The Faculty Forum
"Reading maketh a full man; writing, an exact man." --Francis Bacon
Vol. 8, No. 4 JANUARY 1997
1. Einstein on Exploring the Mind
2. Keohane: Report to Faculty
3. Editorial: Thanks a Billion
4. Fridovich on the Purpose of Human Life
5. Gross: Letter on Science Wars
6. A Menagerie à Trois: Ferret . . . Possum . . . Parrot
7. Ferret's Crackpots on Parade: Paul de Man
8. Possum (Passim)
9. Parrot (Emerson) & Classic Erotica: "Jonathan's Lament for David"
10. Editorial Board & Policy
Note: Academic Council Minutes for Meeting of December 12, 1997 have been transferred to the following Web File, which contains the minutes for every Council meeting since 1992: http://www.duke.edu/web/acouncil/
A THEORETICAL CONTEXT FOR FOCUS
Exploring the Mind
by Gillian Einstein (Department of Neurobiology)
Interdisciplinary education has taken hold: the NEH and NSF are co-funding summer institutes to foster mergers of science and humanities education (Dartmouth Summer Institute on Human Nature); interdisciplinary programs such as Neurobiology are replacing departments established along the lines of single disciplines such as Anatomy; individual members of the Academy are steeping themselves in the modes of discourse and the arguments of disciplines they never studied as graduate students. While this is a source of great intellectual stimulation for faculty and may ultimately provide insight into an unlimited number of research problems, what results might it produce for undergraduate education? When poorly done, interdisciplinary teaching can result in a mix of muddied concepts and arguments cobbled together to prove an idiosyncratic point; when well done, it can lead to a simultaneous deepening and broadening of the fundamental questions about knowledge and the human condition. What is "well done" in this case? What are the devices that make it possible for students simultaneously to learn substance and to place that substance in a broader context? We have been struggling with these questions Duke's Focus Program since its inception. What follows is a description of the approach and outcome of some of these struggles in one of the Duke Focus Programs, Exploring the Mind.
Exploring the Mind was conceived of as, essentially, a cognitive neuroscience program that would present students with different ways of looking at the question of whether the brain mediates the mind. It was born from the realization that there were faculty spread across the University in departments as different as Neurobiology (G. Einstein) and English (J. Tetel) who were interested in the brain. It grew substantially through conversations with faculty from Philosophy (O. Flanagan) and matured with the addition of Cultural Anthropology (N. Quinn and C. Strauss). Thus, over the last two years, the disciplines that have been represented have been Neurobiology, Linguistics, Philosophy, Cultural Anthropology. (Since Cognitive Neuroscience is such an interdisciplinary topic, other disciplines could well be represented such as Cognitive Science, Mathematics or Computer Science (modeling), Neurology, and Psychology.) Writing across the disciplines has been fostered within the UWC. The goal of the program since its inception has been to have a strong representation of the individual disciplines but to elucidate a common thread between the different approaches.
The structure of the Program is similar to that of all the other Focus programs at Duke: Six courses consisting of four linked conceptually to a major theme, an expository writing course (UWC), and an interdisciplinary course (IDC). What might differentiate our Program from the other Focus programs is our use of these courses: First, we ask students to take either the Philosophy or the Neurobiology courses enabling them to become grounded in one of these disciplines; Second, in Dr. David Kellogg we have been fortunate to have as our UWC instructor an intellect passionately devoted to ideas and especially those of Neurobiology, Philosophy, and the discourse of each -- thus, we have been able to use the UWC as a forum to bring the different courses together in the writing process; Third, we have used the IDC as a forum for interdisciplinary questions and modeling intellectual discourse.
The construction common to all Focus programs combined with our own twists on the courses has fostered what we think is interdisciplinary learning that maintains the integrity of the individual disciplines. By doing this, we have realized the following objectives: (1) We have engaged students in a broad problem while still teaching them the details as understood by individual disciplines; (2) We have constructed for the students a strong model of intellectual discourse across disciplines; (3) We have created a community of scholars and young colleagues out of what is normally a soup of classmates; (4) We have mentioned students in the different academic disciplines and built their interest in potential majors and concentrations; and, (5) We have enriched the intellectual and academic activity of the faculty.
How have we accomplished this? First, it may have a lot to do with some of the unique aspects of Duke, itself. Like all the Focus programs, we have had the good fortune to work with exceptionally able students, even compared to the normal level at Duke. This University is a first-rate research institution that has always been strong on interdisciplinary research and teaching. It has placed value on undergraduate education supporting it through the efforts of the Dean of Trinity College, Richard White. The close deployment of the Trinity College departments and the physical juxtaposition of the professional schools means that cross-fertilization is possible, if not always easy and members of one school, such as medicine, can participate in the programs of an undergraduate department such as History or Zoology -- and do. Many of the existing undergraduate and graduate programs such as Literature, Women's Studies, Science, Technology, and Human Values, the Neuroscience Concentration, and the new Cognitive Neuroscience Initiative draw on this ability to cross fertilize and are, themselves, interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together members of different disciplines and departments in close, collaborative work.
Second, we have engaged faculty who, although trained in different disciplines, are all in agreement that the brain and how it works underlies all the processes of mind. This common thread and faculty enthusiasm has led to shared ideas and the matching of topics in the individual courses. For example, while philosophy reads Descartes, linguistics reads Descartes' Error (Damasio), cultural anthropology considers what rules society places on personality and how this affects behavior, and neurobiology studies the organization of the frontal cortex and the functions it mediates. Our UWC weaves a fabric from the various fibers produced by these approaches.
Third, we have used the interdisciplinary course (IDC) as a forum for dealing with substantive topics that cross disciplines (e.g. the nature of mental illness, etc.) as well as fundamental issues of interdisciplinary work such as how the disciplines differ in their modes of argumentation and proof. To maximize these efforts, we have considered it critical that all the faculty try to attend all of the IDCs and to meet in one of our homes each week. With all the disciplines present in a relaxed atmosphere, we can examine issues such as how to find the right level of explanation to explore a given problem or deciphering when it is possible to use a reductionist approach or a holistic one. We constantly reconsider how the different disciplines "map" onto each other -- and how we use language to define this. The opportunities to do this have been invigorating: How can questions in the Philosophy of mind be reconfigured to lead to a testable hypothesis about the brain? How can questions of culture be reconfigured for the same purpose? How can our understanding of brain mechanisms fit into philosophical or for example, anthropological explanations? We also use our IDC to explore how can different belief systems can be reconciled. We get students to discuss how they can believe in the idea of the soul and yet also believe that there is a gene for every trait; can the two be logically consistent? These issues are fundamental and controversial; engaging in that controversy lends spice and charge to the student and faculty discussions and leads to the important understandings that (1) an hypothesis in science is an intuition that can be tested; (2) just because something is biological does not mean it is determined; and (3) belief systems coexist despite inherent contradictions.
Fourth, we have established common forms of assignments, the most important being peer-responded journals (established by George Gopen, Director of the Writing Across the University Program). These consist of weekly three-page comments written informally on a limited number of points in the reading. They can start at the level of "I don't understand..." but they should progress toward building an argument about a point of interest using knowledge gleaned through the semester to support and argue a point. These responses are given to a small group within the class for comments and a conversation in writing about points of interest or misunderstanding. In our hands, these journals function on a number of different levels: (a) They inextricably link in the students' minds the unity of thought and writing; students come to value the journal as a place in which they explore their own thinking; (b) They turn students to each other as respondents; (c) They lead students to value the thought and response of their peers; (d) They make classroom discussion a continuation of other discussion; (e) They prepare students for class; (f) They force the students to engage with the material and come to their own conclusions about the readings before the professor delivers the word from on high; this makes the material the student's own; (g) They become a collaborative effort and foster intellectual discourse in the dormitories after class hours.
Fifth, the faculty treat the students as young colleagues. This fosters growth in students and faculty. Because of this, students tend to be as engaged as the faculty in the underlying issue of whether the mind can be described as the brain, and their curiosity leads to further faculty introspection and discussion. Owen Flanagan and I have both have learned something new about identity and self through juxtaposing what happens to the brain and what happens to the self in Alzheimer's disease. Deeper understanding of one's own discipline is strong incentive for faculty to work together and engage in this kind of rigorous teaching.
In order to bring it all together in an intellectual forum, toward the end of the semester we have a day-long retreat to which we invite a well known scholar. At this retreat, we a formal discussion of the scholar's work and an informal discussion giving students both the opportunity to learn an area of research directly from the expert and to probe more deeply how that expert has come to think about their research. Last year we were fortunate to benefit from the presence of the philosopher, Paul Churchland (UCSD, The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul). This year we were equally fortunate to have the outstanding Neurobiologist, Patricia Goldman-Rakic (Yale, working memory, frontal cortex) present her research. Interestingly, these eminent scholars were eager to participate because they are interested in Focus and the kind of interdisciplinary teaching we are doing at Duke. This speaks worlds for the importance of the Program.
In sum, the unique qualities of Duke in concert with the Focus structure has generated a collaborative and integrated series of courses that provides both students and faculty multiple perspectives on a single problem and the opportunity to exchange ideas and engage in an interdisciplinary endeavor. Because the faculty expect to be intellectually enriched by this experience, we have a high level of enthusiasm, excellent teachers, and exciting courses. Having talked about Focus with people from other colleges and research universities, including Dartmouth, The University of Pennsylvania, The University of California at San Diego, and Yale, it has become clear that in Focus Duke has created something unique and highly effective for both students and faculty. It has proved a strong model from which to explore the value of interdisciplinary education.
Annual Report to the Faculty (Part Two)
Presented at Meeting of October 24, 1996
by President Nannerl O. Keohane
[Editor's Note: We transcribed the first half of this talk last month.]
Annual Report to the Faculty (Part Two) Presented at Meeting of October 24, 1996 --by President Nannerl O. Keohane [Editor's Note: We transcribed the first half of this talk last month.]
IV. Undergraduate Financial Aid
In thinking about both resources and ideals, one of our most important policies is Duke's undergraduate financial aid policy. This is both a fundamental commitment of the university, and a financial challenge. Duke, uniquely among the institutions with which we compare ourselves, has programs for undergraduate scholarship aid of all three basic types: merit scholarships, athletic scholarships, and need-based financial aid that meets the full demonstrated need of all eligible students. Most institutions have one or two of these, but not all three. It is particularly bold of Duke to choose to do this, given that we are significantly less well endowed than most of our major competitors for students. But over the years, each of these types of aid has helped Duke recruit an increasingly talented, diverse student body. One of the most important elements in this set of strategies is our financial aid commitment to recruiting students from North Carolina and attracting them to Duke. Taken together, all these policies make a significant contribution towards defining a university with a distinctive character among our peers.
The twin strategies of need-blind admission and meeting the full need of all eligible students are shared in full by only a few of our competitors; but those few are by any definition the best colleges and universities in the country. The institutions that make these commitments, even though the costs of doing so are very high, are making a significant statement about their values and priorities. Duke belongs among these institutions by every other measure, and I believe that it is crucial that we sustain this policy, as well.
To admit students without regard to their financial circumstances means that we are genuinely seeking talent wherever it may be found. Such a policy alone, however, does not help us recruit students from all kinds of backgrounds, unless it is joined with the commitment to provide financial assistance to all admitted students who have need of it, to make it possible for them to come to Duke.
The principle of accessibility to a Duke education is both a moral and prudential commitment. If we believe in a society open to talent, in a democracy that treats all its people as fairly as possible, it is important to provide access to education in our finest universities for all of our most talented, curious and ambitious young people who have the capacity to be leaders in the future. If we believe that the best education is one that includes diverse companions to open the mind and enrich the spirit of all students, it is important that we not people Duke University only with the children of the well to do.
Prudentially, a policy of meeting full need allows us to combat the greatest challenge that we face in today's academic marketplace -- the "sticker shock" that many families feel when they look at the price of a Duke undergraduate education: more than $100,000 over four years. An eloquent case can easily be made that colleges are giving students "much more than what they pay for," as Harold Howe said in a column last week in the New York Times. Nonetheless, for most American families, middle class as well as poor families, such a price is not within their means, no matter how dedicated they may be to securing the best possible education for their children.
If we can say, and mean -- don't let the price itself discourage you from applying to Duke; if you are admitted and want to be here, we will do our part to make it possible for you to come -- then we have a shot at attracting very talented students from all backgrounds. If we cannot say that, if we can only say that there is some aid available for some students, so it's worth a try, many families will not find it worthwhile even to send in the application. The message our policy sends to all families about what Duke is like and what we value helps encourage applications from exactly the kind of dedicated, service-oriented, intellectually vigorous students we want to have here, whatever their economic backgrounds.
Our aid packages are designed to maximize the self-help that any student and family can provide, with work and loan funds for all students we aid, and grant funds only for those whose need exceeds the threshold of what self-help and loans provide. Even so, the amount of aid money needed to make Duke accessible to all the students we want to bring here is a major financial commitment, one that is increasing all the time.
It is very important, I believe, that we continue this policy today at Duke. We must also be realistic about its financial implications, and work out strategies to make the policy affordable. In the short term, this means rethinking how we use our limited discretionary resources, reallocating more support to fund our policies to relieve the burden on our undergraduate colleges. In the medium and longer term, it means appealing as persuasively and aggressively as we can to alumni, parents and other friends of Duke to help us meet the costs of our need blind admissions and financial aid policy. We need to do a better job of telling our friends and supporters how important the policy is to the quality of the educational experience we offer students, and how crucial it is that Duke be able to continue to afford it. I hope that members of the faculty share this fundamental commitment, and will help in getting out the message.
I am confident that friends of Duke who care about these values will respond generously to this appeal in the next few years, and that this will make it possible to continue the policy without eroding support for other important priorities of the university. This has, in fact, been the experience at other institutions like Duke that have made financial aid one of the cornerstone appeals in their recent capital campaigns. If we discover that this supposition is mistaken, if our supporters do not share this commitment and the values it represents, then we would have to review Duke's policy. But it would be decidedly premature to give up on our commitment without having made the best case we can to those who care about the quality of education Duke offers, to help us sustain it for the future.
V. Preparation for a Proposed Campaign
As you know, we are in the midst of preparing for a comprehensive campaign for financial support for Duke, in which financial aid will be one of our key priorities. We are refining our priorities, assembling key staff and identifying volunteer leadership for a campaign, in each school and in the university more generally. We need to invest in people, space where they can work, and research and information systems at this time in order to reap the benefits of a successful campaign down the line. We are talking with potential supporters who are close to the university, including members of the Board of Trustees, to persuade them to make early commitments, so that when it is time to launch the campaign itself, we will be able to do so with a sense of momentum and accomplishment.
You have seen the announcements of some magnificent gifts recently, including the Bass gift and the gift from Pete and Ginny Nicholas and their family to name the School of the Environment, as well as gifts for the recreation facilities, for professorships in several schools, and for scholarship funds. These are all key university priorities, clearly identified in our long range plan, and they help build the base of support that we will need when we announce our campaign publicly a few years down the line.
The deans, the senior officers, the development staff, I and many others have been working hard to garner this support. Some of the gifts will provide program support for one or another of our schools. It will be important that such gifts are sought for our recognized priorities, to provide budget support and relief for our most fundamental activities in each school, rather than moving us in novel directions that we would not otherwise have chosen. Some funds will come in pledges that will be fulfilled over a period of years. Some will come immediately for operating purposes, through the crucial annual fund. One major thrust of the proposed campaign will be for endowment, which means we will realize today only a small proportion of the financial benefits of the gifts, made to serve generations of Duke faculty and students far into the future.
As we talk with potential donors, one of the things that is clearly on their minds is how well we are doing in providing stewardship for the resources that have been given us in the past. This means both how well are we doing in administering ourselves effectively, cutting costs and using our money for our highest priories; and how well are we managing the endowment funds that we already possess.
On both counts, we have good news for our supporters. Steps are being taken across the university to reduce our administrative costs and allocate money directly to key priorities -- teaching, research and patient care -- as well as to provide better service for everyone. And in the management of the endowment, the bold and patient strategies chosen by the people at DUMAC (the Duke University Management Company) have borne rich fruit in the last few months. The overall return on our endowment and related investments in 1995-96 was almost 30%. This is by any measure an excellent result, which compares quite favorably with almost all our peers. It is important to recall, however, that the base size of our endowment is considerably smaller than the endowments of most of the universities with which we compete. This is one of the greatest challenges we face, and one that the campaign will be especially tailored to address.
We need to continue with imaginative efforts to reduce our costs, and make some tough choices about capital projects and areas where we will deploy our time and resources. Duke is a gloriously entrepreneurial university. This in many ways has served us well. But the wish lists that each of us might construct for new facilities and renovations must be scrutinized very carefully so that we are realistic about what we can actually accomplish, and keep our sights focused on our fundamental priorities of support for our faculty and students.
I have covered a lot of ground in this report, because there are many things I want to share with you and ask your thoughts about. There are other topics that I have not had time to touch upon, but hope to return to in future reports.
These topics include:
- our internationalization initiatives across the university;
- some of our accomplishments and ambitions in the use of information technology;
- reflections on the newly established Task Force on the Arts, chaired by Professor Jan Radway and charged by the Provost with providing advice and counsel on how we can do a better job of bringing all the arts together to enhance life both on campus and for our community;
- comments on our outreach to, service for, and partnership with our community in the City of Durham, especially the neighborhoods closest to the university;
- some further musings on the particular challenges we are likely to face in higher education in the next few years, and on the unexpected directions from which our competition may come in the future;
- some thoughts on where we stand in our initiatives for increasing diversity on campus;
- and some observations on what we are doing, and can do better, to make this university a place that is "family friendly" in allowing the leeway our employees need to do their jobs and live their lives.
Let me close by returning to the theme I broached at the outset -- balancing the roles of a research university, and particularly Duke University. This university has for quite a few decades now been getting better, and will and can be better still -- not in some amorphous, generic or soulless sense, but by building on those distinctive principles and commitments that have marked it in the past.
Leaders of Duke throughout its history have been quite clear that we are not just engaged in copying others, but are determined to realize our own ambitions in our own way. Sometimes this has sounded a bit defensive, as though we might lose our identity entirely if we admit that we can learn some things from our sister universities. Duke has aspired to be -- as increasingly indeed we are -- part of a small handful of the world's very best universities; it makes little sense to think of ourselves as an aberrant strain with nothing in common with our neighbors.
Not only can we benefit from their experiences, we also have much to teach our sister universities, in the solutions we have devised to common problems, and in those distinctive accomplishments and emphases that make Duke Duke. We are in a strong position today to provide genuine educational leadership in a society that looks to its best universities for such leadership -- something that has always been part of the vision of those who care about Duke.
Nobody claims it will be easy. We are still significantly under-endowed compared to many of our peers, a smallish university compared to many others, identified in the minds of some with a geographic region not well understood outside its borders. But none of these challenges is insuperable. We intend to do whatever we can to secure and strengthen our financial base. We intend to continue to take advantage of being a middle-sized university with a manageable feel and scope, and of our history of entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary ventures, doing more with less. And we intend to help publicize and build upon the growing visibility of this exciting part of our country, as it becomes better known to people throughout the world.
Those of us who are at Duke today have the great good
fortune to be part of this institution at a time when it is poised to make
good on this ambition for leadership to a greater extent than has ever
been true in the past. This provides both a wonderful opportunity, and
a sobering responsibility not to squander it. Faculty leadership is as
important today as it has ever been in Duke's history, both in envisioning
a bold, creative future and in helping to make -- and then to implement
-- the hard practical decisions that will make it possible for us to get
there. Together, we can continue the steady progress that has brought Duke
to its position of excellence today, and will, I am confident, bring it
to even greater eminence in the future.
THANKS A BILLION
In a spirit of good will, we open the new year with a word of thanks to this institution's last quarter-century of maximum leaders. When I arrived here in 1966, Duke was an excellent Southern university, but it could never have been imagined it would some day hobnob with the top of the Ivy League in academic eminence. Like many of his peers across the country, the president of Duke at that time, Douglas Knight, turned out to be the last of the Professor-Presidents: a well-meaning, bookish English professor who could do his job well enough by the old rules but didn't have a clue about coping with the student upheavals of the late sixties. His reign ended abruptly and prematurely in 1969, to be followed by a year's interregnum while the trustees searched anxiously for the right successor.
In 1970, former Governor Terry Sanford was the perfect choice for the times. Only an experienced Politician-President could have calmed the uproar so well with just the right mixture of strength and compromise. I observed one meeting with militant youths at the traffic circle when he suggested that if the campus is to have violence, perhaps the best answer is to close it down for ten years--a thought to cool some of the hot tempers nearby. What I thought distinctive about his fifteen years in office was his superb handling of public relations, using his media and journalist connections as Governor and Presidential candidate (he ran in 1972) to puff the school's reputation. For this reason, and to an indeterminate degree by reason of actual institutional achievement, by the end of his term Duke University had ascended into elite eminence among American universities.
During his eight years in office, Keith Brodie, our Psychiatrist-President, had the audacity to push through a massive building program, including new dormitories, the Policy Sciences building, the Law School expansion, and the huge Levine Science complex--which probably had a lot to do with Duke ascending the last few rungs toward the top of the Ivy League ladder. His conciliatory personality, complemented by his professional grasp of psychology, made him a suitable leader to cope with the identity politics sweeping campuses across the country. During his time, Gay studies, Women's studies, and African-American studies found a friendly reception on this campus without evoking the servile or fanatic gestures, such as speech codes, that degraded other institutions. His personal generosity was remarkable. Just one of his gestures of charity was a gift of over $200,000 to keep the A. B. Duke Scholarships fully funded during one of our recent lean years.
As for Nan Keohane, though it is early in her tenure, a word of encouragement is surely in order. Her decision to make East a freshman campus, despite meeting considerable skepticism, has proved a great success, and in the crucial area of fund-raising she has brought the school's endowment past the $1 billion mark within the past year. (The Raleigh News and Observer ran an article on December 15 saying that during her three years at the helm the University raised $485 million.) In their fund-raising, each of our presidents has had the advantage of an excellent supporting staff, including other high officers of the university, but who can doubt that the chief executive has carried the main burden of raising those hundreds of millions?
Concerning all three Presidents--Sanford, Brodie, and Keohane--high marks must be awarded for their prudent handling of the budget, for their mostly wise choices in administrative staff, and most of all for their strenuous efforts to have personal encounters with every grade of campus constituent, along with a nation-wide network of off-campus contacts. We infer that the exercise of Presidential power has its satisfactions, but since the days of Douglas Knight the job has demanded an increasingly voracious sacrifice of that most precious, irreplaceable commodity, private time. At this turn of the new year, we think it reasonable for the Faculty Forum utter a thank you to Presidents Sanford, Brodie, and Keohane for making that sacrifice in the common interest. And so we do.
By way of mitigation, we conclude with a different view of President Knight. By the standards of his successors, Douglas Knight was not a very effective leader of the University, but he was, unbeknownst to most of his campus associates, not only a Professor-President but a Poet-President as well, by which we mean a published poet. Herewith, as a tribute to the last of the old-fashioned Professor-Presidents, we reprint a poem of his that appeared in the Yale Review of Autumn 1966 (110):
AT THE CHURCH DOOR
God is verbal this morning; He says
Love and mortality in each camellia,
Justice in stone, fear in the dark spider,
Visions in cloud, and in the flame windows praise.
I cannot bear all His voices at once;
The darkness speaks too loud, the flame shimmers,
That flower is too intense, the insistence
Of granite hurts the ear like hammers.
But still He talks on, trying the right cadence
For my poor heart to catch His clear sentence.
From the Archives
Editor's Note: With the help of the Duke Library Archives staff, the FF plans to republish selected items from its precursor publications. The following essay was published on February 22, 1984 in the Duke University Letters series (Number 59), which were issued from the President's Office to all students and faculty "to provide an additional means of intellectual conversation."
The True Purpose of Human Life
By Irwin Fridovich (Biochemistry)
This question has been posed innumerable times and answered in a variety of ways. The religious are apt to frame their answer in terms of serving God's will. The philosophical, in contrast, are likely to be concerned with achieving our full potential as human beings, or with leaving the earth a somewhat better place than we found it. All of the answers offered to date have one property in common and that is vagueness. Indeed, thousands of years of vague, if mellifluous answers, have served to discredit the question, even though it continues to arise, unbidden, in the minds of thoughtful persons. Can we resuscitate this question by framing it in biological terms and, having done so, can we formulate a precise answer? I think that we can. Let us then ask whether the human species is fulfilling a function which could not be provided by any other known species and which is essential for the contin uation of the pageant of life in this planet. What purpose, essential to the ecological balance of the entire planet, do we humans serve?
Our purpose is to seek out all forms of fossilized carbon and hydrogen, such as the natural gases, oils, oil shales, tar sands, lignites, peats and coals. We must find them, no matter how well hidden they may be, beneath the soils, rocks and deep waters and, having found such substances, we must bring them to the surface and burn them. We do this so that the carbon dioxide in the air and in the waters of earth will be replenished. Our larger purpose then is simply to replenish the carbon dioxide. We may think that we drill and mine and combust in order to meet our needs for warmth and light and power. So much the better, that we serve a larger purpose while selfishly motivated. Unselfish motivations are notoriously unreliable, in the long run. Important work of long duration must be done under the untiring lash of self-interest. If plants were equipped with large brains they would certainly believe that they carried out photosynthesis in order to satisfy their own needs for energy and for reducing power, not to provide oxygen and organic foodstuffs for all non-photosynthetic organisms. Nevertheless, plants do provide an essential service for all of earth's life forms, while selfishly engaged in survival and reproduction.
Humans are in an analogous position. We dig and drill and then burn the fossil fuels, so exposed, and we do so for apparently selfish reasons. Nevertheless we are serving the entire community of living things in an essential way and we are the only ones who can do this job. If humans had not evolved and developed a civilization with a prodigious need for energy and had not invented ingenious means of fulfilling that need, all life on earth would be on the road to extinction. We alone are preventing that ultimate and colossal extinction, by the simple expedient of burning fossil fuels. This statement of the purpose of human life may seem ridiculous or even outrageous, yet it can be shown to be eminently reasonable.
There is, however, one minor flaw in the carbon cycle which limits its perpetuity. There is, indeed, an element of irreversibility which dooms the cycle to gradually run down and that is the fossilization of carbon. Some of the organic material produced by photosynthesis escapes reoxidation. Thus, algae and other plants growing in water may settle to the bottom and become mixed with and covered by mineral sediments. These bottom layers become anaerobic, because the little oxygen originally present is consumed by bacteria and because diffusion of oxygen through still water is a very slow process. Plant material, thus sequestered, is on its way to fossilization. Under the pressure of thickening layers of sediment and by geothermally driven chemical processes, such materials will be converted to coal or to some other form of fossilized carbon and it will have been permanently removed from the carbon cycle.
The harsh decree of universal extinction, due to lack of carbon, is being averted and we humans are solely responsible. We have been very successful, as a species, and our population has been exploding. The renewable forms of energy are simply insufficient to meet our needs. Being incredibly inventive, we have developed ever more elaborate means of extracting and using fossil fuels. We are now able to drill and mine tens of thousands of feet through the rocky mantle of the earth and we can even do this through an overburden of deep water. We can find the fossil carbon, wherever it is hidden and we can bring it to the surface and burn it. We do this selfishly to heat our homes, power our vehicles and to make electricity and we are, in the process, fulfilling our ultimate purpose. The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is now rising, and at an accelerating rate. The observatory atop Mauna Loa, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has documented that increase in carbon dioxide. Superimposed on the seasonable variation, due to the effects of weather on photosynthesis, a steady increase in carbon dioxide has been recorded over the past few decades. We humans are averting the otherwise inevitable carbonless death of all life.
Thanks to us, the pageant of life on earth will continue to unfold. We should be pleased and proud to be serving such an important purpose. Furthermore, what we are doing for carbon is also being done for other elements. Geological and biological processes have combined to sequester iron, manganese,cobalt, molybdenum, chromium and other chemical elements essential for life. These elements when gathered into huge and deeply buried ore bodies are as unavailable for life as is fossilized carbon. We have been seeking out, mining and dispersing all of these elements. We are thus rejuvenating the earth. All other life forms are in our debt.
Of course, our pride in achieving such an important purpose may be tempered by a bit of sadness. While making the carbon and the iron and the other essential elements once more available to living things, we are changing the environment in ways which will make the extinction of the human species inevitable. Thanks to us, the pageant of life will continue for billions of years but, having made that possible, we will have done our bit and left the stage to other players. Perhaps we could contrive to control our needs and be less passionate in our pursuit of the fossil fuels and the ore bodies, so that our time at center stage might be stretched, a bit.
Letter to the Editor
Editor's Note: The following letter, which came to me unsolicited over the Internet, is a response to the essays about "Science Studies"/Social Text in the FF last fall. Dr. Gross is the author, with Norman Levitt, of the famously controversial book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: 1994).
To the Editor:
The Gallo-Marxist posturing and overreaching that is so visible in the humanities and social sciences isn't absent from the natural sciences. An example might be the fulminations by some, who should know better, against DNA-fingerprinting, when it is used to convict (but not when it is used to acquit), or the bad arguments against The Bell Curve, as opposed to the few very good ones. There is a book to be written about half a dozen other examples. The science base of these arguments is thin, some of it is wrong, and the political self-esteem that drives each of these enterprises is glaringly obvious.
The response to nonsense within natural science is characteristic and distinct from that of humanists. The vast majority of scientists in the relevant field simply shrug, and think "that's wrong." Then they go on doing what they were doing. So it is NOT that scientists penetrate political-cultural smog. Most of them are insensitive to it; but in their narrowness and the refinement of the epistemological rules governing the enterprise of natural science, they manage to make progress.
In short, fashion rules here, too. But this fashion has been, for some 300 years, to convince, rather than to startle. Money and love are won in this game by making converts, however reluctant, to what is obviously true, rather than by stimulating fear, or confusion, or hero-worship. The desire to be worshipped as a hero exists here as elsewhere; but it is rarely if ever requited within the business. The making and unmaking of heroes is an activity of journalists.
So these conditions within science are very nice--until the politics get serious, as they have done in this century. Then, scientists are just as cowardly as, and even more likely to be victimized than the kulturhelden. I am constantly surprised by the high proportion of my colleagues who consider themselves to be decent, politically right-thinking types, recyclers of paper and plastic, believers in the centrality of self-esteem and the right of Other Voices to be heard, who do not in fact think at all except about their very demanding work.
Paul R. Gross,University Professor of Life Sciences, emeritus
University of Virginia, Currently Visiting Scholar at Harvard
Ferret: Crackpots on Parade
Paul de Man (1919-1983)
Runaway father, inveterate sponge and deadbeat, Nazi collaborator, and chief perpetrator of "deconstruction"--both in his own right and as the high guru who foisted Jacques Derrida upon America--Paul de Man spent his last dozen years basking in the adulation of the Yale humanities faculty and thereby of the academic elite everywhere. The world-famous critic Frank Kermode called him "the most celebrated member of the world's most celebrated literature school," and de Man's eminent Yale colleague J. Hillis Miller, after ascending to the presidency of the Modern Languages Association (with 30,000 members), used his presidential address to proclaim both the "almost universal triumph of [de Man's] theory" and its transcendent value: "I affirm that the future of literary studies depends on maintaining and developing that rhetorical reading which today is most commonly called ‘deconstruction.'" Miller obliges us with the following example, among many, of what that means:
"But for de Man the resistance to theory is more seriously an instrinsic, perennial aspect of theory itself. If the resistance to theory is the resistance to reading, theory is itself the resistance to theory, therefore a resistance to the reading it advocates." (PMLA, May 1987, 286)
Got that? Remember, the future of literary studies depends on it.
MLA President Miller delivered these thoughts in 1986, the year before the Fall of de Man, as David Lehman's splendid book on the subject phrased it, and hence a year before de Man's corps of high-placed admirers were to hear about the 170 articles he wrote for Nazi-front newspapers in Belgium during the Third Reich's most triumphant years, 1941-1942. (After Stalingrad, and the murder of a fellow journalist-collaborator by the Resistance, the young de Man lapsed into a prudent silence.) His admirers could not have known about his essay in Belgium's leading newspaper, Le Soir (March 4, 1941), which welcomed "a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe," inasmuch as the Jews "had played an important role in the phoney and disordered existence of Europe since 1920." It is true that de Man was quite young--in his early twenties--when he wrote these pieces, but he was no younger than millions of soldiers who fought bravely on both sides, and no younger than the White Rose group of German students who during these same years distributed pamphlets in Munich, Hamburg, and other cities condemning the Nazis and their Fuhrer and were executed by the Gestapo for their courageous action.
No, his circle of eminent admirers could not have known about de Man's wartime journalism, nor could they have known that, after the war, he sent his wife and three small children to Argentina to await his arrival while he instead contrived an academic career in America and married one of his students, sending virtually no money or even information to his impoverished and desperate family. Even so, there were clues that might have raised some healthy skepticism in an academic elite less prone to gullibility, guru-worship, and the herd instinct. A little elementary investigation might have informed his Ivy League sponsors (at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell) that in 1951 he had been fired from his first teaching job, at Bard College, by reason of his "unscrupulous behavior," including habitual bad debts, welched-on agreements, chronic lying, and apparent bigamy. (His abandoned wife had written de Man's department chair about her "utter despair" regarding her situation.) His last public lecture at Bard, entitled "Morality of Literature," included the following comments, as recorded in the school paper:
"Moral systems are by their very nature destructive. They are unserious in that they are liable to change. . . . Upon arriving at their limit moral systems decay and become stagnant. Therefore, history is not continuous, but a discrete system in that there must be a rejection of the past in order to invent the validity of the different present." (New York Times Magazine, May 24, 1992, 19)
The non-sequitur disguised by that "Therefore" allowed a decoupling of past and present that was to prove useful in the great thinker's future career. But even if we consider the foregoing episodes to belong to the man's private life, having no relevance to his professional status, and even if we agree that his admirers could not have known about his unsavory past, those admirers have yet to explain their inability to discern the transparent falsity of his later argumentation. In de Man's major manifesto of "deconstruction," Allegories of Reading (1979), for example, where the idea that truth is "undecidable" is a central precept, we find the following formulation:
"It is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt) because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which of the two possibilities is the right one. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes because, as a fiction, it escapes from the constraints of guilt and innocence."
It is easy to see how a man with de Man's past would be pleased to find an audience dimwitted enough to believe this stupefying statement, but was there no one among de Man's crowd of big-name intellectuals--at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins--capable of recognizing obvious sophistry on display? Certainly de Man was a figure of impressive erudition, intelligence, and professorial charisma, and he was capable of producing first-rate scholarship, but does that excuse the failure of rational thought on the part of de Man's disciples? Even after his past was exposed, many of these same leading intellectuals, including Miller and Derrida, used their "deconstructive" method, including the claim that de Man's writings were "undecidable," to defend de Man's reputation (and, to be sure, their stake in it).
The writer Gore Vidal claimed to have enjoyed the great good fortune to have never so much as glimpsed a contemporary of his named Alfred Chester. That was a cruel thing to say about another writer's physical appearance, but the comment is fair enough concerning someone's moral character. Those of you who have never so much as glimpsed Paul de Man's life and work may feel grateful for your privileged condition, but you may have been affected unawares, if only to the extent that American universities have lavished major resources on the cultural enterprise represented by his life and work, which Miller's MLA speech rightly described as
"an immense proliferation of activities associated with [theory}. . . courses, essays, books, . . . new journals, old journals transfigured, handbooks, guides, critical-theory groups, . . . conferences, symposia, new positions designated for theory, new publishing programs, and so on."
One might say that the value of these investments is undecidable; but one fact is definitely not undecidable: a whole lot of hard cash went to feed this fat little birdie.
For charity's sake, those of us who are guilty of resistance
to theory will try to put the best light on the de Man affair--that is,
to allow the possibility that this man actually believed his own malarkey
instead of being the crassest of opportunists. If so--if he really believed
the stuff we have cited here--it may be possible to elevate his status
from that of a loathesome creep to a crackpot on parade. And if there are
any academics around who still adhere to the foregoing precepts of de Man's
"deconstruction," he won't have to walk alone.
In the foregoing essay, Ferret cited David Lehman's book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: 1991, pages 144, 156, 269-271). Lehman notes that though its devotees have difficulty defining "deconstruction," its critics have less difficulty:
"Asked to characterize the deconstructionists he has known, an exasperated professor who specializes in modern British literature delivered this tirade: ‘Arrogant, smug, snotty, meretricious, addicted to straw-man arguments, horrible writers who demand to be considered of the company of Jane Austen and Chaucer, appallingly ingrown and cliquish at the same time that they talk about expansiveness and new frontiers of discourse, unbelievably wooden and mechanical at the same time that they make their wooden and mechanical obeisances to jouissance* and free-play, like all perpetual adolescents contemptuous of the past and convinced that by great good fortune the truth happened to be discovered just as they were hitting puberty, a daisy-chain of brown-nosers declaring their high-flown independence from the normal irksome constraints of community and continuity, who without the peculiar heads-I-win-tails-you-lose rationale of their argument--if evidence and logic bear me out, fine, if not, we can always deconstruct them--would almost none of them have written an essay that could stand up in a decent senior seminar.'"
*Jouissance--sexual ecstasy--is the term used by Roland Barthes to describe the reader's orgasmic "pleasure of the text." (Lehman's Note) --Signs of the Times (27)
Random Readings of a Near-Sighted Omnivore
THE STATE OF THE PROFESSION (I)
"In 1994 women received approximately 25 percent of the Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. in engineering, physical sciences, and biological sciences, compared with roughly 6 percent in 1970."
--Scientific American 1/97 (99)
THE STATE OF THE PROFESSION (II):
"45 percent of college professors are now part-time employees (usually working without benefits). . . . We are already witnessing the de facto eradication of tenure in the wholesale conversion of full-time positions to adjunct positions. . . ."
--Michael Berube, Academe: The AAUP Bulletin, July-August 1996 (14-15).
ETHNO-GENDERED MATH AT SUNY:
MAT 192 Mathematics, Gender, and Culture (Spring) 3 Credit Hours
Survey of the effects of gender and culture on the teaching, learning and doing mathematics [sic]. Topics include: gender and race differences in mathematics, factors influencing them and sociological consequences; eurocentrism in mathematics; ethnomathematics; women and people of color in the history and development of mathematics; and gender and multicultural issues in mathematics education.
From the Undergraduate Bulletin for the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh.
ETHNO-ETHICS ON THE TITANIC:
". . . the first reports. . . created a legend of first-class-cabin males gallantly giving up their lifeboat seats to the weak and fair and socially inferior. . . .Archibald Gracie, a first-cabin survivor (Titanic survival was morally suspect, but Gracie went down with the ship and swam with ‘unusual strength' to a capsized lifeboat), wrote that the ‘coolness, courage, and sense of duty that I . . . witnessed made me thankful to God and proud of my Anglo-Saxon race that gave this perfect and superb exhibition of self-control at this hour of severest trial.' . . . [Such] tales. . . dramatized the heroic last minutes of upper-class representatives such as John Jacob Astor, George D. and Harry Widener, . . . and two Jewish millionaires, of whom Biel says, ‘Wealth apparently transformed Isidor Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim into honorary Anglo-Saxons.'"
--John Updike in book review, The New Yorker 10/14/95 (94)
AT LAST--AN EXACT ETHNO-IDENTITY METER?
"[The] Spectroscope attached to the 10-meter Keck Telescope can distinguish 30,000 different colors."
--Scientific American 12/96 (72)
THE PERSONAL IS PROFESSIONAL:
"Because of the widely held notion that one can speak only from one's own gendered, racial, class, sexual, or professional position, increasing numbers of literary scholars are engaged in describing their positions. Personal matters, once regarded as extraneous to disciplinary discourse, have become central to it."
--David R. Shumway, "The Star System in Literary Studies," PMLA 1/97 (96)
"A VERY AMERICAN POINT OF VIEW":
RC: As much as we would like to believe that we are doing something essential, we are the icing on the cake, if it is a cake.
DS: But we also have to assume the responsibility for that--
RC: I'm sorry to interrupt, but that's a very American point of view--that individuals are somehow responsible for what they are doing.
DS: I thought it was Sartrean. . . ."
--Cited from "Teaching Literature in the Academy Today: A Roundtable" in PMLA 1/97 (107) ____________________________
"Of all major modern artists, Picasso is the most slavishly dependent on the century's vestigial system of false values. Without the Continuing Saga of Pablo's Greatness, there's not much there. . . . The Picasso cult remains, at the end of the century as it was at the beginning, a part of this pretense, grand masterism based on wishful thinking, . . . floating free from value, . . . feeding on its own grandness. . . . But he may very well turn out to be this century's Ingres. . . [who had] no artistic conscience at all. . . . And if Picasso is the modern Ingres, who then is the modern Picasso? We never had one. It is what makes us modern."
--Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker 12/16/96 (99)
"Nature has many means but no ends."
--Joseph Wood Krutch
Ferret-Note: Our previous erotica specimens have featured a playful tone: John Milton's account of how angels make love ("total we mix") in October; Ovid's portrait of women "unstrung to the very depths of their frame" in November; and Suetonius's description of Julius Caesar as "every woman's man and every man's woman" in December. By contrast, we present the following poem by REYNOLDS PRICE in pure admiration. Though its erotic premise is unconventional, it meets our classic standard not only in its Biblical origin but in its intensity of mood, orginality of thought, and brilliance of execution. (For one example, that bitter phrase about Jonathan's sister--and rival-- becoming David's "throneward path" is absolutely Shakespearen). Enjoy!--
When David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the Philistine's head in his hand. Saul said to him "Whose son are you?" David answered "I'm the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite." It happened when he'd finished speaking to Saul that Jonathan's soul was knit with David's soul. Jonathan loved him like his own soul.
--1 SAMUEL 17:57-18: 1
JONATHAN'S LAMENT FOR DAVID
You young in the bronze day, gore to the wrists,
Coarse hair kinked in the cold sweat of triumph,
Thrusting the startled head at Father
(Pumpkin-huge with turquoise earbobs,
Chinking bells), you rank with the first wild
Stench of manhood toasting your fork--
It happened I loved you, watched my heart
Fling thin cords past the grinning giant
And bind you in; watched yours bind me:
Safe in the first and strongest bond.
You were fourteen, herdboy still.
I was nineteen, prince and heir.
I'd prided myself on self-possession
In the wheedling murderous alleys of Court,
I'd owned my own soul, long-thewed body--
No man's boy to fetch and carry,
No milky girl's to trap and tame.
A love to outrun love of girls--
We only flourished, fed by glare
Of priests' eyes--king's and cringing slaves'--
The packed hot floors of muffled rooms,
Cool caves, dry bivouac beds on rock.
The first taut cords of meeting eyes
Became twined legs and hands, locked lips,
Pooled opal seed we planted deep--
Buried to bloom in secret night,
Public deeds of sunstruck valor.
Love past woman's love or God's
And proved through daily fierce onslaught--
Palace, tent, every hand,
Father's envy, Samuel's rage,
Our blank despair at shrinking ground
On which to join and feed again
This single-stalked bent desert tree
We bred to last on air and night.
Love past every human love
Till now you rise in gilding light
And stretch your brown blunt victor's arms;
Assume the bleached dense marriage-shirt
To take my sister, your first bride--
Grinning head thrust ruddy toward me,
Swapping me for one pale girl
(My nursery-mate, your throneward path).
This love--gazelle to bound all crags--
Breaks, gored, on thorns of our killed tree.
--by Reynolds Price, cited from The Laws of Ice (1986)
The Faculty Forum is published monthly by the Academic Council of Duke University.
Editor: Victor Strandberg (English). Assistant Editor: Sara Cohen (Trinity '97).
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