"Tory anarchist" is a phrase that George Orwell used to describe himself. I just discovered it in a New York Review of Books piece by Simon Leys that discusses Orwell's diaries. I read the following paragraphs and something in me responds, "Yes, my God, yes."

 

Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals: this attitude dates back a long way, as he recalls in a letter of October 1938:

What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti- imperialist stuff.

If the colonial experience had taught Orwell to hate imperialism, it also made him respect (like the protagonist in a Kipling story) “men who do things.”

 

Well, no, not exactly. In my case distrust and contempt of intellectuals would involve a good deal of self-loathing. But if I narrow the scope of the revulsion to smelly little orthodoxies, left or right, yes, that seems spot on. To me the best of anthropology has always been the bits where we learn how things actually happen. And, yes, I do respect men (and women) who do things.

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Comment by John McCreery on May 9, 2011 at 2:53am

Keith, you know, I imagine, that Kerim Friedman has recently put up an interesting post on Savage minds titled Hume and the "Western" notion of "Self." Seems highly relevant to your advocacy of 18th century enlightenment thought.

 

That said, I replied to Andrew Galley, who commented on that post and stated, concerning his undergraduate education in anthropology, that, 

This speaks to some of my frustration with undergraduate anthropology education as I’ve experienced it and participated in it, namely, that I think we often adopt a simple “open your mind”-type pedagogy of Western vs. non-Western cultural universes.

In response to Andrew, I wrote,

Andrew, your observation that “we often adopt a simple ‘open your mind’ pedagogy,” resonates strongly with me. I belong to a generation, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, for whom that kind of pedagogy worked pretty well. The strongly religious, Cold War, standard curriculum background that I grew up with made “opening your mind” or, more precisely, “blowing your mind” a powerful seducer to pursue intellectual activity. Then, when I taught for a few years at Middlebury College in Vermont, I noticed a change in the air. My students were mostly liberal, upper middle class kids who were already steeped in the do your own thing, university as hypermarket culture that was starting to sweep academia. A student who had traveled widely and spoke three languages might know no math past algebra 1. A math and science geek might never have read Julius Caesar and Mill on the Floss. A colleague who taught Chinese history had given up on comparing Nagarjuna’s role in transmitting Buddhism to China to St. Augustine’s contemporaneous role in the spread of Christianity in the West because his students had never heard of St. Augustine or, for that matter, the spread of Christianity in late Roman Empire Europe and North Africa. In sum, the old parochial frame of shared knowledge and assumptions that “open your mind” was designed to challenge was no longer there to be challenged. What many of my students were looking for was something, anything really as long as it was relatively simple to get your head around, that would provide some orientation in an increasingly confusing world. People who were my students are now of an age to be senior faculty and, as far as I can make out, they are still thrashing, still looking for something to believe in. Their world is more confusing than ever and whatever simplistic framework they have seized upon is clearly inadequate. The problem is that they don’t have a clue what to do next until some academic MacDonald’s serves up the next Happy Meal, whose buzzword ingredients are, as far as intellectual nourishment goes, on a par with what fast food does to our bodies. They have been trained to be academic consumers, but they don’t know how to cook for themselves. It’s folks like you who will have to find new paths in this wilderness.

These comments are, of coursed, biased. They reflect a particular and American experience several decades ago. I wonder how they look to a contemporary whose academic career has followed a different path.

Comment by Keith Hart on May 8, 2011 at 8:37am
I read a book by Stephen Toulmin once called Cosmolois. In one chapter he tried to show that Donne and Yeats were in some sense the same poet. He did this by remixing two of their poems together including Yeats's famous 'Things fall apart...' He said this was because they were both "radical conservatives" which he deifned as someone who is disgusted with his times and would reform them in the name of a value from the past. In Donne's case this was the corruption of King James's court to be reformed in the name of a past kinship order, in Yeats' the recipe was peasants, the fairies etc. As I was reading this, I suddenly thought "Hang on! These are my two favourite poets. Does that make me a radical conservative?" It didn't take me long to realise that it was of course ture. I am disgusted with this world, which I liken to the Old Regime, and I would reform it in the name of the 18th century enlightenment.

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