Beach Books: Readings for the Last Man

Edward R. Dougherty

Peter Wood’s recent PJ Media article on the National Association of Scholars’ Beach Books report is sobering. Given that he is talking about students entering a university, not a middle school, one would have expected the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, or The Stranger. If one wants to motivate discussions on fundamental issues of modernity, would not The Stranger be an excellent choice? The university has no greater purpose than to enhance a student’s intellectual maturation from adolescence to adulthood, first in terms of core requirements for all students and second in terms of fundamental readings as a student moves from generality to specificity in his studies. If a university is to fulfill its responsibility, then books must be chosen accordingly.  

My lab website contains a reading list of “Ten Books to Prepare for Scientific Research.” It states, “The first two are fundamental for any academic discipline because they mark the change from human intellectual adolescence to maturity.” These are David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. On Hume, Albert Einstein states, “Man has an intense desire for assured knowledge. That is why Hume's clear message seems crushing.”  

On Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer writes, “Kant's teaching produces a fundamental change in every mind that has grasped it…. The mind undergoes a fundamental undeceiving, and thereafter looks at things in another light.... On the other hand, the man who has not mastered the Kantian philosophy…has remained in the grasp of that natural and childlike realism in which we are all born.” If we expect our students to grow and contribute, then our duty is to free them from the grasp of childlike realism?

Today, science faces a crisis of epistemology as great or perhaps even greater than it faced in the first half of the 20th century with the arrival of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. I say perhaps even greater because our ability to validate or falsify theories concerning high-dimensional systems, and therefore determine scientific truth under the 20th century epistemology, is being challenged in a wide range of extremely important disciplines, from climate science to biomedicine. Yet a vast majority of our science and engineering students remain oblivious to the salient epistemic transformations running from Aristotle to Erwin Schrödinger.

How then can they come to grips with current issues? Can we expect them to do basic research when they have virtually no idea of the nature of science? Whereas this should be an extremely exciting time in science with uncertainties everywhere, rather than engage in a serious quest for knowledge, contrary to all the greatest minds of modern science, large numbers of scientists are pursuing “big data,” aimlessly gathering data in the hope that some algorithm they don’t understand will find a morsel. Others concoct stories, apparently without concern as to whether their tales contain within them any verifiable future predictions.

Turning to the humanities, can one seriously approach the 21st century without going through Hume and Kant? We recall William Barrett’s comment that empiricism and rationalism enter Kant’s thinking and out come idealism, positivism, pragmatism, and existentialism. And without Hume there is no Kant.

There can be no mature moral conversation without taking Hume and Kant into account. No less a figure than John Paul II has stated, “[In] Kant's study of ethical experience…man recognizes himself as an ethical being, capable of acting according to criteria of good and evil, and not only those of profit and pleasure. He also recognizes himself as a religious being, capable of putting himself in contact with God.” How many students are capable of understanding the pope’s comment – even at Catholic universities?

And what about politics, a subject screaming students claim to be interested in, many mouthing slogans about socialism? Are they unaware of the 100 million or so human beings killed under just three socialist regimes in the 20th century – National Socialism in Germany, Marxist-Leninism in the Soviet Union, and Maoism in China? If so, that is a shocking ignorance of history. Or perhaps they are aware and don’t care. For those who think this farfetched, recall that many in the New Left of the 1960s praised Mao’s little red book. They accepted the realization that “re-education” is a basic component of socialism. Arbeit macht frei! 100 million corpses is a necessary teleological cost, an incidental demanded by the logic of history.

Supposedly many of today’s students embrace Marxism, or its latest offshoot, progressivism. But how do they understand dialectics without Hegel, and what sense would Hegel make without Kant? I suspect that they know nothing about Hegelian dialectics and nothing about socialism beyond a few trite slogans drummed up in the 19th century. In this barbaric state of ignorance they aim to destroy the civilization that has produced the greatest science, mathematics, music, literature, and art, while at the same time providing its citizens with the dignity that only liberty can impart. They demand safe places to insure their continued ignorance, where their more sophisticated thinkers can discuss One-Dimensional Man.  

As a student in the university during the mid-1960s, I had numerous socialist and Marxist professors. Many had studied Kant. My freshman physics professor exposed me to Hegelian dialectics because he saw in it a deeper logic. Those dialectics and Kant’s synthetic a priori occupied many hours of our conversations over subsequent years.

What would I have thought of my physics professor had he suggested that I read one of the seven most assigned books listed by Wood instead of sending me to Thus Spake Zarathustra?  I suspect I would have thought him loony, although not having experienced such a preposterous moment it is impossible to know. Given a diet of such childish fare as Wood describes, perhaps I would have joined some of the more smoky headed members of my generation in Haight-Ashbury.

But it was to Nietzsche my professor sent me. He understood the effect on a young mind that would result from being “surrounded by broken old tablets and new tablets half covered with writing.” Surely there is risk in this exhilarating message, but Nietzsche is no simplistic ideologue. Zarathustra’s euphoria is tempered by the unease of his shadow at the prospect of unlimited freedom. And what does Nietzsche see in our future? “Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.” Perusing the beach books reading list leads one to think that perhaps it is the goal of academe to help pave the road to the last man.

Edward R. Dougherty is the Robert M. Kennedy ’26 Chair Professor, the director of the Genomic Signal Processing Laboratory and the scientific director for the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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