Saturday, August 6, 2011

The American Scholar, Part One

"Thinking," as Hannah Arendt tells us in her essay "Thinking and Moral Considerations," is an essential attribute of both good philosophy and good citizenship. If we want to encourage good citizenship, we need to encourage (and prepare citizens to engage in) real thinking -- not just the mundane stuff of opinion formation that passes for thinking today (and in Plato's cave), and not merely the instrumental thinking practiced by functionaries and bureaucrats, who use their minds to develop ways of achieving whatever ends they are charged with achieving (see Arendt's discussion of Adolf Eichmann, for instance). Instead, we need to encourage that "good for nothing immediate," "out of order" thought upon which the success of a democratic republic rests, because it is only a people familiar with that kind of thinking activity that can resist the drift into anomie and tyranny.  

But we live in a society that does not encourage thinking, perhaps one that actively discourages it. Certainly much that passes for education has little to do with preparation for thinking. As a result, many of our fellow citizens -- even highly educated ones in the professions, perhaps especially there -- do not think in the Arendtian sense, have never had a thought as such, and hope never to have one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, for all his faults (and they are legion), raised a similar criticism of the America of his day. In his address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, entitled "The American Scholar," given not long after he had forsaken the Unitarian ministry in favor of becoming an independent scholar, Emerson tries to define the characteristics of the American scholar, contrasting this ideal with ministry, with devotion to social reform, and with what typically passed in his day (and still passes) for scholarship. What we can learn from Emerson is that the scholar is a thinker -- he is what Emerson termed with Germanic seriousness "Man Thinking." The scholar reflects independently, carefully, and deeply on his interactions with nature, with the great thought of the past, and with the social world around him. The true scholar, in Emerson's view, is someone who takes everything -- every experience, every contact with the natural environment, every book he reads -- as grist for the mill of his own thinking. He is necessarily rare -- at least in his guise as Man Thinking -- which is not to say that many of us cannot rise to his level on occasion, when time permits, when inspired by our muse. There are many quibbles one could raise against Emerson's view -- in particular with his belief that the thinker should not get caught up in the issues and movements of the day -- but I am struck by the applicability of much that he says about thinking to our situation today.

Emerson teaches us that the scholar is not the bookworm or the scientist wrapped up in a narrowly-defined, corporate-funded research program. She is not the journalist compelled to write, write, write on the issues (however trite or invented) of the day. He is not today's academic, preoccupied with publishing (in esoteric journals no one reads) in order not to perish. She is certainly neither the corporate or government functionary nor the medical or legal professional, busily applying instrumental reason to technical, mechanical problems in organizations, institutions, or society at large. Nor, finally, is he today's politician, who has given a bad name to the bios politikos by eschewing a concern for a common good defined other than as his personal, political good or the good of his fellow-travelers. 

Emerson makes clear that scholarship of the sort he has in mind is unlikely to occur in universities or colleges. What counted as "scholarship" in his day was a deep familiarity with the "classics," a devotion to preparing accurate editions of "great" texts, a desire to know the ideas contained in those texts. Emerson argued that it is better to know what one thinks oneself than to know what ever so many ancient authors thought. He insisted that old books have no inherent virtue except as triggers for one's own thinking. And he derided the "academy" of his day for failing to teach students to think for themselves, forcing them rather to master a pile of dusty and ancient books, written by dead authors who wrote in dead languages. He decried the "degenerate state" of contemporary scholarship, stating that it produced "a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking."  

Emerson's criticism of "schooling" of this sort still applies today. What counts as scholarship today is narrow, specialized research into selected, often trivial or abstruse topics. Not only is the research narrow, the questions asked insignificant, but the selection of topics itself is extraordinarily cramped. So-called scholars spend years of their lives researching tiny, recondite aspects of the world around them. She who would earn tenure in today's university had better specialize in some constricted, even obscure, little corner within her larger disciplinary field, which itself is already considerably attenuated. No one could earn tenure today with a body of essays on the variety of topics on which Emerson wrote: from self-reliance, to friendship, heroism, poetry, character, manners, nature, beauty, worship, and politics. What academic discipline is described by these topics? 

Today's academic disciplines require their practitioners to focus to a pinpoint their minds, their work, their writings. Philosophy professors write about abstruse aspects of language, providing large bodies of evidence (were such needed) of the irrelevance of their discipline. English professors analyze rather than write literature (usually by asking questions no one has ever thought of asking before, and no one will again) -- the best of them are Emerson's "bookworms," while most of the others have sapped the life out of imaginative literature for themselves and their students. Scientists, including their poorer cousins the social scientists, must choose circumscribed areas of research to which to apply so-called scientific method; indeed, their method only really works when applied to problems defined in the narrowest way possible. Social scientists, from whom we might expect some interest in wrestling with the big questions of social and political order, simply assume the important things that call for serious thinking. Scientific results tend to be helpful at best; more commonly, they are trivial and cute, endlessly filling endless shelves of arcane professional journals.

All these so-called scholars are driven by the need to (1) publish (or perish) and (2) be original (for otherwise you cannot get published in the right "scholarly journals"). These two factors shove would-be scholars into a straitjacket and force them to think only instrumentally. There are notable exceptions, to be sure -- exceptions that prove the rule. Occasionally someone -- a philosopher like Richard Rorty, for example, or an English professor like Stanley Fish -- can rise above the stultifying environment of the academy to do some serious thinking, work that spans disciplinary boundaries (work consequently much criticized by the guardians of the disciplines), addresses matters of significance, and abjures the confining expectations of their field. Such people can do this, of course, only after carving out a position in the disciplinary world -- Fish, for example, was a noted Milton scholar, Rorty a linguistic philosopher with a bent toward epistemology; both earned tenure at top-flight universities. The existence of a Rorty or a Fish only goes to show that "thinkers," if they pursue their inclinations, cannot be held back by even the tightest of professional bonds; it does not suggest that academia is a place where one can expect much thinking.

Graduate schools, at least most of them (my own experience was somewhat, though not entirely, different) view their role as training grounds for the academic professions, and they quickly teach their inmates that broad-mindedness, eclectic interests, interdisciplinary thinking is taboo -- such scholarship won't get you a job and certainly won't get your tenure. Instead, graduate schools prepare students for a world in which tenure is most often reserved for the good soldier who has dutifully devoted his or her life to some specialized topic about which he or she can claim to be one of the two or three experts in the world. It is unfortunately rare for anyone evaluating the work of these soldier-scholars to ask "So what?"

And as for professional schools -- law schools, medical schools, business schools, and the like -- no one could reasonably expect them to produce thinkers in the Emersonian sense, for their mission is to train rather than educate, to fashion people who can analyze problems in the distinctive way of their profession and apply the right sorts of technical methods to arrive at solutions. Professional schools teach their students to think like lawyers/doctors/business executives -- which is to say, not really to think in the deep, non-instrumental sense at all. Of course, as with university professors, some lawyers, doctors, and business executives swim against the stream and actually engage in some thinking -- but they are few and far between, deviants who sit uncomfortably in the midst of the highly trained mediocrity around them.

So we are no closer to cultivating thinkers today than we were in Emerson's day. She who would truly think would do well to avoid the cloister, the ivory tower, the professional school. She must find a different path, figure out a way to make ends meet while carving out enough time to pursue her thoughts. She does not, unfortunately, live in a time, or a land, that is congenial to her vocation. And yet without thinkers, it is hard to imagine how we might stimulate our fellow citizens to think now and then rather than emote, react, or dismiss the realm of ideas as a distraction from what they have learned to feel really matters. 

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