Monday, 16 November 2015
I’m a university professor. I think most of us know that being a university professor is nothing to be proud of; in fact, these days if you are a university professor it’s probably best to keep it to yourself. Why are we so unpopular? Well people generally seem to think that university professors are lazy because a lot of us spend more time researching than teaching. But I would suggest that the animosity goes far deeper than that. People resent university professors because they think that what used to be called ‘higher education’ is just a waste of time.
Take for instance, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. He spoke out in favour of vocational schools and against universities at the Republican presidential debate a few weeks ago. He said: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Well, as a university professor it’s my job to deconstruct statements like this.
(Yes, deconstruct — I know, that’s Derrida, sorry).
Rubio’s statement is sure to win votes. But why? What’s he really saying?
One fundamental first principle underlies Rubio’s dictum. This principle (not to be too melodramatic, I hope) indicates the eminent demise of western civilization.
For Rubio’s statement assumes that the most important thing in the world is money. Only if money was the measure of all things would it make sense to pick one profession over another because of it.
So if it is true that philosophers, historically, make less money than welders (and I’m not quite sure that historically speaking this is true) why would anyone have ever thought it necessary to be a philosopher in the first place?
Let me tell you.
We choose to be doctors of philosophy because we care deeply about two questions — why are we here, and what makes a good life. Yes, it is the belief of philosophers of all persuasions, that the most important questions are metaphysical and moral. Philosophical questions touch on belief, faith, the nature of reason and reality, and the origins of right and wrong. Philosophy helps us understand why we might — or might not — blow ourselves up in defence of a cause, why we might overthrow a tyrant or give to the poor, or why we might — or might not — rape a woman or beat a child. Essentially we can learn from philosophy what constitutes a good life; a life that is ultimately worth living.
I don’t wish to be classist. It is certainly very good to be a welder. If welders do indeed make more money than philosophers I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t deserve it. After all, in an earthquake, I think we we would all prefer to be standing in a building that did not spontaneously burst apart at the seams.
But frankly, does it matter whether or not we die if we have no idea why we are living?
You might think about this question the next time you consider siding with Marco Rubio against universities in favour of vocational schools.
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was overshadowed by the Charlie Hebdo massacre when it was published in France less than a year ago. Houellebecq’s fascinating book describes France in the year 2022, after a Muslim political party comes to power.
Houellebecq is famous in France for his engrossing, politically contentious, ideologically heavy — and extremely sexual — novels. He has won both the Prix Novembre and the Prix Goncourt. His plots often feature cynical, hilariously morose misanthropes as narrators. True to form, the narrator of Submission is a middle-aged university professor who lives a dull unrewarding life; in part because he hates the dehumanized product-obsessed capitalist society we live in, and in part because women don’t seem to sexually arouse him the way they once did.
When the Muslims take over, the de-secularization of education puts all non-Muslim professors out of work, and our disgruntled hero seriously considers suicide. However, in a surprising plot twist, he meets a charismatic Muslim philosopher who dangles before him the prospect of a new teaching job and the possibility marrying (not one, but —) four young wives — if he can only convert to Islam. Our cynical academic anti-hero, in a sudden epiphany, rediscovers his reason for living and converts to Islam overnight.
Houellebecq has — up until recently — identified as an atheist. So critics of the novel have accused it of being Islamophobic. However Houellebecq’s genius is that the book can be read as much in praise of Islam as it can be seen to critique it. As Vinay Menon said in a recent review of the book in The Star: “This is the opposite of Islamophobia. It is Islamanirvana.”
Whatever way you look at it, Houellebecq’s novel is incredibly relevant.
For instance, watching Drake’s Hotline Bling on YOUTUBE I couldn’t help thinking of Submission. Drakes much maligned dancing technique was of less interest to me than his lyrics: “You gotta reputation for yourself/ you started wearing less and going out more/ glasses of champagne on the dance floor/ hanging with some girls I never seen before.” The singer’s admonishments to his girlfriend carry a distinctly Muslim undertone; after all Islamic women are also encouraged to cover their bodies, be chaste, and save flirtation for the marital bed. Houellebecq observes pointedly that many sexist western males might prefer sexually obedient Muslim wives (many of whom, apparently wear lingerie under their burqas!) to modern western women who sometimes forget to dress up seductively for their partners, and sleep instead in yoga sweatpants and old t-shirts.
Some Muslim parents in Ontario have unceremoniously yanked their students out of public schools to protest the new sex education curriculum. This is also very relevant to Houellebecq’s novel. Some Muslim Ontario public school students are now attending Muslim institutions, while others are home-schooled. In Houellebecq’s Muslim utopia, universities become obsolete, as non-religious enquiry of any kind is is discouraged. Students are encouraged to attend post-secondary vocational schools instead. Ontario is certainly heading in this direction; post-secondary courses in the humanities (poetry, philosophy etc.) are increasingly being replaced by courses that teach students how to do — or even just find — a job.
In this — and many other ways — Houellebecq’s novel is shockingly prescient.
Are western post-enlightenment ‘decadent’ values a dead end?
I think it’s a question that many religious fundamentalists around the world are asking.
Perhaps we should ask it too.
For what Houellebecq would want us to understand is that what some believe to be unthinkable might someday become the shocking norm.