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A recent NY Times article on the urgent need for humanities departments at universities to justify themselves in light of tough economic times closed with this dispiriting quote:

As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy.

That may be unfortunate but inevitable, Mr. Kronman [a law professor at Yale] said. The essence of a humanities education -- reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming "to grips with the question of what living is for" -- may become "a great luxury that many cannot afford."
What crap.

Reading the great books can be done for free, if you don't mind reading them online at Google Books, or if you're Neanderthal enough to use a library.  As for grappling with, as another scholar put it, "what it means to be a human being," you don't need money for that, either.  In fact, being utterly impoverished is perhaps the best prescription for wrestling with the meaning of human existence. 

The "great luxury" is not the inquiry that animates any humanities curriculum, but rather a course of study at an elite university.  It's typical of the myopia of professors at such institutions to confuse graduating from an ivory tower with getting an "education."  Such snobbishness also feeds growing perceptions (incorrect, in my view) that education in the humanities is useless.

On the contrary, what's of decreasing use in our ever-more-globalized world is the silly notion that wealth and prestige protect one from the vicissitudes of life.  This lesson is one that Americans (and especially American hedge-fund managers) are loathe to learn.  A genuine education in the humanities would rectify that mistake.

"There's no reading culture in Africa"

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Earlier today, as I sat in a cyber-cafe in Kisumu, Kenya, I read Noam Cohen's article in the New York Times Book Review, reflecting on the Google Book Search proposed legal settlement and Robert Darnton's article in the New York Review of Books about same.  Although Cohen seems generally to take a positive view of Google Book Search, resistance to the project is common, typically on one or both of the following grounds: (1) concerns about copyright violations, and/or (2) fear of Google controlling access to information.

Neither of these concerns resonate with me.  In brief, I think both concerns are informed by a general resistance to change and a misguided perception that refusing to adapt to a changing distribution landscape will somehow protect vested interests (it won't).  And while I don't think that Google's "Don't Be Evil" slogan means anything in substance, I think Google will either learn from the Microsoft anti-trust trial or be doomed to repeat it.  

What interests me more are the positive aspects of Google Book Search.  Cohen's article (not without reason) is targeted towards American readers, but what struck me, sitting in Kisumu, was how promising a tool Google Book Search is for places outside the United States. 

I'm in Kenya doing communications work for a social justice organization, and I've been spending significant time strategizing about how to communicate with people.  Apparently, reading isn't high on the list here.  Repeatedly, I've been told, "There's no reading culture in Africa."  I've heard this from colleagues who spend their days publishing a journal and various other written media.  I've been interrupted mid-chapter in my own pleasure reading to be informed of this fact, as if maybe I'd be shamed into putting down the book ("We don't do that here.").

That my Kenyan companions should be so adamant about the lack of a reading culture is interesting.  Generally speaking, the Kenyans I've met are well-educated, politically-informed and socially-engaged people.  They're exactly the sorts of folks who'd be big readers in the States. 

Part of the reason for this situation may have to do with a problem J.M.G. Le Clezio identified in his Nobel lecture: books are too expensive.  Their cost is a pity because, as Le Clezio pointed out, a book is "the ideal tool" for knowledge spreading and banking.  As he said, a book is "practical, easy to handle, economical. It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate."

Sitting in this cyber cafe, I've been watching my co-users log onto Facebook and Yahoo!, to fill out online job applications, and to calculate expenditures on spread-sheets.  These are people who likely don't have regular access to the Internet in their homes or offices, and they're living in a town that lacks physical book resources.  They probably wouldn't frequent a library or buy a book (other than a text book), but they are nonetheless Internet-savvy.  Kenya's book-to-Internet relationship reminds me of developing countries that leap-frog physical phone lines and go straight to mobile. 

Is it not possible that Kisumu's Internet savvy cyber-cafe users could find Google Book Search enormously useful?  In his Nobel lecture, Le Clezio proposed a number of solutions for the high cost of books -- joint publishing with developing countries, greater funds for book mobiles and libraries -- but he didn't mention Google Book Search.  Perhaps Google Book Search has a future as the great leveler of the economic barriers that restrict reading cultures to societies that can afford them.      

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Reading and class distinctions category.

Prudishness is the previous category.

The inessentialness of humanity is the next category.



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