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Humanist Archives: Jan. 14, 2020, 7:45 a.m. Humanist 33.543 - academic catastrophe and the human

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 543.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Ken Friedman 
           Subject: The Academic Apocalypse (125)

    [2]    From: Francois Lachance 
           Subject: Machines & Generating Random Acts of Kindness (48)

        Date: 2020-01-13 21:41:16+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman 
        Subject: The Academic Apocalypse

Dear Colleagues,

An interesting editorial appears in today's New York Times titled The Academic
Apocalypse. It concerns the problems that universities face in the humanities.


This is linked to a recent series of essays published by the Chronicle of Higher


The collection of essays is freely accessible without a Chronicle subscription.
In case you can't access the Times, I copy the text below.

Happy New Year -- perhaps.

Ken Friedman

Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The
Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in
Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation
| Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Eminent Scholar | College of Design,
Art, Architecture, and Planning | University of Cincinnati ||| Email Â
ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com (mailto:ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com> | Academia
(https://tongji.academia.edu/KenFriedman> | D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cn


> The Academic Apocalypse
> By Ross Douthat
> Jan. 11, 2020
> This column tries to keep its cool, but last week I briefly surrendered to
crisis and existential dread, to the sense that an entire world is dissolving
underneath our feet -- institutions crumbling, authorities corrupted, faith in
the whole experiment evaporating.
> How did I enter this apocalyptic mood? Not by reading about Trump's
Washington or the Middle East, but by downloading a package of essays
from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic world that helped educate
me - the humanities and especially the study of literature, whose apparently-
terminal condition makes the condition of the American Republic look like ruddy
> The package' title is a single word, "Endgame," and its opening text
reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. "The academic study of literature
is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It' in the midst of it." Jobs
are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the
wreckage the custodians of humanism are "befuddled and without purpose."
> The Chronicle essays cover administrative and political battles, the
transformed hiring process, the rebellions of graduate students, and the
golfing-under-a-volcano aspects of the Modern Language Association conference.
But the central essays are the ones that deal with the existential questions,
the ways that humanism tries - and lately fails - to justify itself.
> In the most interesting one, the University of Melbourne's Simon During
portrays the decline of the humanities as a new form of secularization, an echo
of past crises of established Christian faith. Once consecrated in place of
Christianity, he suggests, high culture is now experiencing its own crisis of
belief: Like revelation and tradition before it, "the value of a canon … can
no longer be assumed," leaving the humane pursuits as an option for eccentrics
rather than something essential for an educated life.
> During' essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularization
in a religious context will recognize truths in the parallels it draws. But at
the same time they will also recognize the genre to which it belongs: a
statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more
attenuated form (maybe "our canon does not bear any absolute truth and
beauty," but we don't want to live with an "empty heritage" or "disown
and waste the pasts that have formed us") and to make it useful to some other
cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.
> And if there' any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the
painful death of the English department, it' that if you aspire to keep your
faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated
belief and socially-useful applications.
> A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and
cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation or recovery depend on
more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that "the best that has
been thought and said" is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on
that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are
superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to
value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.
> This is not a dead belief in the humanities; I know many professors, most of
them political liberals, for whom it is essential. But it is a contested belief,
which is why the other key essays in the Chronicle package stage an argument on
exactly this subject - with Michael Clune of Case Western insisting that the
humanities must offer "judgment" on what is worth reading, and G. Gabrielle
Starr and Kevin Dettmar of Pomona answering that no, humanists can only really
"teach disciplinary procedures and habits of mind … we model a style of
engagement, of critical thought: we don't transmit value."
> The Starr-Dettmar belief was my alma mater' philosophy when I was an
undergraduate; back then our so-called "core" curriculum promised to teach
us "approaches to knowledge" rather than the thing itself. It was, and
remains, an insane view for humanists to take, a unilateral disarmament in the
contest for student hearts and minds; no other discipline promises to teach only
a style of thinking and not some essential substance.
> And the irony is that the very forces that have undermined strictly Western
and white-male approaches to canon-making have also made it easier than ever to
assemble a diverse inheritor. This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting
curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works
belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it' possible to teach
an American canon and a global canon (http://scholars-
stage.blogspot.com/2019/10/a-non-western-canon-what-would-list-of.html) all at
once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between
"dead white males" and "we don't transmit value."
> Escaping that dichotomy will not restore the academic or intellectual worlds
of 70 years ago (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/opinion/oh-the-
humanities.html). But the path to recovery begins there, with a renewed faith
not only in humanism' methods and approaches, but in the very thing itself.

        Date: 2020-01-12 13:24:24+00:00
        From: Francois Lachance 
        Subject: Machines & Generating Random Acts of Kindness


Kathleen Fitzpatrick has enlarged the circle of dialogue stemming from a session
at the 2020 meeting of the Modern Language Association. She has opened up to
comments her presentation on the "Being Human, Seeming Human" panel.


At the end she asks some questions that are pertinent to threads we have seen on

For what definitions of "human" are we building human-seeming agents, and
why? If our models for the human mistakenly substitute intelligence for
humanity, what becomes of emotion, of kindness, of generosity, of empathy? How
do those absences in models for the human pave the way for similar absences in
actual human interactions? And how does the consequence-free inhumane treatment
of conversational agents encourage the continued disintegration of the
possibilities for real sociality online?

I was reminded of your frequent admonishment to consider thinking about the
relations to computing machines in terms other than that of servant and master.

Juxtaposing these strands in my mind, I was led to speculate:

But doesn't our future humanness depend upon being about to "animate" the
world of artefacts in a fashion similar to how we are learning to view natural
habitats as offering ecological services? By "animate" I do not mean to
ensoul. I mean to treat the object or subject before us as a carrier of history
and worthy of some attention. Ironically to improve human-computer interaction,
we on the human side may have to be kinder to things.
The machine is a playmate in this ongoing game of micro-theatre. How? By
offering moments of serendipity enabling us to live our lives with sprezzatura
- grace in all the details and kindness to all.

Words here launched into further chance encounters...

Francois Lachance

to think is often to sort, to store and to shuffle: humble, embodied tasks

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