Friday, June 21, 2013

Vast dark forest

Update July 16 2013:
Welcome IHateNYT fans! Make yourselves at home. There's something here about most David Brooks columns over the past year or so, so Brooks obsessives and Brooksologists might want to linger.
Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrate arrachant Alcibiade du sein de la Volupté, 1791. Wikimedia Commons.
David Brooks:
A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.
Humanities Resource Center Online
The national figures are actually for a short half century, 1966 to 2010, and with some sketchy rounding,  from Wall Street Journal, June 6, which got them from Harvard. They originally come from the National Center for Education Statistics, see chart above; note that the decline was actually finished by 1982: you could just as well say the proportion has gone up by 20% over the last 30 years, meaning the entire argument that follows is practically irrelevant to the present moment. [jump]

Except at Harvard, where they are declining more over the past decade than before; the decline over the past 60 years is from 24% through 21%  in 2003 to 17% in 2012, i.e., around five times as fast for the last ten as it was over the previous fifty, as Bushonomics taught them if they went to the right school they could write their own salary checks. Forget Mozart and Spinoza, there's a yacht with your name on it, and girls and cocaine on board! Then again, the humanities are still more popular there than they have ever been in the country at large.
Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t. And there’s obviously some truth to this. But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market.
Ah, yes. Because as we just noticed the economic argument doesn't apply to the Harvard students, does it? Only to those who are destined to work in cubicles, performing routines scarcely distinguishable from the multiple choice exercises that have taken them through their dreary public educations. Anyway, that's only our disarming, number-slinging opening. We came not to make excuses but to lay blame, on those pointy-headed liberal academics, whose disciplines
are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”
Ooh, let's look at Lawrence's phrase:
The soul of man is a dark forest. The Hercynian Wood that scared the Romans so, and out of which came the white-skinned hordes of the next civilization.

Who knows what will come out of the soul of man? The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it.
It's from his hilarious essay on Benjamin Franklin, second of the Studies in Classic American Literature. Benjamin wanted to take that dark forest and turn it into "a neat back garden":
It seems to me just funny, professors and Benjamins fixing the functions of the soul.... And we've all got to fit into his kitchen garden scheme of things. Hail Columbia!
The way Benjamin prepares the earth is to begin with 12 virtues, a "barbed wire fence, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock," but
[a] Quaker friend told Franklin that he, Benjamin, was generally considered proud, so Benjamin put in the Humility touch as an afterthought. The amusing part is the sort of humility it displays. 'Imitate Jesus and Socrates,' and mind you don't outshine either of these two. One can just imagine Socrates and Alcibiades roaring in their cups over Philadelphian Benjamin, and Jesus looking at him a little puzzled, and murmuring: 'Aren't you wise in your own conceit, Ben?'
Sound familiar? Brooksy's task for the humanities is to lay out a cozy little kitchen garden of virtues, build ourselves a well-lit clearing with a defensible perimeter in the Hercynian Wood. And what did the humanists do to spoil it?
Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.
Didn't want to offend anybody? Oh, my dear little Brooks! They didn't want to be assholes; they didn't want to offend the Other, the victims of imperialism and sexism and what not. They wanted to offend you, you complacent illiterate worm! I want to offend your head off. And D.H. Lawrence wanted to offend you too, but you were too smug to notice, in your corner imitating Jesus and Socrates with Virtue no. 13 for the amusement of the young Yalies.
The Hercynian Forest—Cham, Bavaria. Photo by Carmen Neumeier.
Also, your five paragraphs of peroration, a lengthy quotation from the Chicago historian Karl Weintraub, are cribbed from a really odd source: the remarks offered by Carol Quillen, President of Davidson College, North Carolina, at this year's commencement ceremonies, May 20. You explain that she was a classmate of yours at Chicago, and Weintraub was one of your teachers, as if to suggest that you're quoting a text she might have mailed to you, or maybe passed it on when you were there speaking (tidy fee no doubt) at their Ethics Forum last November, but I have the funniest feeling you just Googled it out of nowhere a week or two ago, since the text is evidently cut and pasted. And halfway credited her for it, which is pretty honorable by your standard. (The college is very pleased with the column, anyway—they'll be inviting you back.)

If the liberal arts are endangered, it's because of you and your peeps, you time-serving, semi-ironical chucklehead, treating them just as you treat religion, as a means of social control. And the fact that you all refuse to pay for it with taxes, and monopolize it for your own private-school community as part of the décor, and think that Shakespeare advised us all not to be borrowers or lenders and that scientists have no feelings and poor people just need a little God so they can work more hours and it's all set up so that you can congratulate yourself on your perspicacity. What notion do you have of truth or beauty or goodness? You can't even read fucking D.H. Lawrence without appropriating him into another little tutelary deity of your Biedermeyer world.

Ah, I can't even stand talking about it any more. Here's Lawrence on you:

How beastly the bourgeois is 
especially the male of the species-- 

Presentable, eminently presentable-- 
shall I make you a present of him? 

Isn't he handsome?  Isn't he healthy?  Isn't he a fine specimen? 
Doesn't he look the fresh clean Englishman, outside? 
Isn't it God's own image? tramping his thirty miles a day 
after partridges, or a little rubber ball? 
wouldn't you like to be like that, well off, and quite the 

Oh, but wait! 
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another 
   man's need, 
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life 
  face him with a new demand on his understanding 
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue. 
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully. 
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new 
   demand on his intelligence, 
a new life-demand. 

How beastly the bourgeois is 
especially the male of the species-- 

Nicely groomed, like a mushroom 
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable-- 
and like a fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life 
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life 
   than his own. 

And even so, he's stale, he's been there too long. 
Touch him, and you'll find he's all gone inside 
just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow 
under a smooth skin and an upright appearance. 

Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings 
rather nasty-- 
How beastly the bourgeois is! 

Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp 
what a pity they can't all be kicked over 
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly 
into the soil of England.

1 comment:

  1. Lawrence sure had Bobo's number, didn't he? "sickening toadstool" indeed!