Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The main purpose of education: Detecting "when a man is talking rot"

Roger Kimball has posted an article, "If I Ran the Zoo," on the NAS web site. He takes up a theme that I have often addressed, though not in any major way on this particular blog but elsewhere.

If there were a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Words, the word “theory” would long ago have been granted protected status as an Abused Noun. Academics wishing to use the word would be required to apply for a special license, submit character references from three persons never convicted of exposure to graduate-school education, and contribute to a fund for other unfortunate words. The case of “theory” is especially sad, because in it we have an example of serial abuse: first by the professors of literature, then the professors of “cultural studies” and kindred interdisciplinary redoubts, and lately by art historians and others “Theory” has a complicated history. It derives from a Greek word meaning “to look at, behold.” “Theory” in this sense implies a certain passivity on the part of the beholder: a theory gave us access not to something we made but to something we received when properly attentive. Today, however, we use “theory” in a sense close to the opposite of this etymological meaning. A “theory” nowadays is not so much what we see or behold as a mental scaffolding we imagine or project in order to account for what we see or behold. In short, theory, which once betokened an attunement or congruence with reality, now signifies a willful imposition. You even encounter people who use “theorize” as a transitive verb: “So-and-so theorizes the idea of freedom” (or art, nature, cookery, whatever), meaning that So-and-so embellishes whatever it is with a skein of owlish verbal irrelevancies. “Truth,” which once-upon-a-time was thought to be the end or goal of theorizing, is rarely spoken of, and then only in deprecatory scare quotes.
Kimball observes,

For theory as practiced in the academy today is primarily an instrument of politics, not inquiry. It is meant to insinuate a subplot of unacknowledged motives behind every declaration. When you hear—as you are always hearing these days—someone say that truth is “socially constructed,” that “knowledge is a function of power,” etc., it is a good bet that in the next sentence he is going to offer you a dollop of “theory” to support his claim.

Kimball quotes John Alexander Smith, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, who made the following observation when he began a series of lectures.

Gentlemen, you are now about to embark upon a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Some of you, when you go down from the University, will go into the Church, or to the Bar, or to the House of Commons, or to the Home Civil Service, or the Indian or Colonial Services, or into various professions. Some may go into the Army, some into industry and commerce; some may become country gentlemen. A few—I hope a very few—will become teachers or dons. Let me make this clear to you. Except for those in the last category, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life—save only this—that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

Read the whole article intact.

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