Thursday, March 22, 2007

the problem with dumb questions

I was eager to read the "10 Questions About the Future of the Humanities in America" posed by Thomas Mallon in the current issue of The American Scholar. Then, alas, I actually read them. If you haven't already seen them, here they are:
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1. How can American professors learn to write about literature in language that isn’t a crude, pseudo-technical insult to the text it’s supposedly explicating?

2. How can current undergraduate instruction in the humanities, mired as it is in jargon and political faddishness, hope to inspire at least a portion of the most gifted students to enter academic life rather than, say, business school or TV production?

3. Are we willing to make the effort to teach a new generation — one that’s never known a world without the wildly accessible Web — that words and ideas can in fact be owned, at least for a period of time?

4. Even so, are owners of intellectual property willing to realize that longer and longer copyright terms are doing more to inhibit than promote creativity?

5. How can the contemplative mind survive in the multitasking, ADD-inducing world of digitization? Are we willing to face the downside of this great electronic boon? Do we really want students reading electronic texts of the classics that are festooned with more links than a Wikipedia entry? Aren’t a few moments of quiet bafflement preferable to an endless steeplechase across Web page after Web page?

6. Are we willing to consider the irony that our unceasing communication with one another — the dozen extra phone calls that we all now make each day; the two dozen pointless e-mails — is making us less human? And that we might have more important things to say if we could re-master the lost art of shutting up, for at least a half hour every now and then?

7. Are American writers, artists, and thinkers truly prepared to admit that Islamofascism is a real, and even imminent, threat to everything they are accustomed to thinking, saying, and creating?

8. Can the National Endowment for the Humanities, even as it continues a laudable effort to make Americans better acquainted with their own history, learn to resist a platitudinous rhetoric that sometimes makes it seem like the National Endowment for Classroom Civics?

9. Are Americans in general prepared to admit that their writing and speaking skills are in no better shape than their waistlines?

10. Are we also willing to admit that the universalization of English is more apparent than real? And that our general failure to know foreign languages is an act of both laziness and arrogance — one that threatens America’s legitimate claims to leadership in the world?
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I'm really baffled by the current ilk of conservative-intellectuals who have developed the ability to be equally adept at snubbing both the hoi polloi and a large segnment of professional academia. Which is it? Are we all more illiterate and inarticulate (and fat, acc. to #9)? Or are we pretentiously over-educated? Are we too political (#8) or not political enough (#7)? Do we underestimate the value of the "life of the mind" (#5, #6) or do we overestimate it (#1, #4)? I'm confused...

3 comments:

Trott said...

Better question: supposing you've never murdered anyone, account for that.

LEIGH said...

trott, and suppose YOU'VE offended someone and that person doesn't know... are you more angry at that person or yourself?

Trott said...

OR: Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?