Monday, July 31, 2017


When I run, I find that bicyclists now and then startle me. Some announce "on your left" from a couple of feet back. Others suddenly appear without a sound as they speed by my elbow. Once in a great while there is cyclist who will repeat "on your left" as if he thought of the pavement as all his to use, and of pedestrians as intruders. Commonly they are moving at three times my speed or more; I don't blame them--why else use a bike?--but it can make them hard to dodge and would make for a forceful collision if one didn't manage to dodge. I am wary of bicyclists as a class.

On Sunday, a couple of young bicyclists passed on the other side of the road, bantering. They were far enough away to be perceived neutrally, and I noticed them only by the woman's light green top. Probably I would have forgotten them by the end of the run as thoroughly as I forgot the rest of the day's  bicyclists apart from the "on your left" fellow on the upstream leg.

But half a mile on, they were stopped beside a motorized wheelchair. They had found the young man in it complaining of a sudden pain in his hand, and stopped. They had removed the ant that was biting him between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. They assured him that he was not bleeding. At his request the male cyclist raised the young man's arm enough that he could see where he had been bitten. The young woman assured him that she had often sustained briefly painful bites but suffered no consequences from them. I could see that they were going to remain until they had restored the young man to peace of mind, and I went on.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Means of Instruction

In looking again at St. Augustine's Confessions, I have been noticing how tough a school he learned in when young:
... as our parents mocked the torments which we suffered in boyhood from our masters? For we feared not our torments less; nor prayed we less to Thee to escape them
Among his sincerest boyhood prayers seem to have been that he might not be beaten at school. And later he mentions "the masters' canes" as one end of a scale reaching to "the martyr's trials".  St. Augustine wrote his Confessions when in his early forties, but he had not forgotten the troubles of elementary schooling.

It recalls Flann O'Brien, in the  "Waama, etc." section of The Best of Myles:
On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the schoolboy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary.
Someone suggested that the decline of classical studies was brought on by the end of corporal punishment. I can't think who that was: my inclination to say Ford Madox Ford probably derives from a sentence of his about having been taught by stick how to write Latin hexameters; but I don't think it was Ford. And such inducement was not limited to Latin. Henry Roth's Call It Sleep shows instruction in Hebrew, as practiced in New York about 1910,  proceeding with a lot of slaps.

Corporal punishment had largely gone out of fashion by the time I reached school. My own worst memories are of dullness that was just not quite enough to numb. Would I have learned more under the threat of the stick?

Perhaps, or perhaps not. I think that it is Fowler who mentions the men who left Eton not knowing Greek or Latin, but with a firm conviction that there were such languages. Anthony Trollope claimed to have received a good deal of correction to little effect in his dozen years of schooling:
I suppose I must have been in the writing master's class, but though I can call to mind the man, I cannot call to mind his ferule. It was by their ferules that I always knew them, and they me. I feel convinced in my mind that I have been flogged oftener than any human being alive. It was just possible to obtain five scourgings in one day at Winchester, and I have often boasted that I obtained them all. Looking back over half a century, I am not quite sure whether the boast is true; but if I did not, nobody ever did.
And yet when I think how little I knew of Latin or Greek on leaving Harrow at nineteen, I am astonished at the possibility of such waste of time.
St. Augustine, though conscious of having deserved his punishments, suggests that the painless instruction of nurses and friends taught him Latin more efficiently:
No doubt, then, that a free curiosity has more force in our learning these things, than a frightful enforcement.
Nor did all the beatings inflicted for the overcome his distaste for Greek, for when older he found himself studying Platonism and then the New Testament without being able to read the texts in the original.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Disinclination for Mathematics

I have always had my doubts about writers who boasted, or seemed to boast, of their incompetence in mathematics. Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Robertson Davies come to mind. A passage in the first section of James's Notes of a Son and Brother runs for example
 I so feared and abhorred mathematics that the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank--the dire discipline of the years bringing no relief whatever to my state...
Ford I recall as putting it more whimsically, Davies more plainly. But the message is the same. I was therefore struck by a passage noticed the other day in The World as Will and Representation, Third Book, Section 36:
The disinclination of men of genius to direct their attention to the content of the principle of sufficient reason will show itself first in regard to the ground of being, as a disinclination for mathematics. The consideration of mathematics proceeds on the most universal forms of the phenomenon, space and time, which are themselves only modes or aspects of the principle of sufficient reason: and it is therefore the very opposite of that consideration which seeks only the content of the phenomenon, namely the Idea expressing itself in the phenomenon apart from all relations. Moreover, the logical procedure of mathematics will be repugnant to genius, for it obscures real insight and does not satisfy it; it presents a mere concatenation  of conclusion according to the principle of the ground of knowing. Of all the mental powers, it makes the greatest claim on memory, so that one may have before oneself all the earlier propositions to which reference is made. experience has also confirmed that men of great artistic genius have no aptitude for mathematics; no man was ever very distinguished in both at the same time. Alfieri relates that he was never able to understand even the fourth proposition of Euclid.
Well, perhaps. On the other hand, in the first book, section 15, Schopenhauer writes that
In our view, however, this method of Euclid in mathematics can appear only as a very brilliant piece of perversity.... We see that such a method is like that of a wanderer who, mistaking at night a bright firm road for water, refrains from walking on it and goes over the rough ground beside it, content to keep from point to point along the edge of the supposed water.
Would Alfieri have made more progress with a better text?

There are writers I prefer to Ford and Davies, if not necessarily to James, who were competent in mathematics. Stendhal was briefly fond of mathematics in his youth. Novalis wrote some pages in praise of mathematics that might or might not reflect considerable knowledge. I suspect that Tolstoy, as artillerist, and Chekhov, as physician, must have picked up at least the rudiments, and likewise Eliot and Stevens as businessmen. Still, perhaps I should not roll my eyes the next time I encounter the anti-mathematical writer.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Reading Aloud

One night last week, I read the first three chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet aloud. My wife's book club is to discuss this in a couple of weeks, and her eyes were bothering her. I noticed a number of things, some owing to reading aloud, some owing to this being a second reading.

First, about myself. I was unable to read the first chapter, a difficult childbirth, unmoved. One of the women in my wife's book club was not sure about going on with the book after the first chapter. I did not understand this when I heard of it; I do now. I wonder whether I would have read it the same way at 20 or 30, before I had been in a delivery room (save as the one delivered). I wonder what I made of it when our (shared) book club read it some years ago.

Second, about a detail. In the second chapter, an troublesome character on board the American ship Shenandoah is restrained by marines. But if this ship is an American ship of war, what is it doing carrying wares for the Dutch Overseas Company? And if it is not a ship of war, how does it come to have marines? Discipline, and often harsh discipline, was enforced in the American merchant marine from early days; but not by marines in the military sense.

Third, about another detail that I had noticed in rereading later chapters: David Mitchell does not seem to distinguish between cross and crucifix. As far as I know, the Anglicans of 1800 did not go in for crucifixes, nor did the Calvinists of that day. But in this novel they do. The Georgian captain of the Shenandoah seems to have plenty of crucifixes and rosaries for the Japanese customs service to secure and impound. Yet though Catholics were never unknown in the US merchant marine and Navy, were they that prevalent?

My wife has since purchased the audiobook. She says, and I believe, that the reader does better than I did. He uses different voices for the different characters; I might have tried that, had I been able to settle on what they should sound like. If I listen to the audiobook at all, though, it will be to see how the reader renders Dutch names--what does Vorstenbosch sound like, or Oost, or Gronigen?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pelikan, Newman, the University

During the academic year 1990-1991, Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, invited the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan
to deliver a set of public lectures together with a seminar durng the academic year 1990-91 on "The Future of the University," as the first in a series of events in preparation for the observation of Yale's tricentennial.
Those lectures, extensively revised, became The Idea of the University--a Reexamination, a volume that I recently purchased and read.

Pelikan professed himself, as the title of the first chapter reads, "In Dialogue with John Henry Newman". Elsewhere (for example in  The Vindication of Tradition and in The Melody of Theology) he has written of Newman's influence on him as historian of doctrine and as theologian. In this book he took Newman's Idea of a University as presenting ideas to agree with and argue against. The chapter titles all incorporate quotations from Newman.

Where Newman assumed and expounded the English (and Anglo-American) collegiate system, Pelikan's heritage was that of the German university as it developed during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is to say that he places much greater weight on the work of research, publishing, and the direction of graduate studies relative to the instruction of undergraduates. He makes a compelling case for the importance of research and publishing, so that among other considerations the matter of instruction shall not become static and dead. He considers the role of the university press and the libraries in disseminating knowledge.

Pelikan of course argues well. He exemplified the scholar as writer during his career. Yet I would argue that it  is never the case that all or even a majority of the works that come out of the universities are important. I think of Jacques Barzun's objection to the
further absurd assumption that when a man writes a scholarly book that reaches a dozen specialists he adds immeasurably to the world's knowledge; whereas if he imparts his thought and reading to one hundred and fifty students every year he is wasting his time and leaving the world in darkness.
Pelikan does acknowledge the objection to many such works:
 Yet is distressing to see how many scholarly books are still being written more with the reviewer than with the reader in mind.... Therefore scholars must learn "contemplata aliis tradere" beyond the charmed circle of other professors. if scholars are to carry out this publishing responsibility, they have the obligation to give a lot more attention than they now do to the question of how we are to publish lest we perish.
(Contemplata aliis tradere: to communicate to others the fruits of one's contemplations, the motto of the Dominican Order, as Pelikan helpfully explains on the previous page.)

There is also the question of the suitability of German model to American conditions. John Jay Chapman wrote long ago in his essay on President Eliot, referring to the elective system he had introduced to Harvard College:
Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
 Do the boys (and girls) now come up to college with better preparation than in Chapman's day? I suspect in the sciences and in mathematics they do; in modern if not classical languages they may also. Pelikan does consider the question of secondary schools, and the university's duty to shape their instruction and materials, and to prepare their teachers. This is something that I have not often seen mentioned in my (spotty) reading of works on universities. Jacques Barzun does mention it in passing in Teacher in America, and Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman has a curious few pages on textbooks for elementary instruction.

And? The book requires a second reading, which I have hardly begun. The bibliography runs to almost seventeen pages: it includes about a dozen works I have read through, half a dozen I have looked into, many more that I should read, and a couple that I will.