Mind in the Modern World
Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society
Little Prayers and Finite Experience
Professor Trilling has made good and graceful use of his invitation to give the first annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He has no difficulty in showing that Jefferson took for granted that men in their political associations were equal in their rationality. He also shows that such a view is warm and optimistic in the confidence it has in the speculative powers of the mind and in its ability to judge social policy and to understand the natural world. He notes that many of the educated have lost this high confidence; and that among the causes of this loss are not only the social and political vicissitudes through which the world has passed since Jefferson’s day but also the astonishing performances of “the wild ranging intellect of man” in bringing about a kind of self-stultification of mind.
There is something paradoxical about this. The intense energy with which the processes of mind themselves are now examined both exhibits the power of mind and makes plain its impotence. Arnold’s attempt to see the object as it really is, the obligation, that is, to strive after objectivity and rise above prejudice, is held by many today to be both epistemologically absurd and politically undesirable—it is the attempt, of course, that is seen as wrong, for if objectivity can’t be had it can’t be had. The notion of a humane education resting upon an appreciation of the long historical development of our culture and upon the study of letters (the study Lionel Trilling has in so distinguished a way advanced in his time) is now derided, not so much by the obvious louts and bullies who reach for their revolvers when they hear the word “culture,” but by such members of the intelligentsia as the 1971 president of the MLA.
Self-laceration to provide a mock blood-sacrifice before a fashionable idol is not of great interest in itself, and Trilling is concerned with Professor Kampf not as a contributor to a debate but as a representative of, presumably, some members of his profession who have, since the apocalyptic year 1968, come (in Trilling’s words) to believe that “their faith in the educative powers of literature…was a commitment to a corrupting frivolity.” This is, for the university teacher, what finds expression among university students in a concern for “relevance,” a confidence in spontaneity, and a distrust of formalized learning procedures.
Nothing quite like this has ever been known in the world before, though there have been signs for some years that the “transvaluation of values” was impending. Many of the surface phenomena are quite certainly ephemeral. But Trilling doesn’t doubt that there are deep changes. One of them is the gradual prevailing of the view, even in notable institutions of the highest reputation, that “the intellectual disciplines in which they give instruction are to be regarded not as of intrinsic value, but, at best, as elements of a rite of social passage and, at worst, as devices of social exclusion.” But there…
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