Saturday, May 21, 2011

Letter to a Young Intellectual

For your age, you are far superior to your contemporaries in critical skills and in thinking skills. That's no small thing, it's admirable, for it reflects the fact that you have discipline, and have done years worth of something fewer and fewer people, including so-called 'professional intellectuals' care to do anymore: reading.

You can correctly presume that the professional programs and the sciences are somewhat less or even far less subject to the ongoing dilution of stricture in the classroom. Less subject, that is, than the humanities. Physics, engineering, economics, psychiatry, biology, law, and chemistry professors still must, to greater
or lesser degree, read journals, technical manuals, and the frequent publications and books recording advances in their fields. As a professor of English, humanities, history, music, philosophy, and political science (the subjects I've taught in three states and and at eleven colleges and universities over my 20 year career), I can tell you that I have noticed a qualitative difference in the acuity of intellect among my colleagues in the sciences, generally speaking.

The difference is one of superior preparation and intensity of knowledge among faculty as much as intensity of classroom pedagogy. One can only presume further that while colleges and universities care relatively little whether members of their faculties misrepresent the function of the oboe cadenza in Beethoven's body of symphonic works, or misinform students regarding the historical causes of the Hunan Province of China having so uniquely and stubbornly resisted industrialization since the 1990's, they care quite a bit more deeply that faculty be able to articulate and teach the Krebs tricarboxylic acid cycle and the Krebs Cycle's importance to both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells and how evolutionary biology might explain the prokaryotic cycle taking place in the cytoplasm of the cell, while the eukaryotic cycle takes place in the mitochondria; that they care deeply that faculty keep up with reading on technical specifications of the tensile strength of carbonized architectural support elements. For, turning out graduates who cannot scan a John Keats poem or recognize the similarities and crucial differences between Kant's description of the syllogism in his "Critique of Pure Reason" and Aristotle's definition of the syllogism in his "Prior Analytics" has rather less severe ramifications, after all, than turning out graduates who don't know what to do when a vascular clamp fails during a thoracic surgical procedure.

That is not to say it is not the case that many or even most humanities professors take teaching the development of three point perspective in the evolution of fresco design in the Renaissance seriously, and that those professors don't dedicate themselves to constant sharpening and growth of their knowledge as a means of passing on all they can to their students. Many do, and at some universities most do. I have been at faculty events and in meetings where the science and the humanities faculty were equally skilled and serious. The broader paradigm however, and the fundamental model of higher education that once expected and demanded this level of intellectualism of professors, is shifting. The ramifications suffered by a history professor who doesn't read but is skilled at teaching the chapters of a department imposed textbook and administering true or false and multiple choice exams objectively and efficiently, are fewer than they used to be; far fewer. That is unfortunate for students. Reading with comprehension and insight, not passing standardized tests, is the essence of achieving a useful education and therefore achieving true freedom; there is no freedom without freedom of thought. There is no freedom of thought without having something inside your head to think. Getting something in there is achieved through reading. Reading, that is to say, taking in the accumulated history of ideas, thought, theories, the life works, and the biographies of all who have come before you, is the only legitimate way to take up membership in a global community of thinkers and to claim your heritage as part of a new generation of those thinkers. These thinkers are the community we belong to as intellectuals (Kofi Natambu exhorts us to not be ashamed to call ourselves that, 'intellectuals'--those, says Emma Goldman, 'who choose to think') and it is their shoulders upon which we stand every day, even if some among us happen to be too obtuse to know this, too dishonest to admit this, or too unduly and uncritically influenced by a superficial valorization of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, claiming to be reinventing wheels all on their own.

As you have discovered in undergraduate school, those 'professional intellectuals' as I call them above (professors, teachers, journalists, critics, editors, and so-called 'pundits' or 'TV news commentators'), can leave much to be desired when it comes to intellectual weight and girth: they might have the positions they enjoy not because of what they know but because of their associations, wealth, skin color, gender, or even photogenics. This sad truism definitely includes university professors, and that's what you've discovered. You've found many of your professors lacking in preparation, depth of knowledge, critical skills, and even the basic legitimacy of familiarity with the subjects they teach. Needless to say, you have far surpassed the requirements of your undergraduate education, and have often found yourself feeling as if you had read more than your professors. In some cases, I can assure you, you have.

Sadly, humanities professors do not read nearly as much as they once were required to and cared to. Fewer and fewer universities have the vision of a Columbia. Columbia University's visionary and controversial "Core Curriculum" pedagogy, which demands that Columbia undergraduates master a "pantheon" of skills, subject matter, disciplines, and requirements, regardless of major--a 'common curriculum' that provides 'communal learning' in their words, is as much a religion now as a rationale for educational practice, and it flies in the face of the false populism that claims students should not have to master a set of core academic and intellectual skills, should not have to be conditioned to value, specifically, a Western pantheon of reading. One notes that Columbia, being an Ivy League school with a large endowment, being wealthy, and being much in demand for undergrad and grad education, can afford to impose its conception of rigorous education. For many other universities, increasingly so for state universities and schools with small endowments and fluctuating tax support, the 'core curriculum' is growing more difficult to enforce in the face of creeping commercialization of education. Reading makes for a competent professor, while performance skills, popularity with undergraduates, ease of course content, and the ability to entertain and patronize students' tendency toward boredom and short attention span, makes for a successful professor. Tenure is under assault, pedagogy is growing lax, and the credo of 'publish or perish' is declining in relevance as corporate infiltration of university life and culture increases and the new credo is coming to be something like, "inflate grades so you'll be popular with students."

Because universities are undergoing a paradigm shift away from intellectual rigor and toward a business model that pressures us to see students as 'customers' who ought to be patronized rather than challenged, younger professors are being trained both implicitly and explicitly to see themselves as selling a service within a service industry, while students, who can smell the coffee and can tell that its being brewed for love of their dollars, not for love of The Pantheon,' are seeing themselves as 'consumers' seeking 'value' for their dollar, and value is somewhat stupidly being defined as 'getting an "A" in each of their courses. Like public schools before them, at least in the humanities (English, history, social science, psychology, music, fine art, and humanities) colleges and universities are stripping the semester units of curricular course sequences (many are eliminating humanities departments altogether) of the likelihood--in some cases even the possibility--of student failure. A student who pays tuition expects to pass, and even expects to achieve an "A" if he or she has fulfilled the mere modicum of stated requirements in a course. Student formal challenges to final grades are at record highs at many universities, choking the grade appeals process with a barrage of cases, each one of which must be heard and adjudicated individually once it is passed from paper to the evaluation procedure. I have served twice as a faculty representative on grade appeal committees, and both cases were not only specious but sadly unwarranted on their face.

None of this is a recipe for a system that encourages reading at any true depth, or with variety and diversity.

Having said that, I have something a bit harsh to say to you: it's time for you to get serious, because you have the potential to do something better than pass courses, collect an empty Bachelor's degree, and chase a dead end, service industry job, or at the high end, become a public school teacher hoping your job will survive conversion to private, charter school identity or coming deep cuts in public funding of education. You are at the point now of publishing (maybe you've already published a few journalistic pieces, maybe some poetry, maybe even some fiction and some op ed pieces here and there). So its time now to think about graduate school. I recommend you apply to several, both a few good state schools and some private schools as well, and don't hesitate to send out at least two Ivy League applications (Cornell and Columbia are top qualitatively distinguished schools with profoundly good faculty, and offer the Ivy League imprimatur without the same level of detached elitism you get from Harvard and Princeton, both of which will take applicants for granted, and will take you for granted even after having admitted you). Look for a legitimate university that has a grad program with a history, a decent faculty in your area of major and concentration, an emphasis on research, a grad faculty that publishes widely and frequently, and a strong fellowship program so that you can acquire a decent fellowship and scholarship to live on and an assistantship to get some college level teaching under your belt. You might decide to keep teaching, and you might decide that public school teaching, though it can offer more benefits and more job security, is not worth the virtual slave labor model and lack of social respect the job security is founded on.

Needless to say, you want to completely avoid patronizing that thing shaming American higher education more than all else now: the wandering stellar killer magnetar orbiting the conventional university system and sucking specific gravity out of it, weakening its attractive force; those pseudo-collegiate "University of Phoenix" type charlatans, I mean, that masquerade as universities. These wastrels and vagrants suck money out of communities while giving nothing back, least of all education or training, despite their mindless claims of emphasis upon 'training' rather than education, and with TV commercials and two-color glossy brochures that babble about 'getting a job'. See one of the other blogs offered by this host for tips on truck driving school. Nothing against it; I was a truck driver for five years, and I'm proud of it. I just don't aim here to advise you to be an industrial worker.

In the end, of course, you really need only the basic amenities: if not fine arts, film, or music, if not a pre-law course of study or engineering, medicine, or architecture (the professions), then you'll want a good solid liberal arts program of study in English, Humanities, Psychology, History, and Philosophy (you might want to consider being a history major for your MA, but notice how I have said not a word about Business Administration? To major business it would be best to have an economy in the country in which you are planning to live upon completion of study, something--an economy I mean--that of course no longr exists in the United States).

You cannot call yourself a serious intellectual unless you take some steps now to continue to grow and develop as all intellectuals do--you'll simply be a Sophist (like too many journalists and like too many film and book critics), and that is whack. Debate, rhetoric, and intellectualism as performance art or as adolescent hobbyism is bull: read up on the Sophists of ancient Athens, and why Plato denounced them and their belittling of intellect and philosophy by performing word games in public, teaching the children of the wealthy and powerful just for the money (Ouch! Yale and Harvard in the house!), and performing feats of deductive logic as if performing magic tricks.

At this point the gaps in your reading and your knowledge are glaring (as is always the case for any undergrad finishing a BA, even a gifted one like you) and the gaps are showing in your arguments, your discourse, your over-emphasis upon the sophistry of 'debate' rather than critical analysis, and it is showing in your work--your writing. You shouldn't stop at the thresh hold of deeper intellectual legitimacy and sit on the tools you've acquired so far (sophomoric tools). Instead, as you wait to start grad school, you can do a bit of preparatory reading, mostly the foundational reading you missed due to an incomplete high school education (is there any other kind now?) and due to what might have been an adequate but weak course of study for your BA work as an undergrad. I have some suggestions for a broad reading program, not too specific, since you will hopefully be going into grad program soon anyway. Until you do, the reading below can keep you fresh, sharp, and introduce you to the deeper level of reading you will encounter in grad school.

START: with the fundamentals of Western discourse:
1. Plato (particularly The Republic, but also the elements of open discourse--'the Socratic method' that animate Socrates' dialogs with Plato),

2. Socrates (his 'Socratic method' and his influence on Caliphatic Arab thought, and in turn the influence of Arabic thought on early Christianity and on Catholic scholasticism (remember my lecturing about this at times in class and pissing off the lame, southern baptist Christians in class?). For example, The fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslims, Mizar Tahoe Ahmad, argues in Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth that Socrates was not just a philosopher but a prophet. Never mind what he argued about Herodotus that they never taught you in undergrad. Socrates actually did meet the bill for being a prophet of some sort when you consider that he constantly made references to the 'sanctity of the ancient world' (HIS ancient--which you could see as being Afrika, but that's a different discussion) and to the oracle and its importance for 'revelatory' guidance. Socrates is also very easily slipped or folded into the Christian, and later the Scholastic tradition of Christianity, and on an odd note his original words (recorded by Plato) in the Greek refer to "God" as singular rather than to "The gods" as plural. It is as if he were a monotheist--at least linguistically. Scholars point out that Socrates rejected the Greek pantheon of Gods and Goddesses except to refer to them as examples of FALSE THOUGHT, FALSE LOGIC. Plato was quite another matter in that regard, he didn't reject the gods or tradition.

3. Aristotle (especially his writing on theater, dramaturgy, and fundamental physics). Aristotelian logic is fundamental to the evolution of western rational thought as it is, in these modern times. His full importance also to fundamental Christian thought and the FLAWS in christian thought, (mainly exposed through the weaknesses of scholasticism) are crucial:

"Aristotle had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle's philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogs (Cicero described his literary style as "a river of gold"), it is thought that the majority of his writings are now lost and only about one-third of the original works have survived."

4. Herodotus (the fundamentals of African thought transposed to the Western world!) though you will need to read VERY carefully (read Chaikh Anta Diop, and Chancellor Williams and Martin Bernal) to really learn who Herodotus was--an African).

5. The European scholastic philosophers (particularly Abelard and Thomas Aquinas) who sought to reconcile the natural science of Aristotle and of neo-platonics with the spiritual belief structure of Christianity, The basis of Catholic intellectualism, either Jesuit or Franciscan) is found in scholasticism, and so you can more easily and readily get to the essence of Catholic (and even mainstream liberal) arguments by understanding where their major ideational assumptions came from.

6. Then there are the FUNDAMENTAL thinkers that led to Marxism-Leninism, namely (but not limited to) the French idealism of Abelard and Hypolite and Rousseau and the German Idealism of Fiche, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, which arose out of the rationalism and analytic philosophy of Kant (his 1762 essay, The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures (Die falsche Spitzfindigkeit der vier syllogistischen Figuren) is a VERY important one for you to read because it addresses one aspect of a weakness in your thinking and your reasoning skills, along with understanding the flaws of sophistry among the ancient Greeks.)

7. Hegel. You CANNOT understand ANYTHING about Marx, Engels, or even Freud or Darwin without reading your Feuerbach and your Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel), especially "Pheonmenologie der Geist" -- 1807 (Phenomenology of Spirit) and Weissenchaft der logik" ("The Science of Logic") and Phenomenology of Mind (I can't remember the German title).

8. Next comes Marx and Engels. Skip a lot of the stuff you'll read soon enough in a good graduate program and for now read Das Kapital and "THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY" along with his critique of Hegel as a purely non material philosopher. MATERIALISM is what you get from Marx, not "Communism" which is fairly uninteresting, really, and I think merely a footnote on the true complexity of Marx's thought. Also read The "Grundreisse" and "The Poverty of Philosophy."

9. Now you will have your hands full with POST Marxist thought. Start with Terry Eagleton if you want to stay Marxist, or with Existentialism (Simon DeBouvier and Sartre and Camus--with a little Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as a chaser) if you want to leave Marx a bit behind. This leads directly to POST MODERNISM.

10. Reading in postmodernism can begin for you with getting a little Frederic Jameson under your belt ("Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism"), while Post Structuralism can be traced through the works of, among others, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva. Deconstruction is traced through the post Heideggerian and post Habermas works of Derrida and Foucault and Roland Barthes (though quite rightly, grad students reading this blog at Cornell who are as galvanized and influenced now by Professor Jonathan Culler as I was when I was at Cornell climbing Leib Slope in the morning up to Goldwin Smith Hall to sit, blessed and ecstatic, in Jonathan's classes will be grunting, 'Barthes is a structuralist!' Yeah, but he was just so post structural about being structuralist. Ask Satya Mohanty what I mean by that).

I'll stop there because there is also the Frankfurt School, and then the surrealists, situationists, and the psychoanalytic school, and DaDa as well as the many people of color who belong to the roots of western politcal theory way back in the 1700's in Europe and the 1800's and into the 1900's in America (WEB DuBois) and the American positivists, and the Russian school that followed Marx and Stalinism that lead to Voloshinov (techically a Marxist ideologist, and structuralist, but some of his work serves the evolution of post structuralism), and the film and theater philosophies such as Eisenstein and Russian formalism (Stanislavsky and language theory) and then also all the literature you will be studying in grad school as well as film art, music, dance, and the dialectis of how all these things relate to each other when you are doing analytic critiques and critical deconstruction in your writing.

First, don't be intimidated by the scope of these suggestions. Be intimidated instead, by the gaps that are not even metioned here--because many of these writers and works can be totally rversed conceptually so as to place them in drastically contradictory catagories in relation to the categories I suggest here
(orthodox categorization and taxonomy), Also, some of these people influenced each other positively, while others are connected to one another chiefly by one REJECTING the prior (Hegel is crucial to Marx in how Marx critiques Hegelian thought, yet, Marxism contains Hegelianism in it's very core ways of undrstanding social and political reality---therefore we can trace many of the failures and weaknesses of Marxian thought right back to the idealism of Hegel--such as Marxism's (and a typical unreconstructed Marxist's) fatal flaw of assuming its own trans-historicism and its attraction to the dogma of structural absolutism).

Likewise, so-called "Post Modernism" (Postmodernism) is largely a carrying forward of modernist thinking, "AFTER" Modernism's failure, while post structuralism is, in a profound way that makes for its danger, its ideological threat to stati quo of all kinds, a complete break with structuralist thought. Anarchism, a late 1800's political theory can arguably be related to the irruption of post structualism in the 1970's! French modern analytical thought arises in a strong sense out of Descartes, but must be understood in terms also of the huge effect of psychoanalytic theory upon Cartesian precursors, and so Julia Kristeva is indespinsable to understanding modern French thought; but important also is the political effectiveness in French society and politics of French feminsim (Helene Cixous), in ways that American feminism failed to penetrate the dense Calvinism of American folk thinking and American electoral politics. Likewise, it is important to take into account American women, Blacks, and radicals (Susan Sontag, Richard Wright, and Kofi Natambu and Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis) if you are going to be able to handle Post modern and late capitalist revolutionary thought in America and its relation to Jazz aesthetics, cinema, and what I call 'the Tao of Marlon Brando' (see Rayfield Waller's "Viva Brando!"--Old School Blog, Saturday, July 17, 2004).

There is a whole discourse of radical Latin American writers, cultural critics, and revolutionaries (from Regis Debray--who is actually a Frenchman in Latin America--to Che Guevara, Jose Marti, Nicholas Guillen, etc.

In other words, the reading you need to do is dense, broad, and will entail decisions you will make about what you will focus on and what conentration you will choose for grad school, for your papers, and for you dissertation (Masters and PhD). Most daunting of all, is the ceaseless nature of it. Your obligation to read--to grow and to develop your mind, your beliefs, your assumptios, your thought, never ends. It is a commitment for your lifetime.

As Jonathan Culler has written in his book, Literary Theory,

Theory is intimidating. One of the most dismaying features of theory today is that it is endless. It is not something that you could ever master. Not a particular group of texts you could learn so as to "know theory". (Culler, 15)