Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967-8 Norton Lectures On Poetry (And Everything Else Literary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967-8 Norton Lectures On Poetry (And Everything Else Literary)

I do not think this needs any introduction but a few quick thoughts.

Borges does not chat about theory. He hates theory. He simply loves. The -ist dies, the -ism passes but art remains. I do not know who said that but I think it every time he speaks.

Accreditation and the Academy

There is no core curriculum for Harvard’s undergraduate program beyond Expository Writing. One can go through the whole experience without straying one iota from intellectual self-satisfaction. Students exit with wildly different preconceptions about themselves, and what they experienced. There is no ‘Harvard education’ beyond geographic coincidence. The original impetus for the creation of a university, the cultivation and trimming of student expectations, is all but gone. It brings up an interesting consideration. When a student walks into Harvard, what is happening: is a brand being purchased, or is an education being sought? It is my contention that most of the students who end up in Harvard are looking for the brand, and whether they actually acquire the education they need is an ancillary consideration. The process has become an elaborate accreditation process. Show up for four years, get your piece of paper from this elaborate structure, play the game.

It does bring up some considerations over whether there needs to be a financial response to this situation. The President hopes to incorporate over 150 billion in block aid to colleges. For those who don’t know, block aid is synonymous with “here’s a bunch of money, do with it as you will.” Yet in spite of a proliferation of degree holders, there is still a considerable room of doubt. Whether students today are better than those of earlier generations is far from clear. “Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater.” One can’t help, looking at recent graduates, whether we have finally reached Hegel’s wimpy end of history. No fights for anything but a cushy middle-manager spot.

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

If there is any doubt that we have become Eliot’s Hollow Men take, for instance, the proliferation of obscure and pointless business classes across the nation. ‘Strategic Marketing,’ ‘International Aims and Means,’ and a whole host of equally pointless classes that purportedly teach groups of near-alcoholics how to become CEOs. Ah, okay! All the classes are going to become CEOs? There’s not going to be one middle-manager of dubious import and intellectual weight? Thank you, Academy, for allowing us the ability to introduce three products into a foreign market with a competing product of higher price, higher quality. Certainly I am not going to end up working for Esurance.

As has been mentioned at length in other posts, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the humanities either.

What, if anything, can be done? Kevin Carey has a few strong ideas.

To summarize, Matthew Yglesias:

People learn things all kinds of ways. I learn a lot from reading blogs and magazines. Hopefully people learn from reading me. I look things up on Wikipedia. I read books. I listen to lectures on iTunes. But federal funding is tied to a particular kind of learning in a particular set of institutions—college courses in accredited colleges. And who decides what an accredited college is? Why trade groups composed of accredited colleges do!

If the Academy is unwilling, or unable, to provide a good enough reason for its ever rising tuition rates then what else should we expect? A five-year bender for middle-managers sounds fun… But one has to wonder if the debt is really worth it.

Our Sad Academy

Gore Vidal, as always, has the words for every cutting opening (see “Hacks of Academe”). The world of ‘the enlightened’ is devoted to books that are written to be taught; they are not written to be read. The captive subjects, undergraduates, only mildly different in caste from particularly well-to-do peons, have no other recourse than to read books whose actual value is nil. The professors, perhaps delusional, fret that their free ride managing their classes of aspiring middle-managers and labyrinths of footnotes will end. This is their insurance policy: insulate the conversation up, and beyond, the point of sense. Write books and allow their cohorts to force payment.

“Why does the academy play such a minor role in guiding popular taste in theater, dance, and music?” bemoaned one recent graduate. Why is it that we can go into our libraries and pull off the shelf works that have not only gone untouched but uncared for? Pnin’s a tragic character, but is that because so many in the humanities see a reflection of themselves?

My answer: probably.

Today I held in my hand two books. One was visionary. Exciting. It was, there is no doubt in my mind, why ‘we’ write history. Max Berger defined art as anything that raises our consciousness to a new level, and if that is the case then this book is simply art. So little of American history is interesting to me. This, however, was a dream. A beautiful dream made moreso by its reality. The other book, however, was a perfect muddle. Repetitious. Incorrect. Tedious. Awful construction. My literary taste is not well-defined. My palette does not need much salve but there is no doubt in my mind that this book has done significant harm to my soul.

It was brought home, loudly and clearly, how far the academe has gotten from its purpose of existence. It is a self-perpetuating (Abyss? Morass? State of mind? I leave the word choice up to you, dear reader), or to quote Cornell West “the Academy feeds on critiques of its own paradigms.” It is, in short, “feeble” and it has never felt more feeble as I numbly flip through paragraphs of history—human life—drained of all meaning.

One was rejected by several ‘academic’ presses. It was deemed too, perhaps this is an unsympathetic interpretation, exciting. It would wake too many students in the classroom and hacks enshrined behind their self-importance. It would teach us that essential rule of history: it is the laboratory, the only laboratory that we are given to test ideas. The book was forced, finally, to ask for a printing by Random House. No academic would touch something that did not have a literature review! Heaven’s no. A book that did not consult the intricate, exclusive system of minutiae that they strain under? Heresy, plain and simple. The other, however, went smoothly through an academic press. It’s been reviewed, well, by all his friends.

One will be thrown into the trashcan by innumerable men and women in my classes. One will be cherished. Does anyone want to guess what one goes where?