The Importance of Literature

I’ve got two long-form posts in my queue that are not quite finished. One is on how individuals rent-seek identity, and the other is on political labels and dialogue. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from an insightful essay on the (supposed, in my opinion) decline of arts and the humanities in American universities:

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie. It is a short step, John Stuart Mill argues, from the view that one’s opponents are necessarily guided by evil intentions to the rule of what we have come to call a one-party state or what Putin today calls “managed democracy.” If universities embody the future, then we are about to take that step. Literature, by teaching us to imagine the other’s perspective, teaches the habits of mind that prevent that from happening. That is one reason the Soviets took such enormous efforts to censor it and control its interpretation.

This is from Gary Saul Morson, who teaches literature at Northwestern, writing in Commentary. This essay, for reasons I cannot fathom, reminded me of two recent posts by two prominent libertarians, economist Bryan Caplan and philosopher Jason Brennan, that deride the arts and humanities. Here is Caplan:

I’m an academic.  A university library is supposed to be a warehouse of great thoughts.  But the vast majority of the books seemed literally indefensible.  Lame topics, vague theses, and godawful writing abounded.

Brennan’s post is more tongue-in-cheek but still worth reading.

Just replace ‘evil’ with ‘stupid’ or ‘lame’ or ‘useless’ and…voila.

Now, I’ve been around libertarian circles long enough to know that these critiques, of the arts and humanities, put forth by libertarian academics are more about debunking Leftist narratives (“you can, and should, do what you want because you, simply by being alive, have a right to whatever you want, including access to the arts and humanities”) than they are about trashing the arts and humanities, but I am a bit worried that the newest readers to old libertarian arguments are not as familiar with the subcontext of Caplan’s and Brennan’s arguments. These newer readers might not be as familiar with the old Leftist arguments about the arts and humanities being something that everybody should have access to, and as a result these newer libertarians might become anti-education, or worse: anti-democratic, though not anti-democratic as in being critical of the democratic process as it stands today, but anti-democratic as in becoming intolerant to views that are shown to be less superior in some way to our own.

I wish the more prominent libertarians among us would remember to include reminders that the ultimate target of their attacks are Leftist narratives that ignore reality, and not education.

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Literature

  1. I think you’re being much, much too kind to Caplan. The connection between the Morson essay and the Caplan post is actually pretty clear: Caplan is explicitly defending the sort of philistinism that Morson is worried about. I know that Caplan comes out and insists that he’s not a philistine. But he’s actually the walking paradigm of one.

    “The fact that most of the books failed to minimally pique even my interest reflects poorly on them.” Uh, not really. Maybe he should walk over to the psychology section and read up on “projection” and “attribution error.” It doesn’t even occur to him to ask whether his reaction is just an idiosyncratic response to this particular library.

    “Could the problem be my lack of expertise?” Gee, there’s a toughie. I looked up the Fenwick collection. Here’s one item at random from their electronic databases:

    Kotobarabia Arabic eLibrary Campus Faculty, Staff and Students only Some full text available
    This Arabic-only database contains a wide range of Arabic content ranging from contemporary novels to national heritage scientific treatises.
    [East View Information Services]

    What are the chances that Bryan Caplan could read even the first sentence of the first ten items of any search of this database? Are Tayeb Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Neguib Mahfouz, or Abderahman Munif embarrassing? Is the secondary literature on them embarrassing (whether in Arabic, English, French, or any other langauge)? Or is Caplan’s ignorant, off-hand dismissal of the contents of his university library what’s really embarrassing?

    I looked up the works of Charles Issawi, Albert Hourani, George Hourani, Clifford Geertz, Edward Said, Annemarie Schimmel, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Fouad Ajami, and for that matter, Mansour Ajami–all there. These are just random names I remembered off the top of my head from my undergraduate study of Near East Studies. (Mansour Ajami was my Arabic teacher. His name came up randomly because I searched for Fouad Ajami. I had no idea he’s written three books, but he has. Should I be embarrassed by that discovery?) My degrees are in Politics and Philosophy, so NES is way outside of my official areas of expertise. But you’d have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of such work in a library, and it’s all there. You’d also have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of more contemporary work in NES (or Geography, or Anthropology….), especially if, like Caplan, you knew nothing about it.

    Just for fun, I did a search on my own last name, not because I expected anything of mine to show up, but just because that’s as random a search as you can imagine. The first hit is a guy named Mahboub Khawaja who’s written a book “Muslims and the West.” I don’t have the book here, but wouldn’t a person of average curiosity be tempted to take a look?

    I did a search on my first name, too. Suroosh Irfani’s book on the Iranian revolution looked interesting.

    I then clicked one of the Subject Headings underneath, “Europe-Relations-Islamic Countries.” You’d have to be brain dead not to be intrigued by half of what comes up. You could spend a lifetime reading that stuff. Oh wait. That’s kind of what scholars of the field do.

    That’s just one casual set of micro-searches of one sub-field by one amateur follower of that field. Imagine multiplying searches of this kind simply for comparative politics and area studies. As you did, you’d multiply counter-examples to Caplan’s ridiculous claims. Then imagine you branched out to other fields. Same result.

    Doing all that would be a waste of time, but don’t assume that because I’ve restricted my searches to one field or sub-field, my results are idiosyncratic. I probably could have done the same for Romantic poetry, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Beethoven, Hannah Arendt’s views on Zionism, the luminist school of American landscape painting, American Indian law, Thomism, or literary studies of the works of the Bronte sisters–to name a totally random set of topics. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi is an indexer (actually the French language indexer) for The Philosopher’s Index. Every month or so, TPI would ship a box of philosophy journal articles to our house for her to index, and I’d spend part of an hour looking through them. Some of it was crap, but most of it was not. I NEVER had Caplan’s response to it. I was awestruck at how much good stuff was being produced. I’ve organized the Felician Ethics Conference for seven years in a row, and have probably read over 200 papers for it. I’ve mostly had the same reaction–curiosity, gratification, sometimes admiration, sometimes even awe.

    The bottom line is that Caplan has no idea WTF he’s talking about. The interesting questions are not the ones he ignorantly poses, but rather: Why have libertarians so adamantly and resolutely come to valorize the all-out philistinism and ignorance of people with views like his? Why are we expected to take views like his seriously? If there is a “waste of paper” involved here, why doesn’t that phrase apply to what he’s written on this subject?

    Back to prepping for class. The semester begins tomorrow.

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