Presseurop has an interview with George Steiner, a literary critic who has led a long, peripatetic, and interesting life. There were a couple ideas from Steiner (who was born in 1929) that I wished he had spent more time on but are worth pondering nevertheless:
First, that the world is becoming more closed off rather than more open:
We have never had so many geographical barriers. In the past when you left England, you could go to live in Australia, India or Canada, but today there are no more work permits. The planet is increasingly closed off. Every night, hundreds of people try to reach Europe from the Maghreb. The planet is moving, but where is it going? Think of the horrible fate of modern refugees. When I had the honour of making a speech to the German government, I finished up by saying: “Ladies and Gentlemen, all of the stars are now turning yellow.”
And second, that our intellectual world is becoming similarly fragmented:
In the past, philosophy could also claim to be universal. The entire world was open to the thought of a philosopher like Spinoza. Today an immense part of the universe is closed to us.
Our world is shrinking. Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. How can we claim to speak of human consciousness if we overlook what is most daring and imaginative? I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?
In response to the first quote, I would ask to what degree rising economic well-being and decreased travel costs offset Steiner’s evaluation, which seems mostly political. The second quote, to me, touches on a wellspring of questions that are difficult to evaluate – the returns of specialization, the dissemination of non-specialist knowledge through modern publication and the internet, and the role of liberal arts or other non-vocational aspirations in higher education.
(ht The Browser)