Nanotechnology 1, Assyrian 0
The anti-intellectual atmosphere increasingly felt today, in institutions of higher learning both here and abroad, could turn a Garden of Eden of culture into the wasteland depicted in 20th-century dystopian works.
by Miri Eliav-Feldon. Haaretz - 06-08-2010.
One hundred years and several months ago, E.M. Forster published "The Machine Stops," a science-fiction story with a horrific prediction about society's future. All the characters live underground; each is in a separate and isolated cell, where a machine provides all an individual's needs. The "weather" is air conditioned, the food arrives on time and interpersonal communication is done via a screen, one which one can see his interlocutor's image. There are no books in the cells except for a thick manual on how to get the machine to fulfill various functions.
Any attempt to leave the cell and see what is happening aboveground is considered a subversive and dangerous act. Free thinking and intellectual work are banned. There is no historical memory, so people gradually forget that man created the machine. They begin to worship it and the manual becomes a holy text. The story ends when the machine gradually breaks down and the cell dwellers die.
Scholars who study literature and write about science-fiction books have been amazed that Forster's imagination enabled him to predict, even in the early 20th century, the development of robotics, conference calls, and certain aspects of the Internet, Skype and other technological wonders that only appeared at the end of the century. In a similar vein, readers were amazed by Jules Verne's imagination: In the 19th century, he predicted many of the 20th century's inventions, and incorporated them into his adventurous stories.
But just as only a few people have stressed the apocalyptic elements in Forster's book, many did not pay attention to Verne's dystopian book "Paris in the 20th Century," which he wrote in 1863, but which was first published only in 1994 (a Hebrew edition, translated by Micha Frenkel, was published by Keter in 1995 ). This was a vision of a wretched society in which business and technology were of paramount importance. Jules Verne was indeed ahead of his time - not only in predicting the technologies that would emerge, but also in describing a future society that would be dispirited and impoverished because of its ongoing addiction to trying to improve its life materially.
In the 20th century, Forster's book preceded a series of dystopian works that included "Brave New World" (1931 ), by Aldous Huxley; "1984," by George Orwell (1949 ); "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury (1953 ); "The Children of Men" by P.D. James (1992 ); and several books by Margaret Atwood, including "The Handmaid's Tale," "Oryx and Crake," and recently "Year Flood."
Each author expressed different fears. There were those who were afraid of totalitarian regimes. Others dreaded unbridled capitalism. And one who predicted gloom because of the possibilities that genetic engineering would offer. All these works portrayed, from different angles, the world that politicians and technocrats were leading mankind to as they harnessed science and technology for their purposes.
In the fictional future societies described in such writing, physical needs are met: People live long lives and for every illness there is an appropriate medication, as well as pills to make one happy or to improve sex, and an abundance of synthetic food. Furthermore, these works have one main common denominator: In all culture has been erased. There are no books, there is no art, museums have been reduced to rubble, there is no history, no contemplation or creative thinking, and the right to think freely is suppressed. The world becomes an intellectual wilderness.
The specter of dystopia is today more relevant than ever, despite the collapse of many totalitarian regimes and the seemingly stable situation of democracies that seek varied means to safeguard the individual's freedoms and rights. But even in the enlightened and most developed states in the West, there is waning concern today for the most important watchdog - the one that defends culture: the universities and especially the faculties of liberal arts.
Indeed, a clearly anti-intellectual atmosphere, which in the past characterized totalitarian regimes or theocracies and fundamentalist factions, is evident today in many European states, the United States and Israel. Its clearest manifestation is the reduction of resources allocated to liberal arts fields and the state's heightened involvement in higher education .
Lessons for Israel
Three prominent philosophers recently warned against the destructive processes that are afoot these days in the academic world, in the West in general and in particular, in England. We should listen to them because they directly relate to what is happening in Israel, too.
Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton University, published an article in The New York Review of Books (March 10 ), entitled "Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities." In it he described how, because of the British government's financial pressure, well-known professors of philosophy and paleography (studies of ancient script ), history and history of art are losing their jobs since those fields "do not generate incomes" and are of no immediate, practical use.
Grafton explains well the British academic tradition that in the past allowed researchers to delve into their studies and also create masterpieces. This was an intellectual experience that he equates with making "slow food," in contrast with the "fast food" produced in places where the focus is on publishing and on raising funds for research.
Now, however, in a disconcerting process that has accelerated in the past year or two, the British universities too are under pressure to maintain and support research that has immediate, practical applications - as opposed to work in fields which "aren't fashionable and don't spin money." Beware, writes Grafton at the end of his article, "If you start hearing newspeak about 'sustainable excellence clusters,' watch out. We'll be following the British down the short road to McDonald's."
In her article, titled, "Skills for Life: Why Cuts in Humanities Teaching Pose a Threat to Democracy Itself" - in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS ) of April 30 - Martha Nussbaum a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago summarizes the theme of her new book "Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs Humanities."
Nussbaum begins thus: "We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance." She is not talking about the global economic crisis, but about a world-wide crisis in education - and maintains that the latter's long-term, destructive implications will have a much stronger impact than the former.
Liberal arts and humanistic studies are being expunged from elementary and secondary school and university curricula alike because they are "seen by policymakers as useless frills" that are dispensable. Such an attitude will be disastrous for modern society, Nussbaum states. In her view, only knowledge of the past, a critical examination of society and of regimes, a skeptical attitude and a willingness to learn from others - only these elements and practices, which have been bequeathed to us through the liberal arts, have sustained not just human culture, but also democracy and the autonomy of citizens since the era of Socrates.
The May 7 edition of the TLS carried yet another article, this one by the noted Oxford University historian Keith Thomas, headlined, "What Are Universities For?" He surveys the changing roles universities played in Europe over the centuries, beginning with institutions that trained priests during the Middle Ages and up to their categorization, during the 20th century, as centers for research and teaching, with four main roles: to allow a person to fully realize his intellectual capabilities; to expand knowledge and deepen understanding; to serve an economy that is based on knowledge; and to shape a democratic and cultural society.
According to Thomas, the current policy in Britain seeks to restrict the universities' roles to achieving profitable goals only - a profit that is measured only in monetary and material gains. He urges a return to the goals universities sought to achieve since the 18th century: research for research's sake, and education for the sake of education. Institutions of higher education should, he observes, encourage pure scientific research even when there it has no obvious application, in practice; they must cultivate the sort of fields that expand our knowledge of literature, art, music, history and philosophy and in so doing make our existence more pleasurable and meaningful. Economic prosperity and physical health are important elements in a good life, but the true goal is spiritual happiness, which can be achieved through pursuit of science and arts.
If we want to encapsulate Thomas' views, we could do so by means of a metaphorical Hebrew saying that links kemah (literally "flour," but in this context material things ) with torah (in this context, spiritual things ), and say: If there is no torah, what do we need the kemah for?
The processes that Grafton, Nussbaum and Thomas warn of have been affecting Israeli academia for about a decade, and much has been written about them. Cutbacks resulting from government policy and the economic crisis have led to the dismissal of hundreds of lecturers, to a brain drain and to shrinking (indeed, almost closure ) of important areas of research in local universities.
In such an atmosphere, and with a prevailing anti-intellectual mood here, the first victims have been liberal arts fields, since it is impossible to measure their contribution and difficult to see their practical, material and immediate benefits. It is easy to consider them luxuries that ought to be discarded at times of austerity.
Should resources, and particularly public funding, be invested in researching cultures and languages that died out thousands of years ago, such as the Assyrian language? For some reason, Assyrian, the northern dialect of Akkadian, has become the most common example of an esoteric field that engages local researchers in the faculties of humanities. Those who ridicule it usually know nothing about the importance of the Semitic language in the development of cultures of the ancient East, or in that of the modern Hebrew language. Moreover, critics say, who needs to deal with the culture, history and thoughts of dead white European men (known popularly in America as DWEMs )? How does such a pursuit contribute to the gross national product? At the most, it is nothing more than a hobby.
Such criticism is leveled at us, lecturers and researchers in the faculties of humanities, by the public - not just by "the man in the street," but even by our friends and colleagues, including engineers and accountants. Indeed, they say, it is nice sometimes to enter the world of culture, to hear a lecture about Amos Oz's latest book or the findings in the archaeological digs in Beit She'an, especially when they are accompanied by slide-show presentations. Indeed, it is important that our children learn a bit of the Bible and Jewish history in school, but such pleasures do not justify paying salaries to hundreds of researchers and scholars in such fields, in the universities and colleges of our small and poor country.
Similar claims are made, more and more frequently, by people who are actually involved in higher education in Israel: Finance Ministry officials, heads of the Council for Higher Education, the committee that determines budgets for colleges and university, and even some of their rectors. "What can we do," they sigh. "If there is no kemah there is no torah."
There are indeed disciplines that are critical to producing knowledge or other things that help sustain our lives: engineering, computer and applied sciences, economics. But when the budgetary pie shrinks, there is no alternative but to give up the "luxuries." Nanotechnology instead of Assyrian, people declare - as if the speakers even have a clue about nanotechnology. Or Assyrian. Business administration instead of philosophy, computers rather than literature.
The advantage a human being has over creatures is his freedom of choice, wrote Pico della Mirandola in 1486 in an essay titled "De hominis dignitate" ("Oration on the Dignity of Man" ), considered to be the Renaissance's "manifesto." The unique thing about man, wrote della Mrandola, is his ability to fashion himself in whatever form he chooses, and to select his place among the ranks of creation. If he follows materialistic and physical instincts he will be like a plant or a beast; if he chooses the intellectual track, he will be heavenly like an angel, a son of God.
Today we could say: If man remains seated and stares at the flickering screen, he will be like a plant. But if he will study, read, think and listen to music - he will be a cultured person.
In the faculties of humanities we try to give talented young people an opportunity to choose the intellectual track and to be the next generation's humanists and scholars. If the pure natural sciences are seen as the brain cells that store knowledge, understanding and insight about the universe that surrounds us - then the various liberal arts disciplines feed the memory cells and the cells of criticism in the brain. They give rise to the knowledge and the understanding of the foundations on which culture is based. Forgoing an acquaintance with the various dimensions of civilizations means living in a house with no foundations and no content. Forgoing the memory cells means amnesia, and people with amnesia are like vacuous zombies. Zombies may expect a long life, healthy teeth, an abundance of gadgets and machines and even lawyers to solve disputes over material assets. But their life lacks substance.
It is possible, of course, to improve the ways universities function, whether here or abroad. But if we fail to defend their very essence, the sort of theoretical contemplation that takes place there - they will become mere vocational schools. Defending academia requires careful safeguarding of the principle that sees it, first and foremost, as an institution for creating knowledge and passing it on. That is why the study of such fields as Assyrian, and research for the sake of humanistic education, will secure for us a world in which we want to live, and that will defend and promote democracy and the autonomy of the individual. Without this, we are heading straight into nightmare. Assyrian is the defensive shield against the barbarians who are at the gates.
The anti-intellectual atmosphere felt around us today could turn a Garden of Eden of culture into the wasteland depicted in 20th-century dystopian works. If liberal arts subjects disappear, no one will read even those books. And who will know, then, that the writing was on the wall?