Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sweat, dust, romance

At TNR, a stirring review by Anthony Grafton of Louis Menand's new book on the American university. Here's the bit I especially liked:
Menand describes the university in generalities. Many of them strike one as true, but some of them seem to reflect a much narrower experience even than he has had, and imply a surprisingly reductionist perspective. Early on he notes that, once upon a time, being a professor meant having a vast fund of esoteric knowledge that the ordinary person could not match--but now, Menand smugly observes, “most of that esoterica is available instantly on Wikipedia.” What?! If the esoterica in question have to do with Britain and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and even there I have my doubts), maybe. But how many humanities professors and students are prepared to make do with Wikipedia’s “esoterica”? They interpret Chinese classics that have to be pieced together from bamboo strips, or they reconstruct Greek texts from fragments preserved in garbage dumps and mummy wrappings, or they record and interpret religious ceremonies in India and Nepal. You cannot do those jobs without esoteric knowledge. You cannot Wiki them.

Such slips are not minor. They are not even slips. They reveal an error of principle. Menand’s statement that graduate students do not need specialized knowledge is an astonishing and terrible concession: taken literally, it defines the humanities as a realm of simple problems simply solved. No sweat, no dust, no romance, no struggle. But the great humanists are furious, passionate giants who heave one mountain onto another as they stage their attacks on Olympus. At its Faustian and demonic peaks, the tradition of modern humanism includes Benjamin on the Paris arcades and Scholem on the Kabbalah, Fraenkel on Greek and Latin literature and Weinreich on the Yiddish language, Neugebauer on ancient science and Kantorowicz on law and political symbols and Klemperer on the language of the Third Reich, Wittgenstein and Curtius, Kristeller and Panofsky, Syme and Momigliano, Arendt and Colie. Merely to mention these names is to see the inadequacy of Menand’s analysis.

Most of us, and most of our students, are in no danger of performing at that august level. But when we enter on our studies, we take unto ourselves these and other masters, and we sprinkle ourselves with their dust. Anyone who has watched humanists work over the last generation or two has seen new masters take the places of the ones who came before them, and has marveled as they restored new ideas, voices, songs, and images to our records and our canons. We still climb the mountain, or at least we try.
(Link courtesy of Rohan Amanda Maitzen; an excerpt of Menand's book appeared last year in Harvard Magazine.)

1 comment:

  1. Every eminence on Grafton's list: look at when they were trained! Before the counter culture and so on. If an American humanist of the judgemental and narrow-minded persuasion just visited Neugebauer's Wikipedia page, I feel like they'd scream "CRANKERY!" and add "We can't possibly KNOW about that stuff. As post-structuralism tells us..." That's the whole problem - pretentious yet dumb misreadings. That's what killed the humanities.