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Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

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.

Work and Structure

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.”

On Jesting

“A man of great wit, and little acumen, or penetration, can never succeed in jesting. Such a man proves always intolerable, with his facetious conceits, to judicious persons. His jests are merely playing on words, or puns, or allegorical, metaphorical and tropical modes of speech, and the like kinds of wit, without applying them with any acumen or penetration: and in that case he must fall into the insipid. Without acumen, a man cannot possibly guard against false thoughts: and if in jesting he thinks without acumen, he overlooks the differences of objects, and in that case may easily, by a false conceit, represent to himself a coincidence in things which greatly differ.”

The Humanities are not your Enemy!

In a polemical piece published in ‘The New Republic’ last month, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker made ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’: ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’! Gloria Origgi, in this exclusive contribution to The Berlin Review of Books, rebuts Pinker’s curious misrepresentations of the current state of the humanities. Given that Pinker’s piece comes on the heels of similar attacks from scientists against philosophy — and in light of the decline of support for humanities research and liberal education around the world — Origgi also asks the question: Why this denigration of a lively tradition of intellectual tradition? Why this attempt to reignite the infamous ‘culture wars’? Why now?

Masks behind Masks

One of the most innovative and daring Hungarian writers of the 20th century, Miklós Szentkuthy wrote such masterpieces as ‘Prae’, ‘St. Orpheus’ Breviary’ (comprising 10 volumes), ‘Narcissus’ Mirror’ and many others. Thanks to recent efforts by Contra Mundum Press, much of Szentkuthy’s work is now gradually being made available in English. In this essay, writer and scholar András Nagy discusses Szentkuthy’s life and work, painting a rich portrait of a man with many masks and a vast – and lasting – literary legacy.

Offense Taken

When do images and words become so powerful that they warrant punishment, or should be considered morally reprehensible? In this essay, Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy Annapolis, reflects on the policing of speech and the increasing polarization of public debate in the United States. In an unlikely pairing, he contrasts Sarah Palin’s ‘America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag’ with John Searle’s ‘Making the Social World’. What could a political memoir and mission statement of a presidential wannabe have to do with a scholarly work by a Berkeley philosophy professor? Read more to find out.

Germany Goes Global: Farewell, Europe?

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification on 3 October 1990, Ulrike Guerot reconsiders Germany’s place in Europe. Having been, for the longest time, the great engine both of Europe’s economic strength and its political unity, Germany is falling out of love with, or at least is becoming more indifferent towards, the very European Union it helped to bring into existence. A new-found pragmatism and growing global ambitions — as indicated by the government’s ongoing efforts to gain a seat on the UN Security Council — show that the country’s perception of its place in a globalised world are shifting. In Europe, too, Germany is gradually replacing foreign policy by hard-nosed trade policy. The challenge to the future of the European Union is profound.

God’s Executioner

A sixteenth-century journal kept by Frantz Schmidt, a Nuremberg executioner, affords a rare insight into the gruesome world of early modern retribution. But, says author and historian Joel Harrington, beyond the facticity of all the deaths caused by “Meister Frantz”, the journal also throws light on early modern concepts of identity, social status, and the human body as well as on the development of both the picaresque and autobiographical genres. As Meister Frantz grows in both professional and storytelling experience, his accounts of the various unfortunates he encounters become both more colourful and more revealing of his inner world. Consequently, the journal unveils not so much a detailed portrait as a vivid sketch of the moral cosmology of a sixteenth-century executioner.