Six steps towards a 21st century university

The recent as well as other types of persistent scandals of university admissions and governance underline the urgent need to re-think and re-elaborate the function of and the need for universities. What follows is based on two assumptions: 1. either UBI (Universal Basic Income) will be in place or some other mechanism will allow individuals to dedicate themselves to something other than paid occupation and 2. waste of resources, time, and excesses along the whole gamut of human activities will be avoided and eliminated.

  1. The 21st century university does not guarantee, promise, or prepare the participants for a specific job. If the individuals know that they want to work as pharmacists, lawyers, teachers, then a two-year college should be sufficient to impart the fundamental aspects of the profession/occupation, as well as the manner in which collaboration with AIs shapes the date-to-day duties of the job. Clearly, it is a matter of time that any job with predictable, dangerous, boring elements will be performed by AIs. For now, hairdressers, barbers, and highly skilled computer workers are safe. Since the notion of “paid work” is so ingrained in many modern societies, this “grand narrative” has to be replaced by some reasonable and fulfilling notion. That notion will not be found in occupations, no matter how gratifying they may be. “Leisure time” is to be filled (Russell and others), and universities must and can perform this task.  
  2. The 21st century university offers knowledge that goes beyond and differs from that offered by social media.  If indeed we are living in what some call the “second Middle Ages”, where the meaning of the notion “literacy” embraces all kinds of skills (computer literacy, visual literacy,  multimedia literacy, etc.), the original meaning of literacy is perhaps to be sought. This does not mean that only an elite group can access that knowledge which the mass media do not provide, but  this means a slowing-down of processes of thinking and understanding and uses of knowledge. Human brains being what they are, they still need processing time (which differs from individual to individual); this is not a luxury, but a basic human requirement and right.
  3. The 21st century university workings take advantage of, but are not replaced by, technology. In an era when (despite the overwhelming pressure of technology everywhere) human participants in groups still prefer face-to-face interactions, and claim that they learn by interactions with other humans, it seems that this aspect ought to be a part of the university teaching/learning process. However, human-computer/robot interactions are forced and given, so questioning rather than accepting blindly can be the first step.
  4. The 21st century university accepts all those who are interested in knowledge, irrespective of their age, economic, and social characteristics.  If high schools will still exist in the manner in which they exist now, then it is surely irrational to ask a 17 or 18 year old “What would you like to do/be?”.  Better questions would be “How do you want to live your life? How would you like to contribute to society?” Notwithstanding the post-modern urge to speed up everything, there are questions that do not have clear and fast answers, and perhaps no good answers at one particular time. Universities can provide participants with alternative solutions to personal queries by opening-up horizons which perhaps were not easily accessible/possible/attainable before. After all, navel-gazing, the ‘Now-generation” outlook and selfies are not products of the universities.
  5. The 21st century university is not a business, it is not accountable to governments, but it is responsible to the civil society. In this way, the workings of the university do not rely on the number of students (which guarantee continued government funding), on its “reputation” or “ranking” (which allow exorbitant entrance fees).   
  6. The 21st century university does not separate knowledge into two camps (arts or science). Each human endeavour can be looked at, experienced, questioned, used from different and differing perspectives. Solutions require an in-depth analysis which does not eschew one or the other “universe”.

These six steps are just a prerequisite beginning to unravelling the complexities of what universities could be in the 21st century. A radical re-thinking is possible, and perhaps the time is now to do this.

Some sources of information

Boon, Marcus,  In praise of copying. Harvard U Press. 2010.

Coates, Ken S. and Bill Morrison, Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis. Toronto: TAP Books, 2016.

Dehaene, Stanislas,

Frayne, David, The Refusal of Work. London: Zed Books, 2015.

Loo, Becky P.Y.,  The e-society. New York:  Nova Science Publishers, 2012.

McKibben, Bill, The Age of Missing Information. New York: Plume Penguin. 1992.

Marchesini, Roberto, Post-human. Verso nuovi modelli di esistenza. Torino: Bollati Boringheri, 2002.

Mele, Nicco,  The End of Big. How the Internet makes David the new Goliath. New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Pasternak, Charles (ed.), What makes us human. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.

Ritzer, George, The McDonaldization of Society. Pine Forge Press, 2000.

Simone, Raffaele, Presi nella rete. La mente ai tempi del web. Garzanti, 2012.

Russell, Bertrand, In praise of Idleness and other essays. Routledge, 1935, 2007.

Social Media: Implications for the University Conference, York University, May 3-5, 2013; acts of the conference: Roberta Iannacito-Provanzano and Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (eds.), Social Media: Implications for the University. Aracne, 2016.

Van Der Weel, Adrian, Changing our textual minds. Towards a digital order of knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

van Dijck, Jose’,  The culture of connectivity. A critical history of social media. Oxford, 2013

Worldviews conference: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education, Toronto, June 19-21, 2013.


Three questions for the Buddha

It is inevitable that while reading books about Buddhist practice questions arise which would require the Buddha’s attention and reply. Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart. Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala, 1997) is no exception. The author is an internationally known Buddhist nun, resident teacher  at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

This slender book traces a well-thought out advice, in 22 short sections,  on what to do when things in our life fall apart, for whatever reason. Here are a few salient ideas, some of which are well known, others less so:

  1. Face your fears rather than running away from them
  2. Learn from what makes you angry, upset, happy, joyful
  3. Grow up by studying yourself
  4. Have compassion first of all for yourself and then for others
  5. Realize that existence is groundless and attempting to control it leads to suffering
  6. Soften up your attitude, relax your hold on material things, and don’t be predictable in your reactions.

I wonder what answer Buddha would give to these three questions:

  1. How does Buddhism reconcile the excessive attention to oneself and one’s practice  with the fact that the self is a product, yes, of one’s doing, but also of nurture, socio-economic and political context? Does this attention to oneself exonerate individuals, institutions, governments, businesses, of their wrongdoings and creation of inequalities and destruction of the earth’s ecosystem? Chödrön’s book fails to contextualize the individual’s struggles from a wider perspective. In other words, creation of suffering, as well as maintenance of suffering is surely to someone’s advantage – but unless a spade is called a spade, no amount of individual meditation will help create a better world. Chödrön expresses the self-creation this way: “Whether we experience what happens to us as obstacle and enemy or as teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality. It depends on our relationship with ourselves.” (p. 65). A more  unsettling statement underlines the absolute unwillingness (?) to look beyond one’s self and demonstrates the author’s decontextualized position:  “The reason that we’re here in this world at all is to study ourselves.” (p. 73).
  2. When “Everything is ambiguous, everything is always shifting and changing, and we can’t  make things completely right or completely wrong…things are a lot more slippery and playful than that” (p. 83), whose decision actually directs these shifts and changes and to what end? Chödrön states that “We have some sense that we have to make things right according to our standards.” (p. 82). However, she never explains where these standards come from, who drew them up and who put them in our head. Furthermore, she does not even entertain the possibility that her insistence on our fear of death as a background and only explanation for our panic, anxiety, hopelessness may be wrong. More than fear of death, it is fear of nothingness, of an abyss of solitude without bottom that we may fear.
  3. What role does language play in immersing us in the suffering produced by pleasure/pain, loss/gain, fame/disgrace, praise/blame? Chödrön concedes that “these are nothing concrete in themselves. Even  more strange is that we are not all that solid either.” (p. 47) If these sentiments are not concrete, how can they produce so much suffering in our life without us being aware of their meaning?  What meaning do the terms “concrete” and “solid” have for her?  In all honesty, when one looks inside oneself, one finds an entity made up of linguistic and cognitive elements of what one was taught, experiences one was exposed to, bits of brainwashing one endured from all kinds of sources. Is nothingness in the mind possible? Her answer points to the middle way: “The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or another.” (p. 53) Unless one is a hermit, one absolutely requires a response to the world. It is quite myopic to say that we have one habitual response to the world: we change, our circumstances change, our responses change; they may bring us suffering, but they change. It also may be that “People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it; in fact, we despair of it.” (p. 61) But there are a myriad of types of impermanence, and the ones she cites (“things we don’t have to wash, things we don’t have to iron”) are not really relevant to her point. She does not explain the difference between impermanence and change (transition): she gives examples of cultures that celebrate the transitions of life from birth to death etc., so obviously humans are aware and insist on making rituals of transitions, changes, impermanence.

In conclusion, Chödrön’s book gives good advice, offers food for thought, and cultivates the possibility of not accepting everything we are told. Her book also makes some suggestions that are impossible to fulfill, unless one is a hermit.  It is true that “Usually we just react habitually to events in our lives. We become resentful or delighted, excited or disappointed. There is no intelligence involved, no cheerfulness. But when we recognize impermanence as impermanence, we can also notice what our reaction to impermanence is. This is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention. Whatever we call it, it’s a very helpful practice, the practice of coming to know ourselves completely.” (p. 63) This is good advice. But advocating that “To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh” (p. 71-72) is unrealistic.

North American Indians vs Whites

If you are interested in lists of atrocities, massacres, thefts committed by the US / Canadian governments, Christians, police, etc. against the Natives (Indians/Aboriginals/First Nation people), then The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King (Anchor, 2012) is the book for you. The concrete instances of outrageous mistreatments are the backbone of the historical relationships Indians have had with institutions and individuals and there is no doubt that a serious knowledge of this must be included in the world-view of all North Americans. This history is made personal by the author, who explains in the introductory chapter that the book depicts long-standing conversations and arguments with himself and others. Two ideas guide his account:

  1. The relations and attitudes between the Natives and non-Natives is still the same as it was 300 years ago, i.e. nothing has changed for the Indian.
  2. The Indians are resilient and do not want to assimilate.

What follows is not concerned with these notions, but with the assumed concepts and cognitive underpinnings of King’s reasoning which have a bearing on the forms of Indian – non-Indian relations.

Terminological vagueness          

As is usual in naïve treatments of history, non-academics assume that history is about famous men and celebrated events, and King struggles with this, as he obviously wants the reader to come to know important Indian individuals and groups, give them names and dates, and describe some of their exploits. He also assumes that historians must be objective (a notion which is surprising from a person who is a university instructor and public intellectual): critical theories have long shown that this is not possible. Nevertheless, the deepest pit that the author falls into and can’t get out of is the gross generalizations possible using deceptively simple concepts.  He’s aware of this pit, and yet falls right into it:

…I’m not much concerned with designing a strict vocabulary as I am with crafting a coherent and readable narrative. (p. xiv)

And yet, if the narrative uses a vocabulary of generic terms, it loses on its significance, power, and evocative expressiveness. Let’s take the term “Whites” (and all the synonyms that he uses for what can be called the enemies of Indians), and the term “we”.


For him, “Whites” is a “perfectly serviceable term” (p. xiv). And yet, a deeper knowledge of history clearly  shows that it can never be. Just like he claims that “Indians” is not a workable term, especially if put into a context, for ex., of a question: “What do Indians want?” so “Whites” is also an unworkable notion, if put into a context. In this instance, a question like “What do Whites want?” is nonsensical, for the same reason as he gives for the erroneousness of the question “What do Indians want?”:

The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and United States have created for themselves. (p. 215)To put this matter into the opposite perspective, the Whites in his account are “the White” that he has created for himself with the help of centuries of “us vs them”.  And unless the guilty “White” parties are  identified in more than general terms, there can never be normal relations between the two groups. All the more when he says that in the confines of this book, the term [Indian] is neutral and refers to a general group of people as diverse and indefinable as “Indians” (p. xiv). In the confines of his book “White” is never a neutral term however much it obviously must refer to diverse and indefinable groups and individuals. The matter is complicated since he identifies the enemies using other general terms, too, such as  Europeans (a Polish peasant? A Spanish noble? A Greek billionaire? – he does not say who), Christians,  corporations,  North America. It is more than easy to identify the guilty party if using simple general terms.

                To be fair, he adumbrates the notion that is at the heart of the problems faced by Indians: capitalism, greed, military-industrial complex. But capitalism is unfair to the “99%” as well, regardless of color. From this perspective, it is obvious that Indians are strategically placed by history to offer solutions for the evils that beset humanity now, on account of their knowledge and experience spanning thousands of years, but he does not take a real hold of the possibility to elaborate on this topic.   


It is not at all clear who he identifies with when he uses the term “we”: sometimes it is the Indians, many times  it is North Americans as gobblers of what the media feed them (p. 12), sometimes humanity in general (p. 14: we don’t need the truth. We have the legend., or  p. 7: I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history, etc.). It must be said that, outside of the confines of the book, this both inclusive and exclusive “we” haunts all those who are or feel outside of the system but somehow want to be a part of it: ethnic groups in the United States, the unemployed, the poor, etc. Using the term “we” he loses the chance to extricate himself from the complexities of assimilation vs resilience to it.  For example, does he or doesn’t he want a picture of Indians to appear on paper money? Or having a star on the walk of fame? He does not state the significance of these instances.

Of course, the term  “we” acquires more complexities as he gives various definitions of Indian, specifically: dead, alive, legal; authentic.

In conclusion, and there are a lot of ideas left out of the above, such as the fact that everyone who is on the governmental payroll is inconvenient to the government (such as the elderly) – but that’s a discussion for other time. However, what the book does not say is that the Indians in North America could be trailblazers in starting to create a more just and environmentally sane world. Their knowledge and experience, which obviously relies on their not assimilating, offers a wealth of solutions. If they join forces with other like-minded groups and individuals, they could be at the forefront of marginalizing capitalist aims. But that would mean working hard on what he calls the “air and water of culture”.

Ah, good old Russell!

For a number of reasons, it is very rarely that I dare to suggest that everyone read a specific book. In this case, even though the writing and publishing happened more than 80 years ago, it would be a worthwhile endeavour for those individuals who still believe in the value of reading to muse on Bertrand Russell’s In praise of Idleness and other essays (Routledge, 1935, 2007). By chance, the format of the book- 15 short essays – is most suited to our fast, fluid, fragile daily life. And, if readers are in a great hurry, then the one that should be read is “In praise of idleness”, now available also freely on the web.  Overall, Russell’s style is clear without being obnoxious.

A society that promotes, above all, entrepreneurship, profit, money, as well as navel-gazing, needs some counter-balance which used to belong to the universities and colleges, but they abandoned this purpose along with their dignity some years back. This book may restore some of the balance, even if the suggestions Russell gives may have to be re-thought and brought up to date. What follows is only a smidgen of the ideas that were striking, either because of the timeliness and modernity of their reach, or because of their appalling nature. Therefore, this book review is very different from the others found on our Reading rascal blog.

In the essay “ ‘Useless’ Knowledge”, Russell writes a very timely description of our times, and he gives some proposals as to what would constitute a better life:

The world at present is full of angry self-centered groups, each incapable of viewing human life as a whole, each willing to destroy civilization rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote. The antidote, in so far as it is a matter of individual  psychology,  is to be found in history, biology, astronomy, and all those studies which, without destroying self-respect, enable the individual to see himself in his proper perspective. What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such  knowledge as inspires a conception of the end of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos – all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs. (pp. 26-27)

I let some of the ideas expressed by Russell in his 15 short essays speak for themselves.

In praise of idleness 1932

‘Useless’ Knowledge

22 Better economic organisation, allowing mankind to benefit by the productivity of machines, should lead to a very great increase of leisure, and much leisure is apt to be tedious except to those who have considerable intelligent activities and interest. If a leisured population is to be happy, it must be an educated population, and must be educated with a view to mental enjoyment as well as to the direct usefulness of technical knowledge.

23 the narrowly utilitarian conception of education ignores the necessity of training a man’s purposes as well as his skill.

Architecture and social questions

Women to work would be useful; having communal kitchens where cooks who know about cooking would cook rather than the unskilled mothers who feed kids who knows what

The modern Midas

After the first world war, Germany to pay the winning forces products that the winning forces were producing

52 One of the impediments to successful democracy in our age is the complexity of the modern world, which makes it increasingly difficult for ordinary men and women to form an intelligent opinion on political questions, or even to decide whose expert judgement deserves the most respect. The cure for this trouble is to improve education, and to find ways of explaining the structure of society which are easier to understand than those  at present in vogue. Every believer in effective democracy must be in favour of this reform. But perhaps there are no believers in democracy left except in Siam and the remoter parts of Mongolia.

56-7 I think that what we mean in practice by reason can be defined by three characteristics. In the first place, it relies upon persuasion rather than force; in the second place, it seeks to persuade by means of arguments which the man who uses them believes to be completely valid; and in the third place, in forming opinions, it uses observation and induction as much as possible and intuition as little as possible. The first of these rules out the Inquisition; the second rules out such methods as those of British war propaganda, which Hitler praises on the ground that propaganda ‘must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip’; the third forbids the use of such a major premise as that of President Andrew Jackson apropos of the Mississippi, ‘the God of the Universe intended this great valley to belong to one nation,’ which was self-evident to him and his hearers, but not easily demonstrated to one who questioned it.

The Ancestry of Fascism

Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism

He is against both

79 Preoccupation with machines has produced what may be called the manipulator’s fallacy, which consists in treating individuals and societies as if they were inanimate, and manipulators as if they were divine beings.

The case for socialism

Western civilization

108 …the degree of forethought involved in any act is measured by three factors: present pain, future pleasure, and the length of the interval between them.

109 We may define civilisation as: A manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought.

110 The one prominent distinctive contribution of the Greeks  to civilisation was deductive reasoning and pure mathematics.

110 The Romans seem to have invented the virtue of devotion to the impersonal State as opposed to loyalty to the person of the ruler. …The Roman conception of devotion to the State has been as essential element in the production of stable government in the West.

111 When Rome fell, the Church preserved in a singular synthesis what had proved most vital in the civilization of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. From Jewish moral fervour came the ethical precepts of Christianity; from the Greek love of deductive reasoning came theology; from the example of Roman imperialism and jurisprudence came the centralised government of the Church and the body of Canon Law.

113-4  Science itself does not offer us any moral ideas, and it is doubtful what moral ideas are going to replace those that we owe to tradition. Tradition changes slowly, and our moral ideas are still in the main those that were appropriate to a pre-industrial regime; but it cannot be expected that this will continue to be the case. Gradually men will come to have thoughts that will be in conformity with their physical habits, and ideas not inconsistent with their industrial technique.  …  It is a curious fact that the new ideas of modern times have almost all been technical or scientific. Science has only lately begun to foster growth of new moral ideas, through the liberation of benevolence from the shackles of superstitious ethical beliefs. Wherever a conventional code prescribes the infliction of suffering (e.g. in the prohibition of birth control), a kindlier ethic  is thought to be immoral; consequently those who allow knowledge to influence their ethics are held by the apostles of ignorance to be wicked. It is, however, very doubtful whether a civilisation so dependent upon science as ours is can, in the long run, successfully prohibit forms of knowledge which are capable of greatly increasing human happiness.

115 It seems not improbable that the movement towards individual liberty which characterised the whole period from the renaissance to nineteenth-century liberalism may be brought to a stop by the increased organisation due to industrialism. The pressure of society upon the individual may, in a new form, become so great as in barbarous communities, and nations may com increasingly to pride themselves upon collective rather than individual achievements. This is already the case in the United States: men are proud of skyscrapers, railway stations, and bridges, rather than of poets, artists, or men of science. The same attitude pervades the philosophy of the Soviet government. It is true that in both countries, a desire for individual heroes persists: in Russia, personal distinction belongs to Lenin; in America, to athletes, pugilists, and movie stars. But in both cases the heroes are either dead or trivial, and the serious work of the present is not thus associated with the names of eminent individuals.

118 The distinctive note of Western civilization is rather to be found in Plutarch’s account of the defence of Syracuse by mechanical contrivances invented by Archimedes.

119 It was the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that first gave occasion for the full expression of those persecuting impulses by which Europe has distinguished itself from Asia. During the last hundred and fifty years, it is true, there has been a brief interval of liberalism, but now the white races are reverting to the theological bigotry which the Christians took over from the Jews. The Jews first invented  the notion that only one religion could be true, but they had no wish to convert all the world to it, and therefore only persecuted other Jews. The Christians, retaining the Judaic belief in a special revelation, added to it the Roman desire for worldwide dominion and the Greek taste for metaphysical subtleties. The combination produced the most fiercely persecuting religion that the world has yet known. In Japan and china, Buddhism was peaceably accepted and allowed to exist along with Shinto and Confucianism; in the Mohammedan world, Christians and Jews were not molested so long as they paid the tribute; but throughout the Christendom death was the usual penalty for even the smallest deviation from orthodoxy.

On youthful cynicism

123 Let us first take some of the old ideals one by one and see why they no longer inspire the old loyalties. We may enumerate among such ideals: religion, country, progress, beauty, truth. What is wrong with these in the eyes of the young?

Religion – Even believers are concerned much more with the effects of religion in this world than with that other world that they profess to believe in; they are not nearly so sure that this world was created for the glory of God as they are that God is a useful hypothesis for improving this world. By subordinating God to the needs of this sublunary life, they case suspicion upon the genuineness of their faith.

124 country – patriotism in the Western nations is still immensely powerful: it controls politics, public expenditure, military preparations, and so on. But the intelligent youth are unable to accept it as an adequate ideal; they perceive that it is all very well for oppressed nations, but as soon as an oppressed nation achieves freedom, the nationalism which was formerly heroic becomes oppressive.

125 progress – Measurable progress is necessarily in unimportant things, such as the number of motor-cars made, or the number of peanuts consumed. The really important things are not measurable and are therefore not suitable for the methods of the booster. Moreover, many modern inventions tend to make people silly. I might instance the radio, the talkies, and poison gas. Shakespeare measured the excellence of an age by its style in poetry (see Sonnet XXXII), but this mode of measurement is out of date.

125 beauty – There is something that sounds old-fashioned about beauty, though it is hard to say why. A modern painter would be indignant if he were accused of seeking beauty. Most artists nowadays appear to be inspired by some kind of rage against the world so that they wish rather to give significant pain than to afford serene satisfaction. Moreover many kinds of beauty require that a man should take himself more seriously than is possible for an intelligent modern. A prominent citizen of Athens or  Florence could feel himself important, Aeschylus or Dante could take their own joys or sorrow seriously. They “could feel that the emotions of the individual matter, and that tragic occurrences deserve to be celebrated in immortal verse. But the modern man, when misfortune assails him, is conscious of himself as a unit in a statistical total; the past and the future stretch before him in a dready procession of trivial defeats.

126 truth – In the old days, truth was absolute, eternal and superhuman….But a whole host of enemies have arisen to slay truth: pragmatism, behaviourism, psychologism, relativity-physics.  … it is difficult to worship a merely human and relative truth.

126-7-8 So far we have been considering modern cynicism in a rationalistics manner, as something that has intellectual causes. Belief, however, as modern psychologists are never weary of telling us, is seldom determined by rational motives, and the same is true of disbelief, though sceptics often overlook this fact. The causes of any widespread scepticism are likely to be sociological rather than intellectual. The main cause always is comfort without power. Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs, which was by no means diminished if their heads were cut off. The modern intellectual finds himself in a quite different situation. It is by no means difficult for him to obtain a fat job and a good income provided he is willing to sell his services to the stupid rich either as propagandist or as Court Jester.  … But if a man’s education has been literary, as is still too often the case, he finds himself at the age of twenty-two with a considerable skill that he cannot exercise in any manner that appears important to himself. Men of science are not cynical even in the West, because they can exercise their best brains with the full approval of the community; but in this they are exceptionally fortunate among modern intellectual.

128 cynicism cannot be cured by the existing education, it “will have to be an education taking some account of real cultural values and not only of the utilitarian desire to produce so many goods that nobody has time to enjoy them. A man is not allowed to practise medicine unless he knows something of the human body, but a financier is allowed to operate freely without any knowledge at all of the multifarious effects of his activities, with the sole exception of the effect upon his bank account. How pleasant a world would be in which no man was allowed to operate on the Stock Exchange unless he could pass an examination in economics and Greek poetry, and in which politicians were obliged to have a competent knowledge of history and modern novels! …Causation in the modern world is more complex and remote in its ramifications than it ever was before, owing to the increase of large organisations; but those who control these organisations are ignorant men who do not know the hundredth part of the consequences of their actions. The rulers of the world have always been stupid, but have not in the past been so powerful as they are now. It is therefore more important than it used to be to find some way of securing that they shall be intelligent. Is this problem insoluble? I do not think so, but I should be the last to maintain that it is easy.

Modern homogeneity

131 I have seen orange groves in Sicily and orange groves in California; the contrast represents a period of about two thousand years. Orange groves in Sicily are remote from trains and ships; the trees are old and gnarled and beautiful; the methods are those of classical antiquity. The men are ignorant and semisavage, mongrel descendants of Roman slaves and Arab invaders; what they lack in intelligence toward trees they make up for by cruelty to animals. With moral degradation and economic incompetence goes an instinctive sense of beauty which is perpetually reminding one of Theocritus and the myth about the garden of the Hesprides. In a Californian orange grove the garden of the Hesperides seems very remote. The trees are all exactly alike, carefully tended and at the right distance apart. The oranges, it is true, are not all exactly of the same size, but careful machinery sorts them so that automatically all those in one box are exactly similar. They travel along with suitable things being done to them by suitable machines at suitable points until they enter a suitable refrigerator car in which they travel to a suitable market. –man is the master of his environment-

132 people in America are the same. When one considers the difference between a Norwegian and a Sicilian, and compares it with the lack of difference between a man from (say) North Dakota and a man from southern California, one realises the immense revolution in human affairs which has been brought about by man’s becoming the master instead of the slave of his physical environment. Norway and Sicily both have ancient traditions; they had pre-Christian religions embodying men’s reactions to the climate, and when Christianity came it inevitably took very different forms in the two countries. The Norwegian feared  ice and snow; the Sicilian feared lava and earthquakes. Hell was invented in a southern climate; if it had been invented in Norway, it would have been cold. But neither in North Dakota nor in Southern California is Hell a climatic condition: in both it is a stringency on the money market. This illustrates the unimportance of climate in modern life.

134 It must not be supposed that the tendency towards uniformity is either wholly good or wholly bad. It has great advantages and also great disadvantages: its chief advantage is, of course, that is produces a population capable of peaceable co-operation; its great disadvantage is that is produces a population prone to persecution of minorities. This latter deficit is probably temporary, since it may be assumed that before long there will be no minorities. A great deal depends, of course, on how the uniformity is achieved. Take, for example, what the schools do to southern Italians, Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility. The Public Schools effectively cure them of the last of these three, and to that extent assimilate them to the native American population, but in regard to the other two distinctive qualities, I gather that  the success of the schools is less marked. This illustrates one of the dangers of uniformity as an aim: good qualities are easier to destroy than bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards. It is, of course, clear that a country with a large foreign population must endeavour, through its schools, to assimilate children of immigrants, and therefore a certain degree of Americanization is inevitable. It is, however, unfortunate that such a large part of this process should be effected by means of a somewhat blatant nationalism. America is already the strongest country in the world, and inspires fear in Europe, and the fear is increasinged by everything suggesting militant nationalism. It may be the destiny of America to teach political good sense to Europe, but I am afraid that the pupil is sure to prove refractory.

                With the tendency towards uniformity in America there goes, as it seems to me, a mistaken conception of democracy. It seems to be generally held in the United States that democracy requires all men to be alike, and that, if a man is in any way different from another, he is ‘setting himself up’ as superior to that other. France is quite as democratic as America, and yet this idea does not exist in France. The doctor, the lawer, the priest, the public official are all different types in France; each profession has its own traditions and its own standards, although it does not set up to be superior to other professions. In America all professional men are assimilated in type to the business man. It is as though one should decree that an orchestra should consis only of violins. There does not seem to be an adequate understanding of the fact that society should be a pattern or an organism, in which different organs play different parts. Imagine the eye and the ear 136 quarrelling as to whether it is better to see or hear, and deciding that each would do neither since neither could do both. This, it seems to me, would be democracy as understood in America. There is a strange envy of any kind of excellence which cannot be universal, except, of course, in the sphere of athletics and sport, where aristocracy is enthusiastically acclaimed. It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration for brains. The flood of popular scientific books in America is inspired partly, though of course not wholly, by the unwillingness to admit that there is anything is science which only experts can understand. The idea that a special training may be necessary to understand, let say, the theory of relativity, causes a sport of irritation, although nobody is irritated by the fact that a special training is necessary in order to be a first-rate football player.

                Achieved eminence is perhaps more admired in America than in any other country, and yet the road to certain kinds of eminence is made very difficult for the young, because people are intolerant of any eccentricity or anything that could be called ‘setting one’s self up’, provided the person concerned is not already labelled ‘eminent’.  …

                Standardisation, though it may have disadvantages for the exceptional individual, probably increases the happiness of the average man, since he can utter his thoughts with certainty that they will be thoughts of his hearer. Moreover  it promotes national cohesion, and makes politics less bitter and violent than 137 where more marked differences exist. I do not think it possible to strike a balance of gains and losses, but I think the standardisation which now exists in America is likely to exist throughout Europe as the world becomes more mechanised. Europeans, therefore, who find fault with America on this account should realise that they are finding fault with the future of their own countries, and are setting themselves against an inevitable and universal trend in civilisation. Undoubtedly  internationalism  will become easier as the differences between nations diminish, and if once internationalism were established, social cohesion would become of enormous importance for preserving internal peace. There is a certain risk, which cannot be denied, of an immobility analogous to that of the later Roman Empire. But as against this, we may set  the revolutionary forces fo modern science and modern technique. Short of a universal intellectual decay, these forces, which are a new feature in the modern world, will make immobility impossible, and prevent that kind of stagnation which has overtaken great empires in the past. Arguments from history are dangerous to apply to the present and the future, because of the complete change that science has introduced. I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it.

Men versus insects

140 So long as war continues, all scientific knowledge is double-edged. (nitrogen – process invented to fix nitrogen in soil, but used to manufacture explosives) … The more we know, the more harm we can do each other. If human beings in their rage against each other, invite the aid of insects and micro-organisms, as they certainly will  do if there is another big war, it is by no means unlikely that the insects will remain the sole ultimate victors. Perhaps, from a cosmic point of view, this is not to be regretted; but as a human being I cannot help heaving a sigh over my own species.

Education and discipline

141  The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilisation, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both  intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own progression, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of  142 life. In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends.

(what can be done to realise this purpose of education)

142 On the question of freedom in education there are at present three main schools of thought, deriving partly from differences as to the ends and partly from differences in psychological theory. There are those who say that children should be completely free, however bad they may be; there are those who say they should be completely subject to authority, however good they may be; and there are those who say they should be free, but in spite of freedom they should always be good.This last party is larger than it has any logical right to be; children, like adults, will not all be virtuous  if they are all free. The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseausim, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education would have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge. We live in communities which require co-operation, and it would be utopian to expect all the necessary co-operation to result from spontaneous impulse. The existence of a large population on a limited area is only possible owing to science and technique; education must, therefore, hand on the necessary minimum of these.

Stoicism and mental health (1928)

On comets

What is the soul? (1928)

Class, not race

The memoir Born in Crime: Stories from a South African childhood by Trevor Noah (Doubleday, 2016) traces the author’s childhood in South Africa through the rough times of political and social upheaval that accompanied the fall of the apartheid regime.

Being the son of an African mother and a Swiss father, his experiences show the senseless racism from people of both “colors”: this liminal place, both black and white,  situated him on a special, but lonely, observation platform and made his experiences unique. The book is supposedly funny, but the only time I laughed was when I was reading the bit about sitting on the toiled and shitting.

Although the narration is a clear account of the utter stupidity of racism, violence,  gender discrimination, and other ills which people heap on each other, race takes the primary position:

Andrew showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression. Andrew was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers. For generations, while his people were preparing to go to university, my people were crowded into thatched huts. (p. 190) 

The author is guilty of the usual overgeneralization by using terms such as “the West”, “white”, “his people”, “my people”, “empower”, “culture”. It is more than evident that not all “white” people live in “the West”, and not all of them are privileged. History shows that many ethnicities were and are subject to awful repression and discrimination either from their own kind or from outsiders or both (Slovaks suffered immense exploitation under the Hungarians for 1000 (!) years, and almost 60 years under the Soviets).

And yet, the author is aware that race by itself is not the cause of most troubles:

Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.” (p. 190)

Clearly, the notion of “privileged” assumes, in Trevor Noah’s account, the connotation of “white”. However, privilege does not have colour or gender. It is “social class” that underpins all human relationships. Nowadays, however, the term “class” is almost meaningless, as “working class” has been renamed “the 99%”.

The book underlines the fact that the type of familial and social upbringing and formal education one receives has an immediate effect on the individuals’ behaviour as well as world-view:

The parties [in Alexandra] don’t end until someone gets shot or a bottle gets broken on someone’s face. (p. 191)

And, saying that fucking air is an expression of our culture (p. 194) is surely not elevating other, more important contributions to human life in general “his people” can make.

Mixing history and personal experiences, describing the  atrocities that individuals perpetrate on each other are, however, not the only backbones of the book. The strength of Trevor Hoah’s mother (one could almost say reckless rash choices, especially the conscious decision to have a baby with a “white” man), the resiliency of Trevor himself to keep on living, his personal strength to see the less tragic sides of every story make this book a very good read indeed.

The origin of language according to Tom Wolfe



Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 185 pages) is a most frustrating book. When, up to page 162, the reader thinks “finally, there is someone who can shed a smidgen of more light on the question of the origin of language”, the author stops short, and, in fact, destroys the whole edifice he has so carefully constructed in the preceding pages. Paralleling the conceptual developments and social acceptance of the ideas of the pairs Darwin- Wallace, and Chomsky- Everett, Wolfe traces an outline of intellectual vicissitudes of ideas regarding the “science” of language, especially as they involve the origin of language. These developments demonstrate the power of the academia which tends to overlook solitary researchers outside of the university halls who have no chance to promote their ideas to the world, especially to the “learned” world, and have them stamped with academic approval.

Mentalist claims have expanded our vision about language but have not received the hard evidence to support them. The origin of language is inextricably connected not only to the picture we have of human evolution in general, but more specifically, to the answer to the following two questions:  Is language biologically encoded in homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. is it an organ? Or is language a cultural artifact like the bow and arrow? Wolfe chides Chomsky and leaps beyond Everett in stating that speech was the first artifact: sounds formed codes, i.e. words (p. 163). Then he proceeds to state obvious commonplaces: without speech, the human beast is unable to make plans, to enjoy an accurate memory (and to preserve it, he writes – he surely means written language, not speech!), to make use of mathematics, to have power over the animal kingdom.

Wolfe equates words with speech, a common mistake made by linguistically untrained speakers and writers. He mentions six extraordinary cases of individuals who changed history through language: Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, but he does not elaborate on their verbal contribution. He prophesies that “soon, speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom” (i.e.,  regnum animalia, vegetabile, lapideum, and, loquax, the last one inhabited solely by homo loquax, making up the universum loquax  “spoken” universe – he possibly meant to say “talking universe”, but what he says is “talkative/loquacious  universe”! Most probably, he was grasping for the form  locutum, the past participle of loquor, loqui “to speak”), or better, yet, loquentem, the present participle, i.e. “speaking” (p. 168). Clearly, Latin for an English speaker is a well-used point of origin of some interesting new meanings, but in this case, the author’s description of the universe as loquax invokes irony rather than awe. Unless Wolfe wants to underscore the fact that today everyone is loquacious, especially on social media…And this is the crux of the matter: speech and language are devalued to such an extent that even bestselling authors do not check their verbal  creations. And Wolfe, being an author of verbal creations, clearly opts for the definition of language as the “author’s tool”, which does not add anything to our understanding of the origin of language.

The final paragraph of the slim booklet contains the following:

  To say that animals evolved into men is like saying that Carrara marble evolved in to  [sic] Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.

Leaving aside the sexist language, and unclear syntax, Wolfe does not elaborate on his theory of  evolution/creation of “men”. In what way is “creation”, i.e., “sculpting” the same as “evolution”?

Yet again, as happens quite often in my posts which contain book reviews, my conclusion has to do with the publishing business of today: was this book in its manuscript form ever edited, read by a representative of the publishing house, discussed by the publishers? If yes, they would have noticed at least the following problems:

  1. The title: If speaking metaphorically, where is this “kingdom of speech”? Who is its king (for surely there is no queen in sight)? If the term is used for taxonomic purposes, then there is no need for so many regna: two are sufficient: regnum loquentem and regnum non loquentem.
  2. The question about whose ideas are promoted and why is one of the two crucial points of the whole book (the second one being the answer to the question of the origin of language).  The promotion and reception of ideas are extremely topical themes especially these days, when false news and fake news are being constantly banded about. The book seems to endorse the underdog (i.e., the non-academic researcher), without, however, making a concerted effort to analyze this deeply.
  3. It is clear that in the era of multimedia products, verbal creations need a defender. What is more, language needs to be supported, cultivated, elaborated, in the individual as well as in society. This book could have contributed to this defense.
  4. The answer to the question of the origin of language cannot be delivered by one individual-it needs collaboration among scores of researchers.

It’s all well to throw some crumbs (ideas) on the road, but it is a far cry from a well-developed theory, or at least, a well-developed analysis: hence my frustration with the book.