Monday, June 17, 2013

Errant, I

many pledge allegiance to the "blood god"
I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse
who watches over me as I sleep (K. Silem Mohammad)

My mind is ebbing low these days, at least when it turns to the question of the universities. Now, due to certain peculiarities of my personal history my hope for society as a whole, and my enjoyment of culture in general, passes unavoidably through my thoughts and feelings about the university, much as a priest, I would imagine, is constrained in his enjoyment of life by his attitudes about the church. In my case, of course, for the analogy to hold we'd have to imagine a somewhat rogue or at least errant priest. One who holds no office and is a member of no established order.

In any case, I just reread Adam Kirsch's "A Poet's Warning", about W.H. Auden's "Under Which Lyre" from 1946. He quotes a couple of important stanzas, and then comments:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

This advice is half-joking, but only half. For Auden is reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is extraneous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

I find myself increasingly unable to laugh. It seems to me that since WWII we have been half-jokingly compliant with too many initiatives that deserved, at the very least, our half-hearted recalcitrance. Lately, they aren't getting even that.

We have let the powers that be, or the forces of history, or whoever we've pledged our allegiance to, convince us that the cultivation of the freedom of inwardness (note the important role that privacy plays in this) is an outdated and somewhat quaint affectation, perhaps even a dangerous extravagance. Accordingly, we have slowly undermined the institution that was supposed to give dignity to what happens in the privacy of our own minds, and in the intimacy that can be established between any two of them. By converting education into essentially training in managing projects, passing tests, and holding tenable opinions about world affairs, we have, to use T.S. Eliot's similar formuation "confine[d] knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity." Only that which can be made public appears now to matter.

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