Archive for June 2003
Bill Emmott. 20:21 Vision, Twentieth-Century Lessons for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 373 pp.
Emmanuel Todd. Aprs l’empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2002. 232 pp.
Whenever I examine the prognostications of pundits on the future, I’m always interested to see where they agree. As a rule, I’m skeptical about long-term predictions, which as a rule have proven themselves to be wrong: My favourite example is that of early 20th century demographers in regards to the French population, which was supposed to decline sharply thanks to below-replacement fertility to less than 29 million when in fact in 1985 there were some 55 million French. Still, when two prognosticators using different methods agree on common factors in their future it should mean something.
Emmott (editor of the Economist) and Todd (a French writer and demographer) agree that, after a tumultuous 20th century in which the United States played a vital role by reinforcing generally liberal regimes worldwide against successive totalitarian threats, the United States has acquired a position of unchallenged dominance. The United States maintains a sophisticated and powerful military capable of global deployment; more importantly still, the United States has a first-class economy, a high level of human development, and a high degree of cultural influence that reinforces the United States’ power. There is no challenger: Europe remains disunited and concerned by its demographic problems, China is preoccupied by its pressing need for economic development, Japan is still adjusting to its post-boom situation, Russia is far from reclaiming the superpower role it once had, and there are no other plausible contenders. (Todd is less sure of this than Emmott, but more later.)
Sunday evening, I walked down from work to the waterfront. I ate some fries (with curried garden dip and fresh-squeezed lemonade) at a food shop on Peake’s Quay before walking back up to the Comic Hunter, where I met up with Dave and Allan. Three games of Carcassonne ended up being played that night, ending with a pass by the Town & Country for dinner (I had clam chowder and arak liqueur, they had cheeseburger platters), back down to the waterfront, and then returning to our respective residences after an agreement to meet for the play (at Erin‘s desk in the Confederation Centre at 5:30 tomorrow).
Nothing much done today, apart from cleaning my room and pulling more information on Queen’s for the student loan application and marvelling at the thunderstorm. Hopefully more tomorrow, or later tonight, including a fair bit of writing.
The more I think about the upcoming year, the more I think it will be fun. I can hardly wait.
Earlier I said I’d talk about my dialogue with Dr. MacLaine on problems facing the university in our post-modern era. Let’s see how much I get right:
To an extent, the university is facing problems because it wasn’t designed to be what it is now. Universities in the Western tradition can trace their origins to medieval times, as places where ambitious young men (sons of the aristocracy, sons of the proto-bourgeoisie, occasionally talented students from every walk of life) could go to learn about God and Christian theology, in the tradition of Western humanism represented by Abelard. (Incidentally, compare this to the madrassahs of the Islamic world.) The university was not intended, as they are now, to be a place of unhindered intellectual discourse where sizable fractions of the general population could be educated in the liberal arts and the physical science and the theories of business (among other subjects); it was intended to be a place of indoctrination.
The heyday of the university as it was supposed to function may have been in the 1960s and 1970s, when despite the strains forced by the rapid expansion of university to the general population rapid economic growth easily produced enough wealth to sustain a student population in relative comfort and to ensure them a decent likelihood of eventual tenure. Dr. MacLaine recalled how, when he was a graduate student, some of his colleagues said that if worst came to worst, one could drop the role of full-time student and take a job. That isn’t an option nowadays. Indeed, the intellectual premises of the modern university are increasingly coming under threat because of financial constraints facing both students and universities.
Currently, graduate programs are producing far more graduate students than there are positions for graduate students, ensuring a whole host of problems for the students in the process, like, “Can you find a job?” I myself am increasingly certain that I won’t go on for a doctorate after I get my master’s degree, barring some event that makes me want to risk the abominable job market and heavy debt loads for doctoral students in academia. I doubt that anything can resolve this problem, not even mass resignations on the part of baby-boomer professors and their migration to Borneo or the Kalahari. The question of oversupply means, of course, that universities can never be for more than a minority of students a way to become permanent, professional students.
Mind, this won’t necessarily make a difference to universities since increasing class sizes and cutbacks to the academic infrastructure ensure that it will be impossible for students to receive the sort of individualized attention needed to allow a flourishing of independent thought. Dr. MacLaine mentioned a seminar in Vancouver given by a professor who regularly taught classes with hundreds of students, walking around with a microphone headset, gesturing broadly, ensuring mass participation through hand-raising, and generally acting more like a pop-music star in concert or an evangelical preacher on Vision TV than a professor. This sort of orgiastic performance works very well if you want to communicate an intellectual orthodoxy; perhaps the operators of madrassahs and Christian-indoctrination universities might want to look into this.
And on top of this, the university is increasingly being seen as a place to learn valuable skills not as a place to be a permanent student; as a sort of vocational school, not as a place to remain a student.
What is to be done? Well, that’s for the next post.
There’s Something About Rummy
Critics be damned! The defense secretary knows what’s right for America.
By Bruce Sterling
My favorite Bush administration figure is the president’s gnomic futurist, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rummy thinks outside the box. He talks in aphorisms, adages, and apothegms, rather like a magazine columnist. So I find it hard not to like him.
He chaired Rand, the gold standard of national security think tanks. He’s vastly preferable to other famous Republican futurists, such as Joan Quigley (Nancy Reagan’s astrologer) and Michael Drosnin (who recently briefed the Pentagon on the prophetic intelligence unveiled by his so-called Bible Code). Unlike those sorry phonies, Rumsfeld has demonstrated his skills in real-world positions of power and accountability. He’s also capable of talking good sense.
This Monday past, I watched my fourth episode of Queer as Folk, and I found myself oddly involved: not necessarily entertained, I don’t think, as opposed to stunned. I can think of three reasons why this might be:
- The scope of their self-destructive tendencies takes me by surprise, and makes me want to watch.
Between rampant promiscuity, drug use, and a whole broader range of self-destructive tendencies, it’s surprising that some of the characters are still around. It’s all rather interesting to watch in a train-wreck sort of way.
- I envy the stupid bastards.
Given the barrenness of my personal life (as opposed to my professional life), it’s plausible though terribly sad to suggest that I might actually want at some subconscious level to be in that kind of world. It’s short-term and sterile, but at least it fills the long hours.
- I might actually be a fan of the show, regardless of what the characters do to themselves or others.
What else is there to say to this?
I suspect that an objective evaluation would say all three factors would play a role, though I myself would prefer the first factor to be the dominant one and prefer the third to have a minor role (while the second is too depressing). I’ll probably watch the upcoming episode, though.