Friday, March 27, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot, T.S. 1917. Prufrock and Other Observations

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

A few weeks ago I visited my undergraduate alma mater, where I got a rather haphazard, mediocre education--even thought I didn't know it at the time.

Some of the science programs were serious and decent. Science majors graduated and got jobs in labs, went on to graduate programs or medical school. But most of us were majoring in humanities and the general assumption seemed to be that we were there strictly for cultural enrichment. There was never any talk about careers or graduate programs: that was considered crass. Faculty seemed to assume that we would be taken care of: guys would go into the family business or get jobs through connections, and women would marry guys who worked in the family business or got jobs through connections. Some wouldn't even make the pretense of working: they would be "sportsmen" and ladies-who-lunch.

The goal of the philosophy department was to prepare students for careers as upper crust faux-intellectuals. We were there learn how to make conversation about Ideas and chat about interesting "philosophies"--to be polished, finished and groomed for polite society, where it was important to have things to say about Art, Literature, Philosophy and Current Events.

This wasn't so hot for me because I went to college to train for a philosophy professor job. I only found out that I hadn't gotten the training I needed when I got to grad school and was slammed.

Now that I'm an academic myself I wonder why faculty at my alma mater went along with this or why faculty anywhere would voluntarily join the race to the bottom. I suppose the thought is that we in useless humanities disciplines need to sell ourselves by making out that we provide the veneer of civilization, teach students to make conversation about Ideas and inculcate "values" so that the students we credential for upper middle class sales and office park jobs will be able to make conversation about Art, Literature, Philosophy and Current Events as popularly understood and be nice people.

But why would we go along with this? We go though the whole agonizing business of grad school, fight it out in a miserable job market, sacrifice wealth and security, because we love our chosen fields, because we want to do research and teach--like the emaciated Clark of Oxenford, riding his miserable old nag, who would gladly learn and gladly teach. We have tenure--the license to pursue research were it leads us and to teach students as we think right, to show them the wonders of our chosen fields and the pure glory of the life of the mind (as it used to be called). Why do we sell out to provide entertainment, to pander to parents and cater for student's adolescent whims, to give our customers what they imagine philosophy is rather than what we know it to be, which is immeasurably more interesting?

I'm both puzzled and outraged as I see my colleagues going this route, promoting the kinds of junk that parents imagine "philosophy" is and which students, in their immaturity and ignorance, find interesting. We discover that students are interested in this, that or the other kind of bullshit, so that is what we provide. And no one outside of our profession knows any better because they think philosophy is bullshit anyway. We're employed to provide the Discovery Channel version of philosophy so that students can make what passes as intelligent conversation and those who are on board with the agenda think this is astute, cynical and terribly clever: we will feather our nest, add positions to our department, get perks.

But for what? If we wanted this stuff we'd have gone into investment banking


Christer said...

As someone who's recently finished his bachelors degree in philosophy, I wish you could be more specific. What is the big difference between Discovery Channel philosophy and the real deal?

H. E. said...

Very had question, Christer--I've been thinking about it for a while. The best I can do is give you examples: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at is the standard online resource that gives you the real thing.

What ISN'T philosophy is anything that doesn't include argument. That would be such things as accounts of the Great Philosophers' conclusions--what they said without why they said it--and wisdom literature, advice for "successful living" or moral exhortation.

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