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Doctor of Philosophy, Heal Thyself

Thursdays are "Lowering the Brow" days at ye olde Daily Shvitz, and as Jewcy specializes in what we like to call "meta-narratives" (big ideas and themes put through a mirrored funhouse), it's bracing to come across a piece that does … Read More

By / September 21, 2006

Thursdays are "Lowering the Brow" days at ye olde Daily Shvitz, and as Jewcy specializes in what we like to call "meta-narratives" (big ideas and themes put through a mirrored funhouse), it's bracing to come across a piece that does your justifying for you. Mark Oppenheimer of The Forward has an interesting take on the dearth of smart sheet readership among grad students and academics:

"Because of the personal and intellectual benefits of reading these periodicals, professors should urge students to read them. Young scholars would see and be encouraged by the fact that some difficult, scholarly books do get reviewed for a general audience. Every couple of months, a book that obviously grew from a dissertation gets a prominent review in a national publication with a diverse, nonspecialized readership. Professors should be saying to their students, "Did you see the review of Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners? That was his Harvard dissertation. Now go and write a book like that!" What's more, by reading such reviews, students can get a sense of what is and isn't obvious to nonspecialists, which in turn will help their writing."

Not so sure profs should be using Goldhagen as their archetype for turning scholarship into bestsellerdom. (The opposition in Germany to Hitler was rather more robust than he acknowledged in Hitler's Willing Executioners, and it's always suspect when "thinking with the blood" becomes an explanation for why horrible movements start in certain parts of the world.) But things get even stickier a few graphs down when Oppenheimer writes:

"When Stephen Jay Gould died of cancer in 2002, my first thought was, "But who will explain Darwin to everyone?" There are, of course, others keeping the night watch against the forces of ignorance, reaction, and creationism: H. Allen Orr, E.O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Michael Shermer, Wendy Kaminer. But they are too few, and their opponents are too strong. "

Now, you can't sing a threnody to Stephen Jay Gould and then follow it up by saying, Never fear, E.O. Wilson will keep an affirming flame. Gould's whole theory of evolution — and the non-existence of human nature versus the predominance of human conditioning — runs counter to the subfield Wilson founded: sociobiology. The best person to read on this is Steven Pinker, who conveniently publishes in TNR, The Times Literary Supplement, Dædalus, and some of the other cerebral journals Oppenheimer wishes his cohort scanned more often. Which makes you wonder if Oppenheimer's getting past some of the headlines himself…

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