Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Academia

When I look at American intellectuals from my vantage point outside academia, I am often struck by how removed most of them are from the big issues of the day. They seem to communicate within their groups while being oblivious of everything else.  It wasn't always that way.  Immanuel Kant made an important contribution to astronomy before he became known as a philosopher, and he wrote on a variety of subjects.  No one in academia today resembles Bertrand Russell, who made significant contributions as a logician, social critic and popular writer.  I suppose you could put Noam Chomsky in this category, but he is not perceived as an important thinker by most Americans.

What has happened?  Although I can't claim to have an insider's view, it seems that the vast amount of knowledge that has accumulated over the years can only be dealt with in small chunks by the human mind, necessitating a narrow focus in most subjects.  That must be a large part of it. However, there also seem to be more sinister causes.  Among those would be corporate intrusion into universities and the corporatization of universities themselves. Corporate thinking requires a narrow frame of reference, in which all thoughts ultimately revolve around cash flows and profits.

For a generalist thinker like me, this is a disturbing turn of events.  The American landscape is dominated by a business mentality that makes icons out of people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who are not big thinkers at all. In fact "big thinking" has become sort of a niche subject controlled by publishers who promote their feeble authors like commodities. One of the reasons I've started this blog is that it seems almost impossible to find current writing about this question.

The U.S. has always been an anti-intellectual country, and it would be a distortion so say that big thinkers ever had much of an impact here.  You would have to go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to find that.  I wouldn't be surprised if a poll asking people who their favorite philosopher is would produce "Jesus" as the most popular answer.

In my view, the current state we are in is quite dangerous.  Without anyone to frame large issues for the public, the country ambles along with the blind leading the blind.

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