Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge


Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

Orator 01

It has recently occurred to me, and to Kristor and Alan Roebuck, that the term ecology might be aptly applied beyond the discussion of nature as a system. For example, ecology seems to apply rather nicely to the discussion of knowledge, what knowledge is, how it functions, and how it arranges for its own preservation in a community against the ravages of time. In a few, casual discussions the phrase epistemological ecology offered itself. Epistemological ecology is, however, a bit pretentious in piling up too many Greek polysyllables. The alternative phrase, ecology of knowledge, resolves the problem mainly if not entirely. It nestles a humble Saxonism with the high-class Hellenism. What is meant by the ecology of knowledge?

The phrase, in its original form, arose during an exchange between parties concerning one of the latest (among many) academic trends: A rising animosity against the age-old convention of the college lecture-course, whose critics, appearing on the scene with the usual sudden vehemence, condemn the custom of the lecture as ripe for abolition. These critics assert, for example, that lecturing is too much teacher-centered and by implication idiosyncratic, egocentric, and hierarchical, to accommodate itself to equality and democracy. Students, these critics assert, bring “their own knowledge” to the classroom; they need to meld that knowledge with new knowledge on their own, in which endeavor the instructor should renounce his authority as someone who uniquely, in the classroom, knows a subject, and he should be content “to facilitate” (that is invariably the word) the students in their miraculous unmediated acquisition of knowledge. This summary neither exaggerates nor distorts the argument; neither does it mitigate the argument’s inherent animus against the lecturer.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a lecture and learned something from it will experience an instinctive revulsion against the complaint that there is something high-handed or invidious in the custom of giving an organized oratorical exposition. This reaction will take into account the rationale of the lecture, which is so easy to understand that one wonders why the critics fail to understand it. The good lecturer is someone who has studied his subject for many years, has a deep and wide understanding of it, has lived with it and made it his knowledge for a lifetime. Recalling his own progress in knowledge, he has come to see with enviable clarity what is essential to it and what inessential; he has discovered, for his own purposes, what the clearest explanations are of the fundamental concepts of the subject, and can reproduce them for an audience, with an abundance of appropriate examples.

An audience with an interest in, but only a little prior and inadequate knowledge of, a subject thus stands to benefit from attending closely to a lecturer, whose thorough grounding and succinct exposition is for each audience-member a real short-cut to basic comprehension. The lecturer has spent his life doing the grunt-work, setting up the paradigms in his mind, sorting out the details, the views, and the assessments; and rigorously extracting and codifying the starting-point of understanding in respect to it. In delivering the lecture, the lecturer offers to dispense with everything that, in his experience, is a side-bar. More importantly, the lecturer proposes to spare the attentive audience the ordeal of passing from the degree-zero of comprehension to a working picture of the discipline more or less in a single bound. The lecture is, in this sense, a charitable event, which the lecturer magnanimously arranges at no great cost to the audience – whose sole job is to pay attention.

Barfield, Owen

A portion of a single paragraph from Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (1925; revised 1957) will give a sense of what I mean. In an early chapter, Barfield is discussing the origins of the many Greek words that Modern English has long-since naturalized to the point that many people use them unaware of their foreign and ancient origin. Barfield writes:

It was in Attica, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. that the Hellenic culture reached its finest flower. We use the word Attic to describe a peculiarly finished work of art or an exquisite literary style… Consequently the names of many things which we regard as the hallmark of a cultured society can be traced back to the Attic dialect of this period. Academy, school, history, logic, grammar, poetry, rhythm, harmony, melody, music, are all from Greek words which were in common use in Athens, and the lasting influence of [that city’s] sublime dramatic tradition is indicated by the great words, chorus, comedy, drama, theatre, and tragedy, and the lesser catastrophe, episode, prologue, and protagonist, all of which draw their meanings from the inspiration of the great Athenian dramatists.

I have selected the paragraph almost at random because almost any other paragraph from any of the other chapters of Barfield’s extremely useful little book would serve as well. One of the lovely qualities of History in English words is that Barfield’s prose has the feel of spoken – sophisticated, but nevertheless spoken – language, that is, the language of a good lecture. I recently taught History in English Words in the context of a college course on “The Origins and Development English.” The students in the course had no knowledge whatever of “The Origins and Development of English,” the language in which they have been habituated since childhood, but which typically they have taken entirely for granted, as though it had fallen out of the sky in the moments of their births.

A number of things happen when Barfield introduces naïve readers to the historical aspect of their native tongue. For many, this will have been the first time that the concepts of language and history have appeared together in an exposition. Possibly the words Greek and Latin hover vaguely in the naïve awareness, but the encounter with Barfield’s History will have been the first time when the vague notions became explicit, acquiring a chronology and a bevy of specific examples. Barfield’s gesture of italicizing his specimen-words is the equivalent on the printed page of isolating and stressing such terms forensically during a live performance. That such a humble vocabulary-item as school is Greek comes as a surprise to many students, all the more when, in a subsequent paragraph, Barfield explains the word’s original meaning, of leisure-time. The equation of school with leisure confounds their perception requiring a readjustment of their notions.

Hirsch, E. D.

Barfield enjoyed a rigorous education in the British system. The original version of History in English Words is a summary of the ideas that he formed in the 1920s not so many years after finishing his baccalaureate and while studying law. American college students in a mid-tier state college have been through twelve years of a largely content-less and thoroughly non-rigorous curriculum that leaves them noticeably deficient in what E. D. Hirsch in a popular book (1987) referred to as cultural literacy. It goes without saying that students in my course have never heard of Owen Barfield, but that for various reasons I have. Thus the students’ knowledge-deficit can be mitigated somewhat, if not made good entirely, by my mediation for them of Barfield’s summary of his own arduously obtained knowledge about the transmigration of foreign and ancient vocabularies into English, and of the changes in meanings of words across the centuries.

It is necessary to remark that without someone’s intervention, the students would never have come to Barfield by themselves because nothing in their shallow knowledge-environment would have led them to him. They would have gone on through their lives in the same condition of naivety about their daily language that characterized their low level of awareness when they began the semester. Probably most of the enrollment consists of English majors for whom “The Origins and Development of English” is a requirement. How long this will remain the case is unknown because the trend in colleges and universities is, as it has been for a long time, to abolish traditional requirements – some of which are replaced by mandatory, topical courses linked to the reigning political regime and some others of which simply disappear into oblivion, the collective wisdom having decided that they are useless or irrelevant.

Students passing out of “The Origins and Development of English” thus benefit from a demand. I would say that, like “knowledge-environments,” demands play a role in the efficient mediation of lore. I will return to these notions.

The formal lecture seems to me to be a grand development of an earlier social-linguistic convention or institution – the proverb or old saying. We are decreasingly familiar with the proverbs and old sayings although most modern people can still cite a few.

Blood is thicker than water.
A new broom sweeps clean but an old broom knows the corners.
A fish rots from the head down.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
A stitch in time saves nine.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
You have to take the bitter with the sweet.

An old saying is a verbal distillation of multi-generational experience articulated so as to be as memorable as possible. Old sayings belong to oral traditions, predating the era of literacy. Walter J. Ong, who spent his lifetime studying the relation between spoken language and written language, remarks about the oral culture that accompanies oral language that, in it, “you know what you can recall” (Orality and Literacy, 1981). This restriction in what can be known (that is, recalled) is difficult for literate people to grasp because they take the graphic externalization of language (that is, text) so much for granted. Nevertheless, as Ong writes, “In an oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression, but thought processes.” Without the scaffold of writing, which converts evanescent sounds to permanent visible marks, spoken language never achieves what literates would recognize as discourse. In an oral culture, as Ong writes, “to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.”

Ong, Walter

The old sayings in the preceding list exemplify such “mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.” They conform to the pattern of being “short and sweet.” To paraphrase Ong, they exhibit the characteristics of pronounced rhythm, symmetrical construction, repetition, antithesis, assonance, and rhyme; they place the figure in a familiar ground – the household, the village, the close countryside; and they are formulaic. They belong, to borrow a term from phenomenology, to the “Lifeworld.” As Ong explains, “Heavy patterning and communal fixed formulas in oral cultures serves some of the purposes of writing in chirographic cultures, but in doing so they of course determine the kind of thinking that can be done, the way experience is intellectually organized.”

Other characteristics of spoken language, according to Ong, are that it is “additive rather than subordinative”; “aggregative rather than analytic”; “redundant or ‘copious’”; “conservative or traditionalist”; and “agonistically toned.” It is not quite my purpose to write an introduction to Ong although I would like to do so. I cite him rather because his treatment of “orality” underscores the necessity of organizing knowledge for spontaneous apposite reproduction in emergent situations. This necessity is conjoint with the fact that in functioning culture knowledge is not optional but mandatory. If natural ecology were a non-sentient self-regulating system, the ecology of knowledge would be, from its beginning, a conscious, therefore intentional, and deliberately maintained system. It would be vulnerable to the range of all-too-human lapses, such as forgetfulness, but also to conscious sabotage. It might have enemies.

I wrote that the lecture strikes me as a grand development of the proverb. As the parallelism might not be as obvious to others as it is to me, I offer an explanation. The lecturer resembles a distiller. His sack of potatoes is his own arduously obtained learning, his encompassment of his subject. His still is the essentializing faculty in his own mind, which he activates when he decides to frame for a non-specialist audience the irreducible idea of his subject. Let us say that the lecturer’s subject is Fifth Century BC Greece. In his studious lifetime the lecturer will have read, first, the entire corpus of Fifth-Century BC Greek texts and the later texts (histories, by Hellenistic and Roman writers) that look back on the Fifth Century; he will have read, next, hundreds of scholarly books and articles pertaining to the study of the primary material. We will presume that he has traveled in the Greek world, participating in archeology, so that his knowledge of the physical conditions against which the events of the time-period occurred is first-hand and not second-hand. Obviously, the lecturer could “write a book” – and perhaps he has. In his sixty-minute lecture at the public library, however, he must discard everything but what he judges to be the gist. He must formulate his lore so that his audience can remember it easily.  From his sack of potatoes he must make and offer only the purest vodka.

The context of the lecture is literate society. The lecturer’s delivery will be decisively informed by his literacy, but, somewhat paradoxically, and although the lecture is a modern phenomenon inextricable from chirographic and typographic acculturation, it is an oral performance. The context of the aphorism is uninterrupted orality. In an early-human context, the codification of experience as recallable sayings had an existential implication. More was at stake for our ancestors than a veneer of high-culture, which is what the audience expects to gain from attending the lecture at the public library. Life was at stake. This is perhaps why, as Ong remarks, while oral cultures know such things as riddles and rhymes, they know no jokes. Existential meanings can easily be teased out of the sayings in the list above. I invite readers to do so.

greek farmers

The many sayings that constitute the anthology-like second half of Hesiod’s Works and Days provide their own particularly clear instance of the old saying as survival-knowledge. Here is a suite of them:

Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed.
Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: She is after your barn.
If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work.
Mark, when you hear the voice of the crane, who cries year by year from the clouds above, for she [gives] the signal for ploughing and shows the season of rainy winter.
Do not get a name either, as lavish or as churlish; as a friend of rogues or as a slanderer of good men.
Never dare to taunt a man with deadly poverty which eats out the heart; it is sent by the deathless gods.
Do not be boorish at a common feast where there are many guests; the pleasure is greatest and the expense is least.
Never pour a libation of sparkling wine to Zeus after dawn with unwashen hands, nor to others of the deathless gods; else they hear [not] your prayers but spit them back.

Hesiod’s short pithy sayings differ slightly from their generic counterparts, the Anglo-Saxon saws. The English words of wisdom although chronologically later than Hesiod’s sentences stand closer to the degree-zero of orality than the prescriptions of Works and Days.   Hesiod is working at the end of a longstanding oral tradition when the elements of that tradition were being recast as textuality. Hesiod’s sayings are already sentential, articulating themselves in clauses, but they stem from a repertory of shorter and undoubtedly older phrases, which the poet elaborates. Assuming that the translator (Evelyn-White) has done his best to reproduce the qualities of the Greek original, we find most of the characteristics noted by Ong. “Friend” and “fixed” are in assonance, as are “coax” and “cozen.” The saying beginning with “do not get a name” has a nifty parallel construction with repetition. The phrase to spit back in the “libation” aphorism belongs vividly to the “Lifeworld.”

More importantly by far, however, is the manner in which Hesiod’s sayings imply a conscious anthropology. In the “wage” aphorism, for example, we see a nascent science of psychology and a theory of envy and resentment, as well as the invocation of an institution, the contract or “promise,” intended to circumvent a breakdown in human relations. Feminists will have an invidious field-day with the “flaunting woman” aphorism, but all rock-stars know its truth. The “work upon work” aphorism describes the order of existence, which, after all, had to be discovered before it could be articulated. The “voice of the crane” aphorism combines millennia of celestial and meteorological observations and codifies them as an easily remembered almanac for the farmer. (Works and Days inaugurates the poetic genre known as georgics – advice to farmers, or “workers in the earth.”) The “never taunt” aphorism addresses a propensity to Schadenfreude that over the ages must have provoked numerous homicides leading, once again, to numerous bloody breakdowns in human relations. Boorishness can lead to homicide. Homicide invites revenge. Revenge annihilates the community. It is existential. Finally, Hesiod reminds us in the “sparkling wine” aphorism that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Greek Alphabetic Inscription

The environment of orality is altered by the advent of literacy, especially, where the West is concerned, by the advent of alphabetic literacy, but literacy never annihilates orality. Much of life is still conducted orally, in familial and friendly environments and even, as I have suggested, in the university-custom of the formal lecture. Literacy opens up new domains of the ecology of knowledge, but it does not fundamentally alter the underlying motive. Knowledge is for the survival of the community, as well as of the individual. When in the 1980s Hirsch began to write about cultural literacy, it was because he saw a radical contraction in general knowledge.  This retraction had been brought about inadvertently by radio, television, commercial music, and the movies.  It had also been brought about deliberately by people whose agenda was “to change,” that is, to annihilate, traditional culture and society by obliterating prevailing general knowledge that defines traditional culture and society. Neil Postman and Alan Bloom saw the same descent into idiocy and sought to draw attention to it.  As it had Hirsch, the Ministry of Resentment rewarded Postman and Bloom with contempt.

There is a mentality that resents every demand with petulant fury. Where there is a demand to learn a body of lore, there will be a reaction against it. This reaction is one of the forces that disrupts and can ultimately destroy the ecology of knowledge in a community.

Escher Black and White Birds

For the remainder of my exposition, I would like to switch my approach. For one thing, the topic is proving wider and deeper than I anticipated when beginning; for another, my presentation is drifting away into abstractions that I would like to bring back closer to the “Lifeworld.” I wish to exploit autobiography by speculating on how I have come to know the knowledge that I especially value. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the subtleties of the ecology of knowledge – as well as the vulnerabilities thereof to emergent developments.

Of course, I attended school. I must have learned something, but the truth is that consciously I have little or no memory of learning things in school. I remember being bored in the classroom but rather happy in the library. I am speaking of my elementary schooling – the tokens of which are basic grammar, some school-book vocabulary, the multiplication tables, and a smattering of geography. Junior high school is equally blank although its years were the years when I defined myself as an inveterate and voracious reader of non-school-related books. High school stands out as a more memorable experience but only because of two or three exceptionally quirky teachers who ignored the formal curriculum and tried to interest the pupils in what interested them.


The most exceptional – really quite eccentric – one was the English teacher whom I shall call Mr. Kingston. In his own story, the truth of which eluded verification, Kingston studied musical composition in the graduate program at USC where he was fulfilling the requirements for an MFA. Possibly it was so. He knew and loved real music – this came at the zenith of the late-1960s wave of rock and roll – and sought to afford us glimpses of things he loved. He taught a six-week summer course on “Hero Tales.” When I took it with him in 1971, the syllabus included The Odyssey, Beowulf, portions of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and portions of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the Furtwängler/La Scala recording of which had just been reissued by Angel Records on its budget Seraphim label. We heard whole acts of The Ring on Johnston’s portable stereo set-up, as well as Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and Symphony No. 1, “Der Titan” by Gustav Mahler. The music fell on me like a breaking tsunami.

I would not have sought out any of those operas and symphonies myself because I had never heard of any of them, but having heard them, I wanted to hear them again and once I had, I sought out similar scores, haphazardly I imagine, but over the years with greater system. In other classes Kingston introduced his students to Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Camus. These became starting-points of real literary and philosophical interest. These events were mediations. Much of learning is mimetic. We learn to like – even to be passionate about – what other people like and are passionate about. To encounter a person who likes and is passionate about something above the enforced low level of commercial culture is therefore akin to Grace.

An objective observer might have condemned Kingston as a mountebank. Under another name he edited pornographic anthologies for a fly-by-night Hollywood publisher (Brandon Books) associated with Ed Wood. When last known he had morphed into a prevaricating huckster of herbal cures on the Internet. He is probably dead. None of it mattered. Homer, Nietzsche, Jung, Hesse, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler were real. They mattered. Curiosity having been provoked, curiosity could satisfy itself because of a peculiarity of the environment. The Santa Monica School District stretched from its home base in the cliff-top town overlooking the immense beach all the way (almost thirty miles) to Pt. Dume in Malibu, near Zuma Beach, where my father had settled his family in 1966, and beyond. In the early morning five days a week the school buses collected us from remote places like Decker Canyon and Pt. Dume to transport us to Santa Monica High School in that fair city – and back again in the late afternoon.

Santa Monica is now Beverly Hills South just as Pt. Dume is Beverly Hills West, crammed with millionaire condominiums and pricey boutiques, but in 1969 Santa Monica was much as it had been in the 1930s and 40s, a quiet small seaside city with a frowsy downtown and a pedestrian mall that had once been its Third Street. (Pt. Dume was, by contrast, the frontier – twenty miles from the nearest supermarket, with five-digit telephone numbers, and an antique central telephone exchange for calling out of the area.)  The Third Street Mall  boasted plenty of burger joints and pizza parlors, to which students from the high school often resorted during lunchtime, beneficiaries as they were of Principal Drake’s “open campus” policy. Among the small businesses on or around the mall were half a dozen second-hand bookstores, run by grumpy old men who lived in the retirement hotels on Second Street. No institution better exemplifies the idea of the ecology of knowledge than the now-vanished low-rent used-book emporium run by a pensioner in order to eke out his living. George Katz, the three Cunningham brothers, and I would visit these musty shops during our lunch-forays or our extended hooky-playing walkabouts to see what was what in the world.

Used Books 02

At first the old copies of Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Galaxy, science-fiction magazines, mostly attracted us, largely due to their lurid covers, but it proved natural and easy to move from the nickel back-issues of the “mags” to the shelves full of paperbacks. Once the quirky teachers – not just Kingston – initiated us into real literature and philosophy, we began to browse more generally and more intently. I acquired, for example, the one-volume edition of James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, the two-volumes of H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, several volumes of Carl G. Jung in the uniform edition, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson, whose bibliography then spurred additional book-ferreting and reading. It will be useful to consider what conditions must have been in place for Santa Monica’s second-hand booksellers to have existed.

There must have been hundreds of serious readers in the area, assembling libraries over their lifetimes. Many of the books that I bought had been published in the 1920s or 30s and still bore the mark of the upscale bookstore, Martindale’s, that had originally sold them. Possibly when an older relative died the survivors would sell off the library to one of the dealers. There must have been a ready clientele of people with little money, who were nevertheless keenly literate and cultivated, to support the second-hand dealers – and they must have bought steadily over the decades. There must, in other words, have been a long-lived reading culture in Santa Monica in the middle of the last century, into which adolescents could still be drawn. There had to be a few teachers, or a few adults, who belonged to this reading culture, in meaningful contact with young people, to steer the novices toward worthy titles. The adolescents needed to have a little spending money, which I earned from mowing lawns and that kind of job in the neighborhood and which the Cunningham brothers earned by working in their parents’ music store. The novices needed actively to egg each other on to collecting and reading. We had many serious conversations about the books that found their way to us.  At times, collecting and reading became competitive.  George would eventually assemble a display-case of every Ace double-novel ever published.

I might invoke Grace again, or what Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “the Angel of the library.” This “Angel” is the inscrutable agency that sends the right person to the right book at the right moment. That is part of the ecology of knowledge, too.

By the time I went off to college, most of the seedy little establishments had shut up shop. The proprietors, crusty bachelors without issue, had died. No similar businesses came along to replace them. There were still bookstores. Between 1980 and 2000, there was indeed something like a bookstore boom in the United States – but now most of those places, like the franchises of the Borders chain, have vanished. The Internet, which is supposed to have replaced many such enterprises, is rather unlike the downtown of a small city. One can randomly follow up links on the Internet, but this is not at all like strolling past the book window on the way to the burger joint and again on the way back to classes. Nor, as my job of presiding over college classrooms tells me, are there many high-school teachers of the Kingston-type who willingly and perhaps daringly depart from teaching-to-the-test to provide their pupils with glimpses into genuine culture and serious thinking. The ecology of knowledge that made me knowledgeable in the ways that I am has mostly ceased to exist.

I might add that in the 1970s there were three or four small record-stores in Santa Monica, one of which specialized in classical music.  These were another boon.  The “Wherehouse” had a monthly sale during which the eager record-collector could buy Nonesuch and Vox LPs for “the insane low price of 88 cents” and so increase his ken of symphonies, operas, and string quartets.  The extensive notes on the reverse side of the classical-music record-jackets belong to the ecology of knowledge.

Where something like that ecology persists, in not so many places, it must cling tenaciously to its niche or vanish in a puff of smoke.

Kirk, Russell

During my Michigan decade of the 1990s, I enjoyed the immense privilege to be associated with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in remote Mecosta, Michigan, twenty miles west of Mt. Pleasant, the nondescript, cultureless place where my wife and I lived. (It is nowadays a restaurant and hotel concession for a gigantic and vulgar Indian Casino.)  The story of the Kirk Center also bears appositely on the topic of the ecology of knowledge. Russell Kirk made the discovery in the early 1950s that the colossal state universities were not only no longer participating in the sustenance of the ecology of knowledge, but rather were active agencies in the destruction of the ecology of knowledge. “A fish rots from the head down,” as the old saying would have it. With amazing courage Kirk resigned his professorship at Michigan State in East Lansing, purchased his old family home in Mecosta, and set himself up as an independent scholar. Gradually the home became the center of a heterodox scholarly community, to which Kirk’s many admirers made a kind of pilgrimage.

I met Dr. Kirk, as everyone calls him, only once, when he chaired Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 Republican Primary campaign in Michigan, and succeeded in booking Buchanan to give a speech at Central Michigan University, where I was teaching, in the big auditorium. After the publication of my study of Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities in 1996, under the sponsorship of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, however, the good fortune befell me to meet Dr. Kirk’s widow Annette Kirk and to get to know her. By this time, after Dr. Kirk’s death in 1994, she had established the Center. Through Mrs. Kirk’s generous friendship and by association with the Center, I met many people who had known Dr. Kirk. People who came into contact with the man felt profoundly influenced by him, as swiftly became clear, and experienced a sense of spiritual and intellectual indebtedness.

Guests always occupied the spare rooms of the main house and the other buildings belonging to the Center; this continuous occupancy meant that a face-to-face community was always present to itself. The library, down the unpaved street from the main house, saw a constant stream of working scholars making use of its resources.  The library often gave its stage, so to speak, to visiting lecturers. The context of the lecture was invariably an extended evening, complete with a formal dinner, beginning with an invocation, and including aperitifs and wines. Dare I assert that a persistent spiritual presence like Dr. Kirk’s and a generous sense of hospitality like Mrs. Kirk’s also belong inextricably to the ecology of knowledge? I assert it. So, however, does the conviviality of food and drink. And I assert that too. I recur to an earlier observation concerning the lecture, which seems relevant here: That a lecture is an oral performance in a literate context. The Center is an impressively cultured and literate place, complete with its own library, but the spirit of Dr. Kirk is in many ways the spirit of a charismatic raconteur and conversationalist. It is not merely the thousands of well-chosen books in the library; it is the strength of that charisma, of conversations remembered, that helps to make the place what it is. A distant whisper haunts the halls and grounds, benignly. I offer a sub-thesis: Charisma belongs to the ecology of knowledge.

Old City Hall

As I have mentioned the relation of vinous spirits to the ecology of knowledge, I should like to say why I think that the public house is almost as important to that ecology as second-hand bookstores and independent intellectual institutions like the Kirk Center. I write “public house” instead of tavern, saloon, or bar. The old British-English word for a public house is pub. My own experience of the last couple of decades is confined to a single pub, Larry Klotzko’s Old City Hall on Water Street in Oswego, on Lake Ontario, in Upstate New York. I have taught at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. Although I have friends and acquaintances “on campus,” I regrettably cannot report that the campus supports a lively conversational tradition. The talk at the lunch table tends to confine itself to a narrow range of conformist topics and to administrative gossip. Academic knowledge is alarmingly overspecialized and “expert” and subject to fads, which, however, despite a changing vocabulary, tend to repeat the same basic notions endlessly. I would venture to say that there is a deficit in such conversation of Hirsch’s cultural literacy – but then this is what Dr. Kirk discovered nearly sixty years ago.

At Old City Hall, on the other hand, I have come to know a raft of characters, none of whom belongs to academia, but all of whom display autodidact knowledge elevating them above the run of academic specialists. Not that there are no other professors present on a Sunday afternoon – there is the dissident member of the Philosophy faculty, Richard Cocks, and the member of the Chemistry faculty who, having grown up in the Soviet Union, continues to loathe it. There is also a retired city worker and erstwhile on-again-off-again college-student who has been a lifelong voracious reader. He is Dick Fader, whom I think of as the Sir Roger De Coverley of Oswego. I first spoke with him while sitting at the bar with the dissident philosopher. The dissident philosopher and I were talking books, but I could not remember the author of Seven Days in May, a 1960s political thriller. Fader, who happened to be sitting to my left, said, “Fletcher Knebbel and Charles W. Bailey.” Bingo! Fader is a man with hobbies. He first subscribed to Sky and Telescope when he was a sixteen-year-old in 1964, and follows astronomy and space exploration in detail. He can recite Omar’s Rubaiyat in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation verbatim from memory.  He knows history and politics well.

Goat Farm 02

The publican, Larry, is also a lifelong reader – something of a conspiracy theorist – who has a noticeable thirst for knowledge and lore. He possesses a good deal of lore, himself, and he enjoys doling it out. Who doesn’t? We enjoy listening to him.  The mixing of people in the pub forces the conversation into the channels of reality. The professors, for example, face rebuke when they stray too far into abstraction. The professors, by the way, are all rootless people – from exotic places like New Zealand, Lithuania, and Southern California; but Larry and Fader are locals. From them I have learned to know and to love the region around Oswego, to which, after all, I am a stranger, despite having married an Oswego girl when I was in graduate school at UCLA in the 1980s. Thanks to Larry and Fader I have been all over Upstate New York – including such odd excursions as the one to a goat farm near Ithaca, to scout out a new source of fresh feta cheese for Larry’s kitchen.  “The Lively Run” is a “natural goat-farm” operated by its lady-proprietor according to ecological principles.  Goats turn out to be intelligent and friendly creatures.

A byword of the phony “conversation,” in which the regime wants everyone to participate all the time, is “diversity.” The thing about the “diverse” speakers who receive hefty fees to crowd the college’s speaker-calendar is that they all say exactly the same thing – and they only know what they say. They bring no lore. They traffic in slogans.  Sidling up to the bar at Old City Hall, the postulant confronts the necessity of adapting to convergent, richly experienced, well-educated but non-formally-educated merging complementary perspectives. This too – the phenomenon of merging complementary perspectives, which can sometimes be slightly contentious – belongs to the ecology of knowledge, most especially when one party is already half-drunk and the other is stubbornly half-sober. The exchange benefits from the massive literacy of the participants, but it is, once again, a case of the living voice. The view helps – the river, the harbor, the lake. The old architecture of the premises (corner stone set in place in 1832) also has a lesson to teach. The building itself contributes its charisma to the proceedings.

As I had no idea when I began where the pursuit of the topic would lead, this will have been a true essay.

34 thoughts on “Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge

  1. I sent the link to this piece to myself so that I can open it and make a paper print of the essay to read soon. The subject line for my email to myself is “Red Meat and Strong Beer.” I’m going to like this piece.

      • As you have already set more feasts than one before me (with your essays), it is I who should pick up the lunch tab, should I ever arrive in Oswego.

      • Voila! The ecology of knowledge in demonstrative operation! (I have made the change.)

        PS: After reading your correction, I wondered whether the picture of me (with Larry, Fader, and the baby goat) was really me. After a moment of half-sober indecision during which I referred the matter to my wife, I felt sure that it was.

  2. An eminently Bertonneauvian essay, to be sure. Thanks, Tom.

    Alcohol seems to have been an important factor in the ecology of knowledge since at least the Symposium: in vino veritas. The alcoholic loosening of inhibitions is, not just social, but intellectual. When these two sorts of hibitions cooperate in a symposium, interesting things can happen. Associations – social or cerebral – that might not otherwise have made it past the firing threshold flame into life.

    My high school French teacher, Alan Sutherland, taught me almost no French, but from him I learned a great deal about the French Existentialists. He it was also who taught me that the life of the mind is important, valuable, and fun.

    Much of what is called the philosophy of Pragmatism – Peirce, James, Dewey – is not so much itself a set of proposals in epistemology as it is a first attempt at a natural history of the ecology of knowledge. It is a study of how we arrive at our convictions, and of what our convictions mean – what we intend by them, and how they operate in us.

    The latter-day field of memetics is likewise a natural history of the social ecology of knowledge – or rather, of notions.

    For the formal name of the science of the ecology of knowledge, I propose ecognology.

    • That’s a way of looking at Pragmatism that I hadn’t previously considered. It mitigates my distrust of the school. I referred in the essay to Edmund Husserl’s idea of the “Lifeworld,” which is another way of articulating what you observe. Pierce, James, and Dewey, and certainly Husserl, were responding to something remote and dissatisfying in the character of formal epistemology, such as Kant’s.

      But then Kant’s epistemology, the original of “deconstruction,” looks like paradise according to the theory of knowledge espoused by the NCTE or the “Four C’s” – the professional organization of the college composition and rhetoric instructors. They claim – believe it or not – that there is no connection between reading-competency and writing-competency!

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  4. I stumbled across my copy of Wilson’s Outsider in a used book store, too (but I confess I haven’t read it even yet). In western Oregon, there were plenty of these book stores in the early to mid-Seventies when I was collecting a personal library. Your essay includes a photograph of a bookstore — I take it, one of the ones you used to visit. You are no doubt glad to have a picture of it if the store is gone. Taking the picture was a small gesture of piety. I am glad to have a photo of Medford’s Bartlett Street Book Store, which looked just like a small used bookstore should look, and in which I found romances of Rider Haggard in appealing old editions for a few dollars a copy. For the impecunious, this was a good place for the fostering of the love of books. A few miles away in Ashland was Blue Goose Books, where (on an installment plan) I bought for $4 the Mirage Press edition of Foster’s Guide to Middle-earth… talk about lore.

    Then to have had a college teacher (from the first day of classes on) who knew the love of books and of some of one’s favorite authors — this was to dispose one towards learning as a happy thing, though also towards times of inner wrestling.

    • The Outsider (1956) was an excellent beginning – Wilson’s first book. More influential on me was his second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957). I met Wilson when he visited Los Angeles on a lecture-tour in 1987. He had the charisma that people noticed in Russell Kirk, who was another kind of dissenting Bohemian. I contributed an essay to the Festschift in honor of Wilson’s eightieth birthday, Around the Outsider (2011). Sadly, Wilson went into surgery for back trouble and suffered a stroke in recuperation just as the Festschrift appeared. A year later he died.

      There are many synchronicities in my story. The space on Santa Monica Boulevard that was occupied by the used-bookstore with the largest inventory later became the first location of the science-fiction bookstore owned by my dissertation director and longtime friend Eric Gans. The whole block suffered irreparable damage in the big earthquake that hit Los Angeles in the 1990s. The structure no longer exists. But the Santa Monica of 1970 no longer exists. It was annihilated by a leftwing insurrection in the late 1970s. Proposing to put a limit on rental costs, the large renting voter-block elected a regime that destroyed the rental market and made way for the rich liberals of Beverly Hills to take over the housing market. Before this event, college students could live in Santa Monica. After it, only movie-stars and studio-lawyers could live there. Long live the revolution!

      Rider Haggard was one of the great popular writers. She (1886) should be required reading in, let us say, the ninth grade. There is a genre of “Lost World” and “Lost Civilization” stories that enjoyed widespread popularity in the decades on either side of 1900.

      Speaking of college professors – I refer to Gans, using the German term, as my Doktorvater, my “Doctorate-Father.” I owe a great deal to Mary Kay Norseng, my Norwegian teacher on both sides of my drop-out phase, who helped me instrumentally to be readmitted to UCLA to finish my baccalaureate.

  5. @Tom

    A very stimulating essay – which I printed, read, and annotated.

    In no particular order:

    Lectures. ‘A grand development of the proverb’ – what a striking and fertile summary! The lecturer ‘must formulate his lore so that his audience can remember it easily’ – Yes! More exactly, first understand then remember – during the lecture itself understanding, when reading through a few hours later, then remembering.

    Your example of the lecturer as a scholar thoroughly immersed in his subject and distilling it for the audience, however, is now and probably always has been a rare exception – it is more like the requirements for an advanced, optional graduate school course.

    At any given point in time, most actual lecturers will be relatively young and inexperienced (one step – one degree – ahead of their students), and their depth of knowledge cannot measure up to your sketch – not least because professionals are required to lecture across a broad range of topics, which often changes.

    I would rather emphasize the introductory lecture as the archetype. The lecturer must have significantly more knowledge depth than the audience, but this may still be a long way short of the depth required for advanced graduate school. The role of this kind of lecture is more about mapping the context, and correctly emphasizing the key knowledge.


    I don’t think we would disagree on the following; but since I became a Christian I have been increasingly aware of the deficiencies of High Culture in the absence of religion. Postman, Bloom and Hirsch argue for the *intrinsic* worth of High Culture – but I think this is wrong (as Bloom’s personal life – eg as depicted by Saul Bellow – makes abundantly clear). High Culture is indeed A Good, but not Good in and of itself – indeed absent the context of Christianity High Culture often has the effect of fortifying, armour-plating, anti-religion, even ‘aesthetic’ nihilism and hedonism (e.g. think of Walter Pater and middle period Oscar Wilde).

    Most modern High Culture (and its advocates) have, indeed, this ‘decadent’ quality.


    The role of alcohol. Hmmm. I am familiar with this view, and have indeed experienced it – in considerable excess at times (eg in Scottish intellectual life, which typically ends with the participants sliding under the table – or worse). Alcohol in Britain and Ireland has an altogether more depraved edge than in the USA.

    However, for two decades I have not drunk alcohol (except communion wine!), due to migraines – so I have seen it from both sides. I can see that alcohol really does promote sociality, in the sense that without alcohol I get very little enjoyment from socializing or parties and do not enjoy being with other people who are drinking.

    But I also see how alcohol in groups can be deceptive, can create a falsely satisfied groupishness, can make a group close-in on itself – and lose an edge.


    Interestingly, my favourite group – The Inklings of Oxford – did not (as a rule) have any alcohol in their main Thursday evening meetings at Lewis’s rooms – these great gatherings were fuelled by copious tea. Lewis tried to exclude alcohol from these serious meetings, because he felt it changed their character for the worse. This despite that the Tuesday lunchtimes Inklings-plus gatherings were in a pub and often quite ‘boozy’ (by American standards) with two or three pints of beer on an empty stomach.

    In sum – for serious intellectual activity, alcohol is probably a bad thing; although the mild stimulant of tea or coffee may be helpful (think 18th century London of Steele, Addison and Johnson – or 19th-early 20th century Viennese coffee houses).


    Finally, delightful to see Owen Barfield mentioned. If you read my Notion Club Papers blog, you will guess that he has been my primary focus of serious reading and thinking for the past couple of months – and I have engaged with his ideas for the first time since I began reading him (and about him) several years ago. It ‘clicked’. But my understanding remains partial. I have read the words, but do not really ‘get’ all his terminology – especially not the weight he puts on ‘polarity’. I have had to back track to find the origins in Coleridge and Steiner – who are proving even harder to unravel…

    Anyway – Thanks!

    • Thank you for such a careful reading of my essay. You will have remarked my occasional, but deliberate, invocations of Grace, and my characterization of a good lecture as a charitable act on the part of the lecturer. These details are present because I was thinking of the ecology of knowledge as something that participates in religiosity. When I write of “the lecture,” naturally I mean “the good lecture.” There are more bad ones than good ones, to be sure; and even some of them that aren’t politically tendentious, like those delivered by the “diversity” speakers, can be bad – not wicked, but disorganized, trivial rather than significant, and just plain boring.

      As for alcohol – I read and write and take notes cold-sober, but when I exchange ideas with my pals, I find that a moderate dose of California Zinfandel lifts the occasion, quite as Kristor suggests in his comment (see above).

      On Coleridge (a fine lecturer – from all reports): I wrote an essay about him that you can find at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala, which might be helpful. (Run a search on “bertonneau + coleridge + shambhala” and it should crop up atop the list.)

      I shall take a look at your musings on Barfield.

      PS: I once tried to drink a Scotsman under the table. Big mistake. Big, big headache. Misery on steroids.

  6. Books about books have been important in my experience of an ecology of knowledge, and I’ll mention Colin Wilson again. In the mid- to late Seventies several of his books offered important ideas and some leads for further reading to a young fellow: Tree by Tolkien, Poetry and Mysticism, Hesse Reich Borges, etc. C. S. Lewis’s letters, in that one-volume edition credited to his brother W. H. Lewis, was gripping, loaded with book talk of the most infectious type, as was the collection of Lewis’s letters to his almost lifelong friend Arthur Greeves, published as They Stand Together, though that was, for me, a book of the early 1980s. At the Bartlett Street Book Store I found (for a few dollars) the first volume of the Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s letters, and this played a role in the ecology of knowledge as I experienced it, namely in stirring a bit of an antiquarian sensibility; Lovecraft cherished vestiges of the colonial past, and this helped to arouse in me a new, or at least a more conscious, savoring of vestiges of earlier times even if, in southern Oregon, “older times” might refer concretely to a house built in 1900. But this sort of thing can help to impart a sense of one’s time as just “a time,” and one of the best things one can acquire is an independence of outlook that recognizes that the enthusiasms and behavior of one’s time might like quite as dubious (or flat wrong) to our successors as some things of earlier times look to us. Lewis’s God in the Dock contains an essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” that I came across around this time and that impressed me forever. That little essay (it was originally his introduction to a popular edition of St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation) should be read by everyone. One more book about books — Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism.

    • One of Wilson’s late titles was The Books in My Life – well worth acquiring. Henry Miller (whatever you think of him) wrote a similar book, which repays reading.

  7. I know at least the essays on Rider Haggard in Miller’s book.

    In our time, some of the essays by the ubiquitous Michael Dirda might be leading youthful readers into some places of interest that they otherwise wouldn’t visit, but his is not an interesting sensibility in the way Lewis’s and Wilson’s were.

    • Wurmbrand: For your interest, here are the books that I have ordered for my course on “Science Fiction in Literature and Film” for the upcoming Fall Semester –

      Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
      Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars
      Lin Carter: The Man Who Loved Mars
      Frederick Turner: Genesis
      H. G. Wells: Star Begotten
      H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds

      Selected short-stories (all accessible online and gratis) by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, and Stanley G. Weinbaum

      I vary the reading-list semester by semester. This time around I have decided to organize the course thematically by focusing on Mars-Lore. Not many people know that Wells wrote two Invasion-from-Mars novels, the second one being Star Begotten, which makes a fascinating follow-up to War of the Worlds.

      I will be lecturing on Camille Flammarion, Percival Lowell, and the Nineteenth-Century vision of Mars as a world inhabited by philosophical utopians.

      In the past I have taught Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. That semester the theme of the course was the “planetary romance.” A Voyage parallels A Princess of Mars surprisingly closely; but the tone is profoundly different.

      The Science Fiction course used to be prevalent in English departments, but there are not many chapters of the course left in the course-catalogues. I notice that the heyday of Bond’s course was the 1970s.

  8. It’s been years since I was able to teach a fantasy-sf-weird fiction course. One such was on what I propose as the golden age for these: the 25 years 1887-1912, with Haggard’s She at one end and Doyle’s Lost World at the other, and in between MacDonald’s Lilith, Machen’s “Black Seal,” Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” William Morris, The War of the Worlds, William Hope Hodgson’s “Voice in the Night,” etc. However I wouldn’t probably teach this one again, since while these are all rereadable stories, some of them are not good enough to deserve a place in what may be a student’s first and only exposure to such writing.

    • I proposed my course in 2004 and first taught it in 2005. At that time, it had been twenty years since the long-since-retired precursor-professor had taught a similar course. I would not be too swayed by the judgment “not good enough” – considering what so many of our colleagues teach. A good “bad” novel is better than a bad “good” novel. In an imagination-starved world just about any Edwardian exercise of imagination is likely to be a life-changer for a receptive student. That is how I see it.

  9. I was thinking that Machen’s “Black Seal,” for example, though I’ve enjoyed its air of mystery and so on over many years, wouldn’t perhaps be worthy of keeping if I were going to teach a course again on sf-fantasy-weird fiction.

    I included Dunsany in that Late Victorian and Edwardian Fantasy course many years ago (1996), but I find that he doesn’t wear terribly well. I think of him any more as being the anti-Tolkien — flaunting the inconsequentiality of his sketches. What’s the one that narrates some scenes of remote and astonishing events and concludes something like, “And only the other day I met so-and-so who did such-and-such, and settled on the Italian Riviera, and is known for her ferocious respectability,” or something like that?: He’s held the pin at the ready the whole time with which to pop the soap bubble. He was a favorite of mine around age 15, and now I can hardly read his fantasy (“The Hoard of the Gibbelins” excepted)…

    There is something to be said for a course limited as to period, but if a student’s to have but one course on sf-fantasy-weird and hardly knows these varieties otherwise except through TV and movies, it would probably be better for me to broaden the chronological scope in order to include more classics. I’ve thought of a course that might include MacDonald’s Lilith (2 weeks), Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (2 weeks; I’ve not taught this one before), Lewis’s space trilogy (about 7 weeks), and Williams’s Place of the Lion (2 weeks), with some other things added, such as Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.” But that might be a bit much! Or a course that could be sold to the multicultural set, starting with Waley’s retelling of Wu Ch’Eng-En (Monkey), etc. — but truly would be comprised of some real masterpieces of fantasy, sf, the weird. There seems to be a possibility of my teaching a course on fantasy and sf in Spring 2018, but not sooner.

  10. wrt college courses.

    We know that Lewis and Tolkien were very strongly against teaching modern literature in undergraduate college courses (or at school). They fought this battle throughout their professional lives.

    I think they were correct.

    Up until post-graduate, specialist level; English Literature courses should focus on old and ‘difficult’ literature (that can not be understood without training), and providing the necessary historical/ linguistic knowledge – Chaucer, Shakespeare etc – as it always used to.

    In many contexts, this would often mean that only small amounts of material could be covered – due to the difficulty.

    So be it!

    English Literature, properly understood, is intrinsically a subject of minority interest – after all it wasn’t taught at all until not-many generations ago: Hugh Blair at Edinburgh University was the first ‘Eng Lit’ professional –

    • Bruce, I agree with your theory, but practically speaking, if I went to my chair and said, “From now on I’m only teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare,” I would be out of a job. The department already has a tenured Shakespearean. In my defense I have been the instructor of the Board-of-Regents-mandated “Western Heritage” course for fourteen years. When I taught in the recently completed Spring Semester, the reading-list was: Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, Epicurus’ Letters, and Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony; the theme of the course was “Ideas of Order.” And indeed, I actually have taught Chaucer. When the department’s long-serving medievalist retired unexpectedly a year ago, I took over the course in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. So I taught Beowulf, too, introducing the enrollment to the flinty Avatus-Language. Mostly, I teach courses, a fairly wide variety of them, in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century literature because that is what the department asks me to do and I have a family to support. In that case, I can only exploit my opportunities, as best I can.

      Difficulty is a good criterion. The Odyssey in English translation (I like Palmer’s prose) is difficult for today’s sophomores – and The Life of St. Antony is, if anything, even more alien to students than Homer’s Heroic Age. It provides difficulty too, of another kind. My assignment in the Fall includes the department’s “Modern Drama” course. When someone else teaches the course, “Modern Drama” means Lillian Hellman and Eve Ensler. When I teach it, “Modern Drama” begins with Richard Wagner and ends with G. B. Shaw, with Henrik Ibsen inserted between them. (Shaw wrote books about Wagner and Ibsen, so the three of them make for a close relation.) Again, it is difficult, but it takes students out of the Twenty-First Century – especially Wagner, but Ibsen hardly less so, when the assignment is Emperor and Galilean. And it is getting students out of their contemporary environment – however I can contrive to do it – that motivates me. Alienation can be the first step towards conversion.

      In the essay to which this thread applies I indulged in autobiography – for respectable phenomenological reasons, naturally. I might indulge in that indulgence again briefly: My journey in literacy began with A Princess of Mars and gradually made its way to The Aeneid and Beowulf. Whereas the initiatory formula works best one way, it can also work the other way, even if less elegantly or efficiently. (I freely confess the inelegance of my education.)

      While it is true that Tolkien and Lewis disapproved of reading modern and contemporary books in college courses, they did not object to reading such books “out of class.” Our problem is that students read less and less on a voluntary or discretionary basis “out of class.” The decline of literacy into post-literacy is one of the symptoms of the catastrophe that modern notions have inflicted on the ecology of knowledge. Students have typically not read much; they read rather laboriously, and they have little idea how to organize a spontaneous discussion. An instructor with a sense of the cultural catastrophe is thrown back on the necessity of teaching very basic things and of adapting his approach to the acculturation of his students even as he tries to reveal to them the tragic paltriness of that acculturation.

      Picking up on Kristor’s telegraphic remark, “Don’t forget Stapledon,” I might say that I often include Last and First Men in the reading list of my “Science Fiction” course – precisely for the reason that Stapledon’s apocalyptic narrative delivers the powerful message: This is how petty your contemporary, liberal view of the world is. Students need to confront that message.

      Dissenters who manage to hang on in the fervently conformist modern institutions, like the schools, must do what they can. The best students notice the difference between the mass of conformist teachers and the few nonconformist ones and they intuit the nonconformist’s position and understand in some way that he works under peculiar constraints.

      By the way – I appreciated your remarks on Barfield (the ones at your website) and the reader comments that those remarks inspired. We mostly know Barfield as the advocate of Coleridge and the author of a theory of meaning, but he was also a novelist of a sort and a poet. His novels are dialogue-novels, whose model is the Platonic dialogue. These are fascinating books. I would be gratified to know your reaction to Worlds Apart and Unancestral Voice.

  11. @Tom – Of course my remarks were not meant to be critical of modern Eng Lit teachers, but talking about what might be/ ought to be aimed at. I would emphasize that point about Eng Lit being perhaps intrinsically an elite subject. I personally have argued that formal education ought to be much shorter than it is, and higher education an order of magnitude less common – more like 4.5 percent of the age cohort (like c1950 in England) than the current 45 percent.

    I really like Worlds Apart, and am indeed currently half way through a slow and careful second re-read. I haven’t yet tried Unancestral Voice.

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  13. Beautiful essay, I enjoyed it very much. I agree with everything you said about lectures; I’m quite shocked how readily the most *efficient* forms of learning are being overthrown in favor of constructivist nonsense.

    Regarding the discussion in the comments, I agree with Bruce Charlton as to should be taught at the university, but I thought I’d add something, although I already wrote about it and I’m not sure how much patience you have left. The *real* problem IMO lies in what’s (not) learned before the university. I understand that everyone tries to fill at least some gaps and improve the situation within his own microcosm, but there won’t be a large-scale return to literacy and to proper education until pre-university education is addressed. High schools need to go back to teaching Latin and at least one modern language to a reading-fluency level (even if it be just Spanish, it should be taught at the level of reading Góngora, not at the level of engaging in small talk and watching Mexican telenovelas). They need to connect art history, literature and philosophy to the history program, so that the students reach some mental clarity as to the development of social trends, formal developments in the arts etc. Fashionable readings such as fantasy or dystopian literature should take a back seat to classics, they’re more suitable for free time pursuits anyway. Even if you do all of that, you’ll end up with people like me who will *still* be dissatisfied (like in my previous comment to another post), but you’ll be on a road to somewhere.

    Only then, maybe, will it make sense to mix “difficult” and fringe authors in college. But when you’re dealing with people who don’t have the minimal context necessary to orient themselves in any readings they’re proposed, the whole enterprise becomes a travesty, it turns into a remedial education. You end up churning out people with *degrees* in literature, but with such breadth and skills as a couple of generations ago wouldn’t have sufficed to graduate from a lycée. By all means, do what you can where you are, but as a long-term strategy you need to rethink the pre-university education, that’s where the things that should get done don’t get done.

    • Thank you, Passerotto. I am not in disagreement with you. My 1996 study of Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities remarked on the insidious “feedback relation” between university schools-of-education, in particular, and the poor preparation of college-bound students in K-12. The incoming freshmen were poorly prepared because they had been educated according to the crappy arguments (kakologismoi) of the educrats, concerning whom one might well say that there is no demi-idea so foolish or stupid or crappy that they will not embrace it immediately – until, that is, an even foolisher or stupider or crappier demi-idea comes along, which they will then embrace with greater fervor yet, and with yet crappier kakologismoi.

  14. Passerotto, thanks for returning to the Orthosphere. I agree with most that you say, and with what Dr. Bertonneau says in reply to you.

    About courses in fantasy — I do think they could be worthwhile if taught well, perhaps beginning with Coleridge, both his foundational creative work in the genre of the fantastic (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan) and his theoretical work. A great deal of what’s marketed as fantasy is, I’m sure, no better than its televised equivalents. However, at least one tradition within English fantasy is a turning from the reductivism of modernity and postmodernity, and recovers elements of sound tradition. Such things as the works by MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien et al. that I mentioned before are worth knowing in their own right, like the symphonies of Sibelius, but they also seem to have the capacity to stir some people formerly bound by the myths of progress, egalitarianism, etc.

    • I don’t see any problem with teaching fantasy to college students equipped with the basics (if they had a proper pre-university education, that would be taken care of) and if it’s an enrichment type course (as opposed to obligatory foundational courses in the most important authors and periods). What I don’t approve of is the tendency to turn these “enrichment” courses into virtually all there is. When I read many universities’ course offerings, it can get quite absurd, it’s as if they taught anything *but* the foundational readings. I’m not even blaming the lecturers, I understand that they work under duress in the current cultural climate and I suspect it’s exacerbated in your part of the world, but it’s sad.

      I had in mind principally high fantasy such as Tolkien, the sort of readings many young people are naturally inclined to take up in their free time. Incidentally, I never did, but virtually everyone I know went through a Tolkien/Lewis/Pullman/etc. phase somewhere in late middle or early high school. I know a few people who studied those authors at college or beyond from the perspective you hinted at (antimodernism etc.), but of course not at the exclusion of the classical authors. By the way, not sure what’s your take on it as a (presumably) native speaker, but as kids we were suggested to read Tolkien for linguistic reasons too (supposedly it’s a painless way to go through many pages of good English). So there may be value both in the form and the content in some of those fantasy works – value that may not be so obvious to me only insofar as I’m less acquainted with it.

      I learn something every time I come here, Thomas F. Bertonneau brought up in the comments that some people teach Eve Ensler in drama courses, so I googled the name. Interesting stuff you teach there – the name of her opuscolo rings a bell, but I never read it. In fact, I suspect that if I read it, it would be one of those readings I’d omit from my reading journal and never admit out loud to having actually read…. I will now therefore be silent for a whole week about the intellectual degeneration in my neck of woods, apparently you have it worse.

  15. What actually is taught in a course on modern literature? – I mean the kind of literature which is accessible to the modern reader without historical and linguistic training.

    Well, what often happens is that the book is paraphrased – but that is something which can equally be read by any interested student for themselves (what you call Cliff Notes in the US?) – it is not really a new skill. So leave that aside.

    The trouble is what happens next after the student has read the primary text and some paraphrase – what happens next is usually moral reflection (in the Leavis tradition) and this nowadays nearly-always means deploying the text for lessons in grievance-studies. Nearly all Eng Lit academics (for half a century) are not just Left Wing, but extreme, SJW-type Left Wing.

    Or else the primary text is used as an experimental subject for some kind of Lit Theory, which is some kind of ‘ism’. Which is usually ultra-Leftist in assumptions and conclusions.

    Thus Eng Lit is not so much a study-of, but propaganda-for, progressive socio-politics by another name.

    There are some alternatives – looking at links between the author’s biography and the text; or the authors (supposed) influences – but these often involve making large and unexamined assumptions about how a work is written.

    For example, many literary biographies use a kind of Freudian set of assumptions about what kind of things make an author the way he is – as when people argue that when CS Lewis’s mother dies when he was young, this had a particular long-term effect on his character (eg his relations with women, his capacity for love, his need for a mother substitute etc). The unexamined assumption is that adult character is a product of childhood traumas. In fact there is near-zero evidence in psychology for this assumption – although there is loads of evidence for the old fashioned assumption that personality is inherited – e.g. Lewis was the way he was because of his ancestors; yet this is very seldom discussed in literary biographies.

    Another example, from Lewis. Biographer nearly always state that his education with Kirkpatrick was what made Lewis the formidable knock-down drag-out logician he was; but Lewis’s kind of ability in this realm was most likely innate. It is not the kind of thing that education can inculcate – or at least not reliably, since his brother Warnie was also very bright (not *as* bright as Jack, but well above average) had exactly the same training, but a very different character.

    My point is that when modern literature, including fantasy, is taught at school or college, the teaching is very subjective and contingent upon the specific teacher and the changing fashions (and taboos) of culture – in other words, not very suitable as a subject.

    Especially if it is believed, as I believe, that higher education should be mostly about specific cognitive skills (and some practical skills) for a vocation – that is what all the good universities systems of the past have done (according to their contemporary lights).

    Education for its own sake is something done for oneself, or in the cracks between the official curriculum – it cannot be made the primary purpose. ‘Liberal’ education (which we often regard as non-vocational) was once, and at its best, the vocational education of the clerk – the church/ royal/ noble administrator. The first universities were for higher studies in Law, Medicine and Theology.

    All the above is very abstract and idealistic – and we must make the most of the situation in which we find ourselves (as I do) – but I find it makes it difficult to make an honest case for the teaching of modern literature. If Chaucer or Shakespeare is the subject, then at least – at the end of his studies – the student can read and understand something which he could not read and understand before: he demonstrably has a new and difficult-to-master skill.

    Of course, the high-end academic works on Old Literature are thoroughly corrupted by Leftism (feminist issues in the Icelandic sagas, slavery in Plato stuff – reams of it) – but ‘at least’ (as we say when we cannot really justify what we are saying!) you have to learn how to read the Old Lit first, before you can mangle and pervert its meaning with ideology.

    • “When modern literature, including fantasy, is taught at school or college, the teaching is very subjective and contingent upon the specific teacher and the changing fashions (and taboos) of culture – in other words, not very suitable as a subject.”

      Bruce – I hope you won’t mind my saying, not in my course, as instruction therein is specifically contingent on me and I am a relentless skeptic of changing fashions, and a fellow well-grounded in the “Old Lit.” (Til dæmis, ég kenni reglulega Vinland Íslendingasögurnar í viðskiptum mínum í bókmenntum sjálfsögðu; for example, I regularly teach the Vinland sagas in my Business in Literature course.) Nor in the philosophy course of my friend Richard Cocks (the “dissident philosopher” of my essay), who has found a poignant way to combine Plato and Ray Bradbury in his ethics syllabus. That will have been the only philosophy course taken by philosophy majors at our institution that is not taught according to the dogmatic relativism into which logical positivism has morphed. Richard and I continue to discover ways to use the system against itself. That is our by-no-means-risk-free contribution to the ecology of knowledge.



  16. Pingback: Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge | The Orthosphere


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