In Academe’s Groves

July 1, 2014

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The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, from a long entry about his days as a university student in Barcelona:

22 March – High Culture

…Syllogisms poured forth.  One pupil piped up confidently:  “Trees breathe through their leaves.”

Sr. Daurella replied gruffly, in his baritone bass pitch:  “The pear tree is a tree.”

And the pupil completed the round enthusiastically:  “Therefore the pear tree breathes through its leaves.”

We were all so pleased as punch we would readily have gone on for another hour or so.  It literally was a land of make-believe.

…How can you refute something you don’t understand or grasp?  It made no difference.  Every year the same episode was rehearsed, an episode I experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and if one ever describes it to anyone not deformed by our official seats of learning, they burst their sides in laughter because it reveals such stupidity – it is the legendary anecdote about Professor Arana.

“Sr. So-and-so,” said the professor in his mellifluous Spanish.  “Today we are doing Kant’s theory (or Rousseau’s).  Tell me about Kant’s theory.  What do you know about Kant’s theory?”

The student stood up, opened the syllabus, shifted his body slightly so his ear was better positioned to hear his prompter on the next-door bench, wet his lips, scratched the nape of his neck, and came out with drivel.  The prompter that day, for whatever reason, was a dreadful prompter.  He was a failure as a prompter.  A tense silence reigned in the lecture theatre.  In the meantime, Sr. Arana glanced at his student register through the gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose.  Finally, the wet fish of a student – to describe him accurately-confessed.

“I didn’t find time to study,” he said, looking distressed, oppressed, and completely at a loss.

“So, Sr. So-and-so,” the professor replied, not at all sourly, smoothing his moustache, as if he were commenting on the weather, “you don’t know Kant’s theory.  But I expect you know how to refute it.  Now, be so good as to refute Kant’s theory.”

As the prompters were a waste of time, sometimes a holy spirit arose from the most unlikely corner of the lecture theater to help the person questioned to survive.  The student heard various noises behind him, (what was known as “rhubarb-rhubarb”) and began to stammer.  Sr. Arana immediately struck the pose of a man who is completely entranced.  He wiped his chin as if he were stroking a goat’s nipple.  The rhubarb-rhubarb made sense and the student bore up.  The professor listened with growing admiration.  The amazing scene always ended with a professorial comment.

“You didn’t know the theory but you did manage to refute it.  That is quite an achievement.”

I don’t think high culture has ever scaled such heights as those exemplified by these absolutely authentic scenes.


Harvard – Bought and Paid For

September 18, 2011

Inside Job is an excellent documentary about the financial crisis of 2008.  The basic point, very well documented, is that an extremely small group of people with lots of money managed to tweak the economic system of the country, to divert huge sums of cash their way.  Some timely deregulation legislation, carried forward by a thirty-year drumbeat of intellectual support from influential economists, made it happen.

In the end, the vast collective wealth of the United States, and much of the world economy, became the gambling stake of these people, and when it all crashed, they walked away with their loot, and were free from any consequences.  The people in charge now, under Obama, are the same ones who made it possible, and who made it happen:  it’s a Wall Street administration, as one critic in the film says.  As Mr. Rosewater says in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, getting rich in America is largely a matter of positioning yourself to get your straw into the money stream:  These people had very big straws.

Towards the end of the film, there is a section in which various heavyweight academic economists are interviewed about the possible conflicts of interest inherent in consulting and publishing articles for firms that were pursuing extremely risky behavior.  These firms crashed and burned, despite the intellectuals’ assertions that they were sound, a good idea, helping stabilize the economy, etc.  The opinions of these people, from Columbia, Harvard, and other schools, were extremely influential.

In one stunning sequence, the chairman of the Harvard Economics Department, John Campbell, is asked if he thinks it’s relevant that people like Larry Summers, Obama’s economic advisor and a Harvard economist, made tens of millions of dollars from finance firms while he was writing papers and pushing policies extolling their virtues and efficiency.  “No, I don’t see why it’s relevant at all.”  The interviewer asks a hypothetical question:  What if a medical researcher published and spoke about the importance of using a certain drug, and then it was found that 80% of his income was from the company that manufactures that drug?  Is that relevant?  What follows is a series of ums, aahs, and hmms… as Campbell looks away from the camera and finally offers in a mumble, “Well, I think this is very different…


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