Friday, February 15, 2013

"In an Ideal World..."

I want to apologize for that ill-tempered post I wrote yesterday morning. It's not that I didn't mean it, it's just that, well, what's the point of railing against the populist sentiments that are printed in the popular press? Obviously, I let the first four words in Alain de Botton's "In an ideal world Harry Styles would be teaching his 10million Twitter followers a little more about Greek philosophy" throw me off my game. I was enraged.

Why belabor the obvious? And obviously there is nothing ideal about such a world. Nor would "the cause of intellectual life in this [or any other] country ... be helped immeasurably" if Harry Styles would just put his shoulder to the wheel. His first twitter lesson, which merely plagiarized Wikipedia, ably proved the point. (And I am sure that was his point.) Like I say, however, there is no point in being outraged about it. What I'd like to do this morning is to put forth the ideal that de Botton's suggestion offends.

Imagine an undergraduate university program consisting of two 16-week semesters. Give the students the weekends (and the remaining 20 weeks) off to do whatever they like. Expect them, during the 32 weeks of school to write for three hours, go to class for three hours and read for three hours every day, five days a week. (I know that's a 45-hour work week, but it's varied work, and it's only 32 weeks a year.)

Now, expect them to write no more than 200 words every thirty minutes, or about one paragraph's worth of prose. At 15 hours a week, that's 480 hours, or 960 paragraphs. "In an ideal world," I want to argue, students would not be receiving tweets from Harry Styles about Socrates. They would be writing almost 3 PhD dissertations worth of prose every year! They would not hand all this prose in of course. My point is that they would be engaged in a rather formidable process of training.

This presumption in favor of actually doing a lot of writing would allow teachers to enforce a pretty high standard in regard to written work. So they may hand in, for example, 60 paragraphs every semester all told, and they will be graded on the presumption that each could have been written, on average, eight times. Let's move on to the reading component.

Remember students are expected to read for three hours a day, 480 hours per year. Now, imagine giving them only a limited number of texts to read. My standard suggestion is six books: Don Quixote, Hamlet, Being and Time, Philosophical Investigations, Ulysses, and In Search of Lost Time. I can defend those choices in very sophisticated ways, but if you want a list of ten or twelve books, or six different books of comparable richness, I'm fine with it. What I'm saying is: give them a finite amount of high-quality reading and enforce a high standard of comprehension.

Finally, classroom instruction. Expect the students to attend 480 hours of class (3 hours a day). This can take many different forms, from mass lectures to small discussion groups. Teaching can be done by everything from full professors to undergraduate tutors. To save money, it can amount to no more than mandatory group meetings without supervision. The point is that they are expected to sit down and listen, ask questions, discuss.

That, friends, is an "ideal world". It's not entirely unrealistic, I would argue, but it will probably be dismissed as romantic or nostalgic or otherwise ridiculous by some. (Or such schools may actually exist somewhere, of course. I'm not saying I've invented the idea.) In any case, the suggestion that academics should try to be public intellectuals and feel some sort of envy about Harry Style's twitter audience must finally, I will insist, founder against this ideal. Because, after all, it cannot be denied that the students and teachers who worked in this way, for those 1440 hours every year, would be forming a particular kind of mind. And that kind of mind, though of great value, is almost impossible to produce these days because almost no one defends the institutions that have even the slightest chance of fostering it.

I feel as though the default attitude is increasingly to normalize, and indeed totalize, the mass media (including so-called "social" media) as a the real (and certainly not ideal) speech situation. We assume that students have these "mass minds" and that it is the duty of academics to speak to them. This is what bothered me about Steve Fuller's remark about the "mediums people normally communicate through and through people who are normally listened to.” It's the idea that "the academic situation" is now an eccentric deviation from the "norm" of mass media that horrifies me. (Also the idea that teachers are no longer among the "people who are normally listened to".) We are "losing our minds" in a very particular way. We are losing that particular kind of mind that emerges from the discipline of prose.

I'm not saying it's the only kind of mind worth having. It is one kind of mind worth having. Crucially, it does not require academics to engage in any way with the mass media. It requires them only to demand that their students turn off their devices for 45 hours every week, 32 weeks out of the year.

It feels much better to talk about this in terms of a positive ideal. Though I am prone to despair myself, I think the idea that the solution is to be found in forcing academics into public life, selling ideas to the mass mind, is mainly an indication that Fuller and de Botton, who I think are sincere enough in their desire to promote great ideas, have really just given up all hope for the university.


Andrew Shields said...

My comment about "register" yesterday fits nicely with your point about how the mass media are seen as the "real" speech situation. As the public sphere drops the formal register, that register begins to be seen as deviant.

Steve Fuller said...

I haven't given up all hope on the university. However, the university has always needed to reinvent itself. And the most productive way has been not for the university to dismiss or avoid 'new media' (whatever those happen to be, relative to the university's default mode of knowledge transmission), but rather to become their arbiter of quality, their source of standards. So, the issue is not whether celebrities should be selling philosophers on their twitter feeds, but which celebrity is best suited to selling which philosopher, and how do we know if they're doing it well. I realize that the tradition of 'scholarship' still dominates university thinking, so that very extended prose remains the via regia, but we really need to re-think this quite fundamentally. Indeed, we need to take more seriously some historical facts – namely, the rather adventitious relationship that so-called canonical texts have had to their actual composition. So it may be more interesting to focus on the fact that Aristotle's students found what he spoke interesting than the fact that they wrote it down a certain way that that Aquinas ended up turning into Catholic dogma. If Aristotle were doing his peripatetic thing today, his students would have been texting the Categories, and we might be able to run courses by tweets.

Thomas said...

But I think what is much more important here is the difference between the conditions under which, say, Aristotle taught his students and the way business was "normally" conducted in the agora. Academe has always required the relative comfort and luxury of a garden of some kind, away from the the ordinary hustle and bustle and public life.

One concession I might make (uneasily) would be to include blogs and wikis as academic media. But that's of course because they allow for expression in stable prose (i..e, prose that can be meaningfully reread and discussed). In that case, some of those 480 hours/year might go into struggling with the particular rhetorical constrains and opportunities that they instantiate. We have a lot to learn about how use those platforms, but that's at least a struggle I could get involved in.

My point is that scholarship has to proceed from a break with ordinary experience, including ordinary forms of communication. This, I take it, is what Andrew is talking about when he notes the function of different "registers".

I don't think philosophers should be sold to the population. I'm not saying we should forbid it, I just don't think there's any point. There must be sites (stable situations, gardens) in which such interest can be cultivated in a serious way.

Aristotle would have told his students put the damn phones away while he was talking to them. But only Diogenes would have proposed throwing them in the ocean. Academia is a measured stance in regard to media. It's not extremist.

Jonathan said...

I think being ill tempered is fine. It allows us to see another side of you.