31 August 2007

Some ideas are more peddleable than others

Bryan Appleyard interviewing novelist V.S. Naipaul:

He realised the extent of [his] isolation when, after publication [of Among the Believers] he was invited to Harvard. “They wanted to have a discussion with me — that’s what they said. They wanted no such thing. They wanted the fellows of their institute to all say their piece of rage and criticism. It was such a shocking occasion." ...

Harvard — and many other experiences — convinced him that nothing was to be expected of academia. And he has, ever since, been one of the harshest critics of universities. “I think academics are bad. They spread ideas about things that they are determined to get one to accept. They have their ideas about multiculturalism, for example, or about Africa. They distort publishing to some extent. They publish the books for these courses, and it gives an illusion for great popularity, of ideas sweeping the world. But they’re not.”

Rage masquerading as "discussion"; viewpoints which must be accepted; distortion of publishing — this all sounds fairly familiar to me.

Politically, he inspires intense unease. When he won the Nobel prize, in 2001, no invitation arrived from Downing Street. Blair was, perhaps, not big enough to overlook Naipaul’s past rudeness. “I said he was a pirate in 1999, or whenever it was. I said something about the dangers of encouraging a popular culture that honours only itself. These are good thoughts, interesting thoughts.” Big chuckle.

But the point is that Blair was something of a pirate, radical Islamism is an anti-intellectual creed of mad delusions, and academics do peddle ideas for the sake of it.

Mr Appleyard seems to be missing the point here. The problem highlighted by Naipaul isn't that academics "peddle ideas for the sake of it", but that there is now a stringent selection system about which ideas they are allowed to peddle, and what kinds of politics or worldview those ideas are permitted to support.

5 comments:

Saltburn subversives said...

You might find this of interesthttp://www.awolcivilization.com/

Mencius Moldbug said...

It's funny that Naipaul wants to shut down the English departments, and if I read him right the whole liberal arts faculty - but he's sure the technical end is just fine.

My impression is that this is a pretty common attitude. Most specialists have neither the expertise nor the inclination to conclude that other people's fields have also devolved into makework for the Mensa set. Why would they? No one is even qualified to assess the full scope of the disaster. So it goes on its merry way.

Once when I was a grad student in "computer science" I had a conversation with a disgruntled physics PhD on exactly this topic. He was convinced that physics research was a massive waste of time, but everything else was just peachy. Of course this came out because I congratulated him for selecting a real field, like physics, instead of a bogus one such as "computer science."

Fabian Tassano said...

Peter, thanks for the link to that v interesting blog.

Mencius, yes it’s funny how selective people’s scepticism tends to be – that is, where it’s present at all. Perhaps it derives from the fear that, if you criticise something you’re not ‘qualified’ to discuss, you will be rubbished by the ‘experts’.

A few months back, David Thompson posted an extract from my ‘Surviving in a mediocracy’. I thought some of the comments he got were interesting. One person helpfully suggested the correct reaction was not to complain, but to ‘rejoice in one’s exclusion from academia, and make a living from journalism and lecturing’.

I also thought some of the reactions to this post at Overcoming Bias were interesting. It seems to me Robin Hanson’s observations were pretty mild, yet they (curiously) provoked accusations of ‘bitterness’.

Mencius Moldbug said...

My belief in separation of education and state is unconditional, so I have a fair bit of sympathy with the "rejoice" alternative. Although the phrase "make a living from journalism and lecturing" doesn't exactly make me think the commenter grasps the full scope of the problem. I prefer to paraphrase Joe Hill: don't moan, organize.

Institutions have lifecycles. The private sector liquidates companies all the time. The bankruptcy administrator typically has no idea what the company does or how it does it. All he knows is that its liabilities exceed its assets.

From a political perspective, the function of today's university system is the assignment of personal rank. Its degrees are titles of nobility, and they function exactly as such. The university's evolution from center of learning to center of power is not a new trend, and I am simply at a loss to imagine how anyone could expect it to be reversed, or even to stop. It simply works too well for everyone concerned.

As Lech Walesa once said, it's easy to make an aquarium into fish soup. It's hard to go in the other direction. The independent universities of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th were aquariums. The official universities of today are fish soup. It strikes me as much easier to scrounge up some new glass, water and fish, than to turn a tank of fish soup back into an aquarium. Although, either way, terminating the pretense that the soup tank is an aquarium has to be the first step.

I mean, if you have this kind of antientropic black magic, why fix the universities? Why not start with the original intellectual authority - the Catholic Church? Surely it too could be turned away from dogma and back to learning, producing a new crop of Augustines, Aquinases, and other tropical fish.

And this at just the point when the 20th-century university is, quite arguably, technically obsolete. Remember, everyone thought the Soviet Union was forever, too.

The Prince of Truth said...

some people also aren't critical enough to rightly suspect that the "radical Islamism" is many times nothing but a false-flag operation by no-good Zionists.