Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OK, You're Offended. And...?

As yet another sign that I'm getting old, crotchety, and increasingly conservative, I resonated with Mark Bauerlein's reflections on David Horowitz's recent visit to Emory. Horowitz is an itinerant conservative provocateur who just loves to raise the hackles of soppy liberals. But Bauerlein's observations resonate with what I've seen, too:

Most of them [attendees] were young, probably undergraduates, and they seemed bright and engaged. Somehow or some way in their education they seem to have assimilated the notion that being offended (or not being offended) forms a significant part of intellectual exchange. If someone says something you don’t like, something that distresses you personally, you should say so. If someone knocks your religion, tell them that you are, precisely, offended. If someone’s words cause you discomfort, that inner reaction itself is worth reciting.

Is this a new forensic among college students? Back in the early-80s, I can’t remember anybody my age giving the “I’m offended” response. If it were an event like this one, people would shoot back with substance and evidence. And if they didn’t have the goods, they might just mumble under their breath, “Kiss my —-” and walk out. The “I’m offended” reply would have been understood as a capitulation, not a valid rejoinder.

Needless to say, this is a poor educational outcome. Students need thicker skins, and they need to get past their offense feelings. Don’t fetishize them — let them go, and then pose sharp questions and make better arguments. Make yourself skilled in the heat of verbal battle. That’s hard to do, though, if you’re caught up in your sensitivities.
[Compare the response of these "offended" undergraduates to the response of Daniel Dennett to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga at a recent meeting of the APA, as recounted in "An Opinionated Play-by-Play of Plantinga-Dennett Exchange."]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Philosopher in Residence at ...?

A colleague pointed me to this obituary for Gerald Myers, who held what sounds like a delightful post: Philosopher in Residence at the American Dance Festival. Sounds like a sweet gig. This got me thinking about some other creative possibilities I could imagine taking up with joy:
But if I'm honest with myself, given my class and station in life, it's more likely I'd be appointed:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The End of (Poetic) Greatness?

When Stanley Hauerwas was told that Time magazine, in 2001, had chosen him as "America's best theologian," he quickly retorted: "'Best' is not a theological category."

That 'category' discomfiture came to mind as I was reading David Orr's provocative piece, "The Great(ness) Game," in this weekend NYTBR. Orr raises the carrot that teases the aspiring poet: proverbial, elusive "greatness." He well notes the vagaries of the term, the fickleness of peer evaluation, and how the vicissitudes of time can play havoc with such ranking. But in particular, he's concerned with present greatness--the fate of greatness in American poetry which, he worries, might be going the way of the dodo. Not unsurprisingly, he lays the blame at the feet of "postmodernism":
The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.
But postmodernism is not the enemy of Truth, Beauty, Justice, and the American Way that Orr makes it out to be. However, what has happened is that we now appreciate that the criterion for what counts as truth, beauty, and justice is not some natural kind, not an objective given. What's true and beautiful and good is recognized as such only against a background of a shared narrative or story. The situation isn't necessarily nihilistic; it's just pluralistic. The loss that Orr laments is the loss of a dominant, WASPy set of criteria that dominated American letters in times past (Updike's death might signal the end of a regime in this regard). Its dissolution might entail the end of unanimous "greats," but not greatness as such.