Friday, December 22, 2017

Year in review

Probably the most interesting thing I did this year was to decide that, now I'm 50, I should make a point of doing things that I want to do some time in my life. My mum died when she was 62 so I'm aware that I might not have much time to do these things. Or I might have several decades. So I read War and Peace, finished Crime and Punishment, and now I'm on Moby Dick. It's amazingly easy to forget that the great books really are great, and not in some obscure moral sense (although perhaps that too) but in the very simple sense of being a great pleasure to read. It's terrible that the teaching of literature seems to be done less and less, and that those who teach it seem to feel obliged to pretend there is no such thing as good and bad. Sweet Briar College looks as though it is getting rid of all its English professors, while keeping its creative writing program. Sigh.

I'm also reading more contemporary stuff, my favorites this year being Geoff Dyer's White Sands, Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, and The Rough Guide to Beijing.

I won't attempt a top ten anything of the year list, but I'm sure Lady Bird was the best film this year. Others I've seen mentioned in the same breath, like Get Out, aren't nearly as good. Get Out is certainly worth seeing, but its point seems to be to reveal a single--sort of scary, sort of funny--idea. Okja is another good one, but not that good. It's like a live action (plus CGI) Miyazaki film, but the real Miyazaki is better.

My album of the year, not that you asked, is Alvvays' Antisocialites, which is even better than their first one. Pleasant surprise of the year goes to the Granite Shore album Suspended Second, which is like the soundtrack to a really good musical, if there could be such a thing. (People say the songs sound like Abba, but they're much less disco-ey to my ear than that suggests.) Finding this Saint Etienne Christmas album was also a treat.

The other thing I need to do, of course, is to try to write some good philosophy. I will at least try this year. (Not that I haven't tried in other years, but I'm feeling a bit more inspired than I sometimes do about things I will work on next year.)

Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas and happy New Year.


  1. welcome to the down side of the hill and thanks for all the links, reflections, and conversation.

  2. Your mention of the news that this small women's liberal arts college is scrapping its English literature program was disturbing, although it's part of the recent trend. This is a phenomenon that deserves further discussion. I teach a course in what you might call (it's not, but it should be) "logical structure of pure inquiry", emphasizing the discovery or heuristic phase in the construction of knowledge in the sciences AND the humanities (as opposed to the communicative justification phase usually focused on), and I notice that students these days do not seem to understand or appreciate the value and role of pure inquiry. As science historian George Sarton suggested, the essential step that made the development of modern science possible was the separation of the intellectual quest of pure inquiry from the activities of practical application in the ancient Greek world. Everything that is possible in the way of finding solutions to the problems of alleviating human suffering have their foundation in the understanding of the causal or dependency structure of the world. And the intellectual activities of pure inquiry are really carried on most effectively in the context of the university. Any institution whose curriculum is determined only by market forces and demand for narrow career training will not consider the value of the fields of pure inquiry. It's odd that creative writing is still in demand, since one would think that one needs to read what the great minds of the past have written in order to make an effective contribution of one's own. What separates the great writers from the mere entertainers is the attempt to understand humanly significant problems, to develop the eternal themes.


    1. Agreed.

      Sweet Briar is an interesting case. It isn't doing well financially because women, on the whole, don't want to go to an all-women liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. It makes some sense for the college to gamble that a unique curriculum will attract more students. But this just sounds desperate: "It will shift its core curriculum away from traditional general education courses and toward classes administrators say are better fits for the latest trends in students’ academic interests and careers -- in areas like design thinking, sustainable systems, leadership, persuasion and making decisions in a data-driven world." Persuasion and leadership are not real subjects, and the other things mentioned in this list might not be either. Just because a noun exists and there is something useful to be known about it, it does not follow that there is a semester's worth of stuff that is worth knowing about it, or that anyone s qualified to teach it.

      I'm told that every liberal arts college is struggling with enrollment, but I don't know (and I don't think anyone knows) why this is. Maybe small colleges suffer from a lack of widespread fame. Maybe students seek well known brands. Or perhaps they want the parties, sports, and not too much hard work associated (rightly or wrongly) with big universities. But we might be seeing more moves like Sweet Briar's, which I think is doomed, in the next few years.