QotD: The Mind Wanders Edition

The late Sydney J. Harris occasionally would write columns called “Things I Learned On the Way to Looking Up Other Things.” I always liked that, not least because it seemed to match how I’ve picked up much of the odd stuff I know, and tonight presented me with an example.

I was watching a video of British art-rockers Family performing at the Isle of Wight in 1970.

That led me to look up info on the Isle of Man, which led me to a wiki article about famous Manxmen (The Bee Gees!), which included literary scholar Frank Kermode. Reading about Kermode led me to an obit/reminiscence written by Colin MacCabe, whose tenure denial contributed to Kermode’s departure from Cambridge. Along the way, MacCabe speaks harshly of:

the superannuated Leavisites who had been rendered intellectually irrelevant and professionally redundant by the developments of the ’60s and ’70s. Kermode became for them the focus of all their hate and ressentiment.

And since I hadn’t really thought much about F.R. Leavis since grad school (and honestly, not all that much even then), and certainly hadn’t thought of him as such a bête noire, I went back to Wiki. There, I found a mention of his smackdown of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” — a dichotomization that continues to afflict us even in Mondoville, as the Core Curriculum folks are trying to hash things out in the context of the continuing efforts of some to dismiss the liberal arts out of hand. (For example, there is a tendency on the part of some Mondovillians to see scientism as the sole approach to critical thought — needless to say, I differ. But back to my peregrinations.)

This led me to an essay on same that originally ran in a 1994 issue of The New Criterion (a publication that always demands and deserves my respectful attention), and that is where I found the QotD, courtesy of Roger Kimball:

In the end, Snow is a naïve meliorist. For him, a society’s material standard of living provides the ultimate, really the only, criterion of “the good life”; science is the means of raising the standard of living, ergo science is the arbiter of value. Culture— literary, artistic culture—is merely a patina or gloss added to the substance of material wealth to make it shine more brightly. It provides us with no moral challenge or insight, because the only serious questions are how to keep increasing and effectively distributing the world’s wealth, and these are not questions culture is competent to address.

[…However,] Science tells us how best to do things we have already decided to do, not why we should do them. Its province is the province of means not ends. That is its glory —and its limitation.

I think it is particularly useful to remember all this in a world that seems bent on utilitarianism and technocracy.



About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to QotD: The Mind Wanders Edition

  1. Pingback: QotD: In a Related Development… | Professor Mondo

  2. Kenneth Hall says:

    In years past, I used to recommend LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to students who considered utilitarianism a sound organizing principle. That may have been too oblique an approach….

    • profmondo says:

      I just go with the idea of the utilitarian doctor who harvests the organs from some poor schmuck who came in for a checkup so he could transplant them into five (or however many) desperately ill folks. But yours is more elegant.

  3. The Ancient says:

    What a coincidence! Just last night I saw a not bad piece on PBS about the origins of the Tonight Show — from Steve Allen to Jack Parr to Johnny Carson. And it led me, by fits and starts, to this —

    I don’t know what I was doing that night in 1963, but I really should have been watching Steve Allen and Frank Zappa.

    • profmondo says:

      And as it happens, I was reading about that very event a couple of days ago, while making my way through a book on the history of surf music. The internet is a small world indeed.

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