Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
To give it its due, abstraction — the power of the mind to steal things out of context, to decompose and simplify reality, to separate elements and disjoin relations — is indeed one of the two great techniques of thinking, part of the natural repertory of currents in which the mind moves. We compose and decompose, associate and dissociate, relate and distinguish: Greek philosophical vocabulary gave the names synthesis and analysis to these functions — the "putting-together" and "breaking-down" by which our minds arrive at complex and simple objects of understanding. That is not exactly right, because synthesis does not grasp a complex as a complex, it grasps it as a whole (and analysis grasps particles not in pure isolation but as part of an implicit matrix). The particles or components that are ingredients in that synthesized whole make it an articulated whole, jointed in a certain way: but it is wholeness the mind is seeking, organic-organizing units of thought, not simply accidental or meaningless aggregates. Concepts (ideas that "seize together," con-capere) facilitate and are functions of the act of comprehension. "Logic" and all of the "-logies" that provide a conceptual charter for academic departments likewise derive from a term, logos/legein, with the same sense of "gathering" or "collecting."
The predominant motif in learning and theorizing for over two thousand years has been the assumption that the mind seeks constituted unities, that it aspires to some rational fusion of the disparate phenomena that experience (and analysis) presents us with. The essence, the action, the life and health of the mind have been assumed to lie in intellectual integration, the comprehension of a manifold under the aspect of a unity: for the sake of this condensation or fusion, mind performs as "the great epitomist," as Hegel described it. It concentrates significance, it condenses and overcomes differences, like a neutron star or plasma-chamber it exerts a kind of super-pressure to compress the field of its objects down to the most economical, most essential structure that is feasible. Mind is economy, grasping "much in little" (multum in parvo), mastering and capturing a manifold under the face of a simplicity. In this as in some other senses, all actions of the mind would qualify as a kind of art, the subtle insinuation of form into content, the accomplishment of a difficult coherence, a sometimes precarious congruence among irregular and diverse realities.
For most of Western civilization, this program has not been doubted: the potency and success of the system of culture and intellect depend on accomplishing that kind of integrity — the whole life of the mind was invigorated by the systemic ligaments by which problems were bonded together to make subjects, subjects together under concepts of disciplines, systems of theories, etc. The unification the mind sought has been at times more and at times less accessible, cheaper and costlier, stabler and more ephemeral, and so on; but unification was the polestar by which we navigated generation after generation of recombinant challenges to our architecture of concepts and theories. It was the spine of a mutating tradition, the cultural dominant that saved academic thought from becoming eccentric and anomic to a pathological excess.
Now, by degrees, modernity has forged an institutional and professional ideology that is more and more perfectly hostile to that kind of synoptic enterprise. In the early 19th century Hegel described the mode of contemporary analytical thinking as Verstand, a method of comprehension that broke reality down according to the subject's own fixed categories; the whole action of the subject lay in this unilateral and presumptuous assimilation of material to its criteria — the concepts employed were never to be taken as themselves problematic, nor could reality effectively protest against the Procrustean bed it was forced to fit. Verstand is an entirely prejudiced and mechanical application of reasoning, a philosophically torpid way of thinking marked by conceptual self-complacency and resignation to the finite territories of those fixed categories. In spite of his criticism and his systematic elaboration of a dynamic dialectic of ideas, Hegel was no sooner dead than ideologically buried beneath the mindless grid of that very academic Verstand. Positivism, scientism, and analytical philosophy began their Sherman's March to the Sea, putting to the torch every trace of traditional philosophy; this devastation, along with the emasculation of the humanities at large, gutted most of the internal resistance against the tide of specialization, the division of booty by the academic spoils-system. University faculties were free to convert themselves into technicians and replicate their kind, and the free reign of abstraction as a peculiarly modal ideology — one that dictated not content so much as method — was inaugurated.
Abstraction carries its own a priori compulsion, yielding not only the institutional drift toward partitioned departments but also the massive channeling of intellects into narrower and narrower capillaries of research. No one can imagine that this kind of specialization is in any way objectively warranted, the way assembly-line specialization was necessitated in factories: rather, the ignorance thus ingrained repeatedly has created its own impediments to successful understanding and communication. Specialization provided its own circular justification — because of the amassed expanse of detailed research, academics had to constrict their responsibilities to remain specifically competent. Each particle of study could certainly receive more thorough attention that way, but no guarantee whatsoever is provided that this intellectual microscopy will be objectively responsive to the structures and issues of the real world. It is a matter of disintegrative intellectual convention or, more exactly, ideology. Certainly no argument was ever made that specialization took place for the benefit of what students needed to know: the main demand for courses still lay in the generalist context of undergraduate offerings. But there was no place for faculties to publish or develop the kinds of generalized intelligence such courses required, and increasingly — one decade's students become the next decade's professors — the substance of those general courses became thinner and thinner. Today's public school teachers, as only one group disserved by that insubstantial curriculum, are not uniquely starved of knowledge and understanding — they are merely occupationally obligated to divulge the sort of barren minds this scheme of education has mass-produced.
University faculty commonly complained that they had been trained to work as specialists and then their courseloads denied them free exercise of their specialties: they were obliged (quelle horreur!) to teach in broad areas for which they had not been properly trained and in which it was not feasible to research or publish. For faculty who conceived of themselves foremost as specialists, teaching undergraduates became nothing but a sacrifice, a distraction and waste. This generalist duty in fact more and more showed up specialized education for what it was, not education at all but only training: a doctorate no longer signified general aptitude in one's field or any developed repertory of diverse intellectual content or technique. In most departments, the undergraduate offerings became little more than recruiting stations for their more lucrative graduate programs.
Administrators and senior faculty, if they had any historical or institutional perspective on these problems at all, perceived that changes in priority were desperately needed. Interdisciplinary work had to be encouraged, as much among faculty as among students. But the relations thus struck up were more often than not capricious, and interdepartmental cooperation at best was ad hoc. Both in terms of academic politics — disciplinary inbreeding and the relentless competition for students — and in terms of the fragmentary, fractious state of thinking generally, the effect of abstractionism has been a mean-spirited divisiveness, inevitably diminishing the impersonal civic morale and ultimate vision of both institutions and professionals. There are times when cultures are more and times when they are less receptive to "grand theory," the efforts that may be made in behalf of comprehensive perspective. That kind of encyclopedism has been made vastly more difficult today, and the information-explosion is the least part of the reason why: there is a makework-solidarity among specialized mentalities, alongside the blind pursuit of particulars untempered by any pretense to general significance. That solidarity is an ideologically intolerant mood, a minimalist paranoia that makes academics regard all synoptic intelligence (past and present) as arrogant, imperializing threats of intellectual domination. It is not too much to say that in many departments, there is a resentment and fear of genius, a herd-inspiration to psychologize and analyze it away: it is not for no reason that the classics and great authors have become so disparaged and neglected, and trivial minds and works elevated in their place. Behind an ideological facade of an assault on "elitism," these are the hard and dedicated labors of Lilliputian vandals, insects reducing the conceptual monuments of the past down to crumbs.
All in all, it is apparent that the rise of technology and specialization proved to be an ideological and economic bonanza for the petty-minded: it was a veritable inversion of hierarchies and rules of competition. Those with small appetites of curiosity, with minuscule intellectual ambitions, those seeking security above adventure and recognition — for individuals such as this was the modern university designed: it is an existence that for the most part does not reward excellence any more than it penalizes incompetence, and the prime good that it has to offer is, embarrassingly enough, tenure, mere but perfect security. In a kind of insidious doublespeak, all of the moral and professional duties it demands of its faculty mean something entirely different to those who are committed to excellence and to those who are not: the fatal flaw in quality-control over the teaching profession is that the effort and depth of involvement — in preparation, mastery of the subject, reciprocating to students' interests, counseling, etc. — are ultimately individually self-policed. It is excruciating hard work for those who care, and a sinecure for those who do not. Objectively — that is to say, by the trivialized and amoral criteria that technicians prefer — administrative evaluations rarely discriminate between the two groups, and that is why the true educators will continue to make up an ever-diminishing portion of faculties. Schools in general, but most especially universities, are an ideal culture-medium for mediocrity to thrive in. A society dull enough not to perceive how dangerous that situation is fully deserves the consequences.
As commonly happens in periods of intellectual contraction, the decline in general conceptual literacy encourages a boldness among charlatans, whose extravagant claims find their body of true believers among the irrational reactionaries against the regime of specialization; those pseudo-theories thus can spread unchallenged by any conceptually informed critics. Rather than provide rational and objective protection against theorizing demagogy, the trivialized and anti-philosophical mentality of most academics inadvertently feeds and arms it by fostering intellectual ineptitude, a blight of picayune and enfeebled interests. Although the specialist-minimalist mentality seems adequately objective to itself — just because it neither espouses nor tolerates passionate endorsements of ideologies or other crusades — in fact it is not objective, merely neutralized, and not principled, merely pusillanimous: it has no secure or defensible rational position on controversial questions but merely precludes those questions from arising. It practices a form of birth control in the realm of ideation, a programmatic prevention of any formative, comprehensive concepts: a philosophical contraception.
Reasons without number have been given to explain the cultural sterility of the modern wasteland: hardly any of them are utterly without merit — it takes the confluence of a great many forces to exterminate so individualized a venture as thinking and imagination. In our society, most of those forces work through our own appetites — through the demands of the market, the media, and their effects on our desires and lust for license. But one of those forces is in a position to suppress the higher functions of spirit from a position of authority, from the vantage point of an ideological coercion that inhibits individuals from gaining the independence and resources to criticize it: that is the educational system, and most acutely higher education. When universities have become almost uniformly dedicated to the abortion of those higher powers, then cultivated mind is radically endangered. The civilization of individuality founded by the Greeks and permutated in every subsequent era has fallen upon not a drought but a Sahara: the independence of conscience, the fulsomeness of imagination, the array of articulated values necessary for human beings to perform as maximized individuals, matured and universally responsible intelligences, are unmistakably absent from higher education. The absence is not inadvertent; there is an unrecognized, self-masking ideology wreaking its pernicious effects on academics and their students.
The metabolic ebb and flow of analysis and synthesis have seized up, and the one-sided proclivities of modern thinking have created a marketplace of ideas with acutely biased demands, tolerances, and values. The work of analysis has become so commonplace and routinized that it can be accomplished almost mechanically: no fund of genius or even particular insight is required now to conduct dissection of terms, texts, propositions, or the like. It is a work so unchallenging that mediocrity proliferates in it unchecked. Synthesis, on the other hand, is a function that has been rendered anathema, a renegade operation fit only for eccentrics and rebels: universities are not merely places for the certification of specialists — they themselves have become specialists, specialized factories for the processing of specialists. General competence, undifferentiated intelligence, disciplined but multifarious aptitude, are to most academics contradictions in terms, radically inconceivable states of mind: all intelligence in our time is supposed to be expertise, narrow micro-mentality, reduced to definite and territorially exclusive sub-fields within a subject. Ironically but logically enough, the same formulaic inflexibility — the decline of spirit into letter — that once made art academies so hostile to modern art, now has been placed entirely at the service of modernism: an exponential negativism, a more desiccated and sterile academicism than ever before, is the result. Arcane abstractionism proliferates freely like a mindless virus, expanding itself like a glacial geometry with no features whatsoever at a human scale: accountable to nothing, comprehensive of nothing, disseminating as virtues the apathy of nihilism, the peculiar self-righteousness of amoralism, the acids of a banal cynicism.
The miniaturization of intellect has taken place forcibly, irresistibly, during decades in which counter-indications about its advisability have grown more and more obtrusive: (1) In industry, technology, society, and even academia, the growing edge of knowledge has required more and more mergers between disciplines, and specialties find themselves unpredictably obsolete. Reality has never stood under a binding obligation to conform to the taxonomic conveniences of academic departments: all real problems are over-determined intersections of many different subjects and perspectives. (2) The Balkanized curricula at virtually all our universities, major and minor, demonstrate a now manifestly institutional pathos and apparently irreversible partisan politics: specialization and the departmental competition for student-credit-hours have made higher education into a self-serving fraud against the public good and against the individual needs of students. Specialization is more and more overtly a vice, a vitiating by-product of the academic centrifuge: Ph.D. — doctors, no less than medical doctors, are unable to cure themselves. (3) Our futurological attempts to second-guess the course of our high-tech revolutions seem to concur: our technology is bound to relieve us of our most specialized, pedestrian duties. High-tech equipment on the whole must become more user-friendly, so that specialized qualifications — the educational accommodations human beings have had to make to their too-literal-minded, hyper-idiotic computers — will largely be phased out. Conversely, we expect individuals to reap a boon of increased leisure-time, time for self-cultivation for which their over-specialized education has prepared them not at all. (4) We confront major academic morale-problems, not least of all among our students: in spite of high salaries and unstinting demand, the hard sciences simply are not the appetizing career-choices that our state of technology needs them to be. We will certainly have to import foreign minds to conduct our high-tech affairs for us, if indeed we can afford to offer competitive salaries, in the future. In spite of exciting developments in theory and experiment, the popularity of science in our country may well have peaked, and over-specialized education may well be the prime villain. You cannot induce students to think scientifically when they have not learned to think at all: they cannot master concepts because they have not mastered their language; neither the spirit nor the letter of creative and critical thinking has been imparted to them by an educational system that is too often at best a perfunctory process and at worst an ordeal. The subjects, problems, and issues that our schools ought to be energizing the next generation to deal with are lying dismembered, reduced to unrecognizable fragments by myopic specialists and experts suffering from delusions of adequacy. For many who have passed all the way through that system of education, advanced degrees turn out to have negative value, to make individuals unemployably specialized: that is our economy's vote of no-confidence in our universities.
I do not mention here the obvious, the Babel of discommunication among professors even in the same discipline; the cataclysmic glut of uselessly precise articles and books, so voluminous that no university library could afford even to house it; or the incalculable mass-waste of time and effort for students who need and expect some guidance from the university curriculum itself, some clue as to what is important to understand for the sake of their lives and minds. These outrages pass for normalcy in the academic Wonderland. It is a remarkable testimony to the human genius for adaptation — our plastic human nature, our profound skills for habituation and psychological homeostasis — that these conditions can exist and be taken for granted as standard operating procedures by academics and teachers. But it is blatant evidence of the decrepit state of our critical and visionary intelligence, our imagination for alternative formats for evaluation and organization, and our audacity for individual initiative, that we have passively and mindlessly capitulated to such dysfunctional institutions. Our schools and universities do not educate, they incapacitate — they encumber individuals with pointless and disabling burdens of disorganized information: they discourage the primitive exploration of new concepts, the challenges and accountability that youth has every right to bring to bear against sedentary mentalities. Critical and original thinking hardly has any place left for it in American culture — not in the media, not in academia, not in the majority of enterprises. "Hidebound" hardly begins to describe the kind of pachyderms that have gravitated to positions of authority: institutional, historically precedent-setting decisions are being made by individuals with "trained incapacity" of understanding and judgment, as Veblen defined specialization. We cannot possibly recall the vicious consequences of the educational misadventures that have, now, been underway for decades.
Until there is a revolution in our values and in the demands we make on our institutions, universities will continue in their malfeasance — they will go on as the American chemical industry has gone on, mindlessly pumping solvents and toxins into our intellectual and spiritual landscape because that is the easiest and most cost-efficient thing to do. Analysis long ago passed over from being an individual intellectual technique to being a compulsory-obsessive program: as in a Greek tragedy, at some critical point of reversal, our doing has become our undoing — the codes by which we held our character and our lives together have become the formula for our self-dismemberment. From superficial structure down to profound structure, the acids that modernity so eagerly and wantonly produced have etched their way down to the core, the primal stabilizing codes by which we integrate our purposes with those of our contemporaries and those of our ancestors and descendants. How we are living today is systematically closing off options for those who come after us: we are no longer investing, we are foreclosing on an ever-more imminent future.