Recently, a string of authors have lamented the state of American university education, including the limited aspirations of college students. Instead of pursuing, as William Deresiewicz called it, “passionate weirdness”, students major in applied subjects such as business studies, enter the financial sector and management consultancies, quickly leaving a more critical engagement with the status quo behind. What’s striking for the student of cultural history is the fact that every quarter-century or so this sentiment resurfaces, with professors expressing extreme frustration with how unlike them their students are, how docile and unquestioning. Tracing a trajectory from Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’ (1947) via Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987) to more recent examples such as Deresiewiciz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’ (2014), BRB critic Bruce Fleming analyses this historical phenomenon. What he finds is that reading all these eerily similar books back to back suggests larger truths that no individual author can more than hint at, truths about the position of cultural critics and their ultimate inability to change that culture.
The Eurozone, and the larger European Union within which it is embedded, finds itself at risk of turning into a project of safeguarding the wealth and status of the select few — what Jürgen Habermas has characterized as a ‘hybrid actor’ consisting of European institutions and private investors and financial conglomerates. Private banks, mostly French and German, were bailed out in 2010, at the expense of the public, and countries such as Greece found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations. But just because a country hasn’t paid up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t paid a price. European leaders, argues BRB editor Axel Gelfert, must start valuing people, not numbers.
“You have served as an example that many Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem are now much closer to an Orient defined by the fraternal coexistence of their religions than are their political leaders. A closer examination not only of the history but also of current events in my home country Morocco has shown me that this unbiased and open-minded interaction between Jews and Muslims is actually the rule. It is the political conflict in the Middle East that paints a distorted picture far removed from reality.”
Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Denis Lacorne’s “Religion in America” brings a French sensibility to bear on social and political issues in the United States. But does Lacorne’s analysis measure up to the ambition of his predecessor? In some sense, Lacorne’s book offers an even richer dose of Frenchness by dedicating considerable also to other French writers. Lacorne distinguishes two concurrent narratives: a secular narrative derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and a romantic/’Neopuritan’ narrative, which sees the establishment of the Puritan colonies in New England as the culmination of the movement that started with the Reformation. Yet, neo-Messianic overtones remain to the present day — one need only think of the message of ‘hope’, with which Obama won his first presidential election. On the whole, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Lacorne’s book is a useful source of historical information and a well-balanced assessment of its subject matter, even if does not provides as close a look at the religious heart of America as one might have wished.
While a number of major surveys of European social history have been presented in recent decades, many of these are indebted to Western European perspectives and narratives. In his ‘A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe’ (London: Routledge 2013), Béla Tomka, professor of history at the University of Szeged (Hungary), offers a modern synthesis, based on painstaking empirical data. As reviewer, Ferencz Laczó argues, the volume may be considered as a corrective to more established perspectives, as well as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization. All in all, Laczó argues, Tomka’s book represents a towering achievement in the historiography of European social reality.
A pervasive techno-fix mentality, coupled with a nauseating utopianism, characterizes much of the discourse on new technologies and the internet. In his handbook ‘Social Media: A Critical Introduction’ (Sage 2014), Christian Fuchs offers a welcome dissenting view from the self-congratulatory navel-gazing of most new media pundits. Fuchs’ handbook, which is largely aimed at students, illustrates through many illuminating examples, discussions, and tables, that social media are imbricated in a fundamentally exploitative and oppressive political economy, in which one part of the nexus of exploitation has shifted from the mere consumer to the ‘prosumer’, and the other part towards the extreme exploitation of rightless workers in the various global electronics factories. Yet, writes reviewer Ingrid Hoofd, there remains a nagging suspicion that Fuchs’ stance of ‘critical optimism’, too, remains attached to the very logic of ‘branding’, which his he purports to criticize: if one of the ‘selling points’ of the handbook is its appeal to students to individually take a more critical stance, does this not obscure the fact that many social media are at base corporate entities, well beyond the control or influence of individual activists?
The perception of logical empiricism and its influence on contemporary analytic philosophy is currently undergoing a re-assessment. The received view has been inculcated in generations of students through such influential works as A.J. Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ (1936). Yet the origins and gradual emergence of logical empricism as a philosophical movement are far more complex and extend well beyond the English-speaking world. A case in point is Eino Kaila’s ‘Human Knowledge’, which was first published in Finnish in 1939 and which has only now been translated into English. As BRB reviewer Adam Tuboly argues, the translation of Kaila’s book, which has been given the English subtitle ‘A Classic Statement of Logical Empiricism’, forces historians of analytic philosophy to rethink their assumptions — and to acknowledge Kaila as a thinker who demonstrates a remarkably systematic and comprehensive style.
In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.
Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ‘emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.
Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”