is a diminution of our fingers by corrosion, and the vice of blogging, in truth, contributes if not to the shortening of life, at least to its squandering. Still—squander we must, squander we must.


Mencius is in favour—pardon, in favor—of abolishing universities: 'the university, which was established as a refuge whose purpose was to pursue truth without regard for the opinions of the world, has become a power center whose purpose is to impose its own opinions on the world. As such it has no more use for independent thought than a dog has for beets'. He further claims that 'universities are directly responsible for almost all the violence in the world today'. His post is full of stories about academic ill-practice. And so Mencius wants the 'Henry VIII treatment—unconditional abolition and confiscation'. And he's in good company, as his readers snap and bite with gusto at the dripping, dishevelled limbs of Academia.

One wonders, though—if this terrible plan were executed, if the universities were abolished and their inhabitants scattered to the winds—who would be left to defend the world against racism, sexism, and homophobia? Who would remain to combat the statist and imperialist marches of the Bush dynasty? Who would be there to show us the truth about Hegel (liberal), Shakespeare (subversive) or even Plutarch (bigot)? Who would be called upon to fill up television shows with their opinions on Seurat and/or Rodrigo Rato?

And moreover, what haven would there be for cloudminded codicophiles and functionshirkers like myself? The cold city does not beckon. The dim looming of pixels and cordless mouses, of bonds and pensions, conservative suits, readers of Alain de Botton—of a life without dust, vellum and hot air, without glorious idling—less glorious than of old, granted, but glorious a little nonetheless, and all at the expense of others—without impressionable acolytes to be scorned and inspired on alternate days, without that charming community of men and women who genuinely believe they're doing something useful, brings out the shudders in me, and all the terrors of tenure and theory and undergraduate apathy fade into utter insignificance by comparison.


Mencius Moldbug said...

Beheading the scholars! Alas, I am not much use with the broadsword, glaive, claymore or other instrument of decapitation. Au contraire. I am no less of an intellectual pansy than anyone reading this, and if anyone's stem is to be snipped it is just as likely to be mine.

In fact, my modest proposal is no more than prudent cowardice. If the pen ever has to cross with the sword - or the Mac with the RPG - I have no interest at all in being in the frame.

Because this will be the struggle of the postcolonial theorists with the postcolonial pragmatists. Who, together finally finished with the tepid bourgeoisie, will have no one left to fight but each other.

And what a spectacle that would be. Imagine Fanon and Sartre against the Gamaa al-Islamiya, Tom Hayden and his Weathermen versus Bob Mugabe and his Green Bombers, al-Zawahiri in the red trunks and Chomsky in the blue. Do you suppose someone's glasses might get broken?

Nor will we need to travel for the contest. Visit the tiers monde before the tiers monde visits you! How convenient, this importation of the oppressed. If civilization needs to be cleansed, why should we have to buy tickets?

Or the townies, instead, might rally, and Pat Buchanan raise his "peasants with pitchforks," finally hauling them away from their hay. Which seems improbable at present, but imagine what Goebbels or Mussolini could have done with YouTube. Our little tutelary despotism, which worked so well for so many years, is in roughly the position of Constantinople after the invention of artillery. The Turk will take a little while to get his guns. Perhaps he will have to hire some rogue Venetian or other. But it would be unwise to count him out. And equally unwise to welcome him.

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. And the neck that wears the head. I got a fund-raising letter from Brown the other day that, in its first sentence, used the phrase "world stage." Others have played before on that stage. And where are they now?

Some Maecenas will always be needed. You can even be your own. Didn't Eliot work in the City? Or at least at a bank? And Stevens? There will never be money in poetry, but the converse is not the case - try Nihon Cassandra on the secrets of Liquidity.

Or a real Maecenas can be found. But there is a difference between Maecenas and Augustus. Joseph Brodsky memorably attributed Mikhail Sholokhov's Nobel to "a large shipbuilding order placed in Sweden." Today's academic system is looking more like the Writer's Union every day, and the chance that its favorites of the day will be remembered as so many Sholokhovs strikes me as nonnegligible. Surely this is reason enough to jump ship - so to speak.

Sue said...

Isn't this all a bit premature?

Michael S. said...

A good part of the problem with the modern university, particularly in the United States, is that it has become, willy-nilly, the only fons honorum recognized as legitimate.

The U.S. government and those of the several states are constitutionally forbidden from conferring titles of nobility or chivalry, and no one holding an office of profit or trust thereunder may accept one from a foreign power. Thus, we have no lords or knights, while the continental nobiliary particules such as "von" or "de," when borne by American descendants of European gentlefolk, confer no special status on this side of the Atlantic.

It used to be fashionable for retired or reserve military or naval officers to use their titles in civilian life, but the fashion fell into abeyance, if not disrepute, after the Second World War. Since there is no established church in the U.S., the learned cleric who has studied the Bible in its original tongues has no better claim to the title "Reverend" than does the semiliterate streetcorner ranter. This renders ecclesiastical dignities essentially meaningless. The use of "Hon." in the American manner, denoting not the child of a peer, but status as a public official, may still be found in certain government documents, but since such people are more often crooked as corkscrews rather than hono(u)rable in any genuine sense, it would give rise to laughter rather than awe if insisted upon in ordinary social situations.

Academia, therefore, remains the only avenue by which an American citizen can seek distinction above the common herd. Somehow the titles of "Doctor" (even when used by someone other than a physician) and "Professor" still command a respect well out of proportion to the social or economic importance of their holders. Lesser degrees do not confer such recognition, but are still important credentials for those intending to pursue the more lucrative or responsible sorts of positions in government, finance, commerce, or industry. This largely reflects employers' fears of liability for '"discrimination" under so-called civil rights statutes should they rely, instead, on criteria of their own devising to select suitable employees.

Much, if not all, of the mischief created by universities, at least in the U.S., could be eliminated if their rôle as granters of titles and gatekeepers to wealth and influence was curtailed. Protection of the public from unskilled practitioners in the "learned professions" is adequately guarded by licensure laws. Why should graduation from medical or law school, for example, be requirements for entrance into those professions in addition to passing the medical boards or bar examination? Certified (chartered) public accountants are not required to possess university degrees (though most do); it is their certification by an independent examining authority that establishes their credentials. This is a preferable model.

The failings with which Mencius taxes the universities almost all have to do with their quasi-monopoly status as credentials granters. There is an inherent conflict of interest in first defining what constitutes learning and then in certifying it - seen in its crude form at the university of Messina, where mafiosi forced professors to grant credentials to their cronies under threat of violence, and in a more refined form in the American universities where pressure groups have forced the creation of whole academic departments in such factitious disciplines as "black studies," "womens' studies," "queer studies," etc. - each of which is empowered to grant doctoral degrees and to establish sinecure professorships with substantial emoluments for holders of such degrees. What is needed is to make manifest to the world what a trumpery enterprise this is, and that there is nothing to distinguish academic titles of this ilk from the Doctor of Divinity degrees sold for a few dollars by mail-order from the Universal Life Church.

Havens for scholarship are wonderful things and would doubtless persist in some form, whether called "universities" or something else, even if the function of the universities as officially sanctioned diploma mills were eliminated.

Ajo said...

Hello, Michael S --

You wrote "no one holding an office of profit or trust thereunder may accept one from a foreign power".

I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here. Anyone who wants to can use a title in the USA -- my own real name incorporates one and no law prevents me from using it whenever I please, trustworthy or not, office-holder or not. The USA government doesn't recognize titles amongst its citizenry, but certainly accepts their validity when it is diplomatically prudent to do so. Bush isn't addressing the Queen as Mrs. Windsor in their chatty moments, after all. As a country, we just theoretically don't like titles much. Everybody's equal here. Ask us -- We've got the papers to prove it.)

And as far as "we have no lords or knights" we have a plenitude of "aristocracy" even if all are loathsome: celebrities, the uber-wealthy, business tycoons and so on, upon whom attention, adoration and a slavish longing are lavished. Your comment that "[A]cademia, therefore, remains the only avenue by which an American citizen can seek distinction above the common herd[.]" is perforce, to put it colloquially, way wrong! I'd say it's about the least effective method to achieve that end.

I'd even venture to say that "among the common herd" academic titles are meaningless. Dross, as it were, to Britney (sp?) Spears' bling. And among those to whom academic degrees do mean something, I'd say that "distinction" has much more to do with the type and quality of the work thus achieved than it has to do with the degree itself. Few people who understand what a PhD is are likely to confuse any academic degree with a doctorate of divinity from the Universal Life Church. Or with any kind of degree from ITT Tech or its ilk. The ones who don't aren't likely to care much.

Michael S. said...

Ajo, on the subject of titles of nobility, you should review Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, which states:

"No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States; and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."

and also Article I, Section 10:

"No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant titles of nobility."

These provisions do not prohibit a U.S. citizen from using a title of nobility, but you will note that when a foreign government wishes to grant an order to some U.S. official, for example, the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, which was conferred upon Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger, it is always "honorary" and those officials did not style themselves "Sir Ronald" or "Sir Caspar," as they would have been entitled to do had they been British subjects. Similarly the College of Arms in London will make an "honorary" devisal of coat-armour to an American citizen, but such is not recognized as nobilitating him. Grants or matriculations registered with Lyon court in Scotland do recognize the grantee and his heirs as enrolled amongst the "noblesse of Scotland." Whether a serving U.S. official could accept such a grant is an unresolved point of U.S. constitutional law. Colin Powell matriculated Scots arms, but the original grantee was his father, a British subject; and Gen. Powell's matriculation was not recorded until after his retirement from government service.

Certainly, nothing in the U.S. Constitution forbids a U.S. citizen who holds no office of profit or trust thereunder from accepting a "present, emolument, office, or title" from a foreign power. Nor does the Constitution require U.S. officials to dispense with the use of titles when dealing with foreigners who hold them. I never denied either of these points, if you read what I wrote.

All this being said, much luck to you if, as a U.S. citizen, you insist upon being recognized socially (much less legally) as a duke, earl, baron or knight. By contrast, I have witnessed several holders of the Ph.D., when ordinary folk have innocently addressed them as "Mr." or "Mrs.," indignantly correct their interlocutors, insisting upon being called "Doctor."

As a rule, the less distinguished the granting university or the discipline, the more vehement their demand is; you'll more likely hear it from a Ph.D. in sewage engineering from Stumptown State than you will from, say, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn - and more likely from someone younger than from someone older, more likely from a woman than from a man. It is the cry of a person not sure of his or her own merits, for recognition of his superior status. I have never failed to see such demands to be called "Doctor" taken seriously. Even people who would never tug their forelocks to a supposed aristocrat do so in humble submission to the Herr Professor Doktor.

Titled nobility are assuredly a different question from aristocrats, of whom the United States had and has its share, and these are in turn not the same as socialites and celebrities, whether Mrs. Astor's 400, or the "café society" of years past, or the nouveau-riche businessmen, louche sporting figures, or Hollywood vulgarians of the present day.

You must agree that academic titles seem to most people to have a legitimacy that military rank (when used by those who are currently civilians), clerical status, or the style of "Hon." applied to appointed or elected political dignitaries, do not.

No doubt the credibility of the credentials has much to do with the "type and quality of the work." My point is that a Ph.D. in (say) "black studies" or "queer studies" has, and should have, no more credibility than a D.D. from the Universal Life Church. The only diffference between them is that accredited universities confer the former two. In so doing they prove themselves no better than, and perhaps a bit worse, than the U.L.C. which has never pretended to be anything more than an honest diploma mill.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"You know you're doing something wrong when..."

... your commenters are making more intelligent remarks than you are. I think we need some serious sociological comparison between the treatment of academics (especially public ones) in the US and, say, France.

"I got a fund-raising letter from Brown the other day that, in its first sentence, used the phrase "world stage." Others have played before on that stage. And where are they now?"

The Pyramid Stage?


I think Michael's remarks about the honour of academia are true in certain sectors (if we're Mencian, among certain castes) and not in others. Those obsessed with Ms. Spears et al are not the same as those who will kowtow to any old doctorate, clearly.

We can agree on certain basic stances, I think; such as the government pressure (both US and UK) to get more and more into university, as opposed to vocational training--Nock, whom Mencius convinced to me read, put these beliefs well--we also share a prejudice against 'affirmative action' degrees.

Mencius' problem (so far) is the same as Marx's: he hasn't put anything forward as a convincing alternative to academia as a necessary evil.

chris miller said...

Hopefully universities will eventually be demoted to the status of every other
religious organization -- where government bodies can no longer directly fund them. (and the same thing with secondary schools as well)

Of course, then there's the problem of educational/certification opportunity for those whose families can't afford it -- and I'm not sure that problem can
be ignored.

I'm also not sure whether the university really does offer much of a haven for "cloudminded codicophiles and functionshirkers" -- so much as it does for underachieving, unimaginative bureaucrats.

Ajo said...

Michael S said: "I have witnessed several holders of the Ph.D., when ordinary folk have innocently addressed them as "Mr." or "Mrs.," indignantly correct their interlocutors, insisting upon being called "Doctor."

As a rule, the less distinguished the granting university or the discipline, the more vehement their demand is[.]"

A common enough occurence. Not too many decades ago it was considered quite improper in the USA to address a PhD socially as "Dr." -- the honorific was strictly used for those who held MD, DDS and even DVMs (veterinarians), never for academics.

Even so, I'm not so sure that, as you say, "[E]ven people who would never tug their forelocks to a supposed aristocrat do so in humble submission to the Herr Professor Doktor." Maybe in Europe. Here you're more likely to get a drubbing if you flaunt an academic degree. I agree with Conrad that it would be interesting to see those sociological studies. My rather extensive experience in the USA suggests that knowledge in general is not rated very highly by the general population, and that academics are regarded as somewhat impractical dimbulbs with peculiar interests and an inability to function in everybody else's world.

This attitude is, after all, what's lead to the people's studies, and degrees that anyone can get if they just show up. (Or not, in some cases -- viz Bill Cosby's much ballyhooed doctorate from Temple University.) As well as to degrees in fields that may or may not have any actual scholarly relevance.

I am somewhat in sympathy with your statement that "a Ph.D. in (say) "black studies" or "queer studies" has, and should have, no more credibility than a D.D. from the Universal Life Church", but not fully so. I am not convinced that is it impossible to do valid scholarly research, for instance, on the history or sociology of the original African-Americans and their descendants. I agree that it is unlikely that such a study would produce anything but politically correct pap, but I am reluctant to, willy-nilly, throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's not the fields of study that are at fault, but, as you say, thoe institutions which, though accredited by some body or another, fail to apply adequate review and censure.

But that's a wholly different issue to the whole idea of titles, etc. and social responses to said honorifics. I tend to see the whole issue of weakened academia as a consumer-driven, economic one, at least here in the USA. There's almost nothing you cannot buy here if you want it badly enough, degrees included.

But what else can you expect from a society in which everyone is special, and kindergartners are lined up in faux academic robes and "graduated" into first grade? Form before substance, that's our motto.

Michael S. said...

My guess is that Europeans are less likely to be overawed by holders of high-sounding academic credentials than are Americans. Ineffective as my earlier posts may have been in making this point, the reason I suggest for it is that in Europe, founts of honor other than academia are still extant and are still widely seen as legitimate, whereas such founts of honor do not exist in the United States.

France is a suitable and interesting subject of study in this sociology of dignity and rank, because although it is a republic founded upon egalitarian ideals, the state is a copious dispenser of medals and honors. The Legion d'Honneur is widely granted to civilians as well as to military and naval personnel, and the Palmes Académiques specifically recognize scholarship. In addition a distinguished scholar or scientist may be elected to the Académie française or to one of the other academies such as those of sciences, belles-lettres, inscriptions, etc.

No comparable recognitions are granted by the government of the United States, nor are there any quasi-official learned bodies in the U.S. comparable to the French academies. Accordingly, there is no challenge to the monopoly of universities as granters of "legitimate" titles and honors to American citizens.

Ajo's point that it is possible to do valid scholarly research on the history or sociology of the original African-Americans and their descendants is of course true. The work of Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese proves the point. However, it was not the product of an academic "black studies" program.

The creation of such university departments is akin to legislation defining certain activities as "hate crimes." Any "hate crime" worthy of punishment - e.g., murder, assault and battery, arson - is already a crime anyway. When these types of misbehavior are set to one side, the remaining "hate crimes" amount to an ill-defined collection of thought, speech and writing that, though deemed unacceptable, is doubtfully worthy of prosecution.

Similarly, valid scholarly work on the history or sociology of blacks, women, or homosexual persons is already valid history or sociology, and when it is removed from the new-fangled academic departments of "black studies," "womens' studies," or "queer studies," all that remains in those factitious disciplines is no more worthy of pursuit than the breeding of naked sheep or the making of pincushions from marble, which Swift numbered amongst the researches of the Academy of Lagado. What sport he would have with the modern American university!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: "I'm also not sure whether the university really does offer much of a haven for "cloudminded codicophiles and functionshirkers" -- so much as it does for underachieving, unimaginative bureaucrats."

Both, I think.

Ajo and Michael, thanks for the comments; I think we are all in agreement, despite our different phrasings, of the 'black studies' (etc.) phenomenon. And Michael, yes, the Immortels have always fascinated me. Those uniforms--sacre bleu! Who would care about "Dr." if you could wear one of them?