Short on Ideas: Thinking about Almost Everything – Various Authors
The danger of trying to think about almost everything is, as in the Popperian phrase, you end up thinking about almost nothing. I’m afraid that Durham’s pop-academia PR exercise is a case in point.
The self-proclaimed purpose of Thinking About Almost Everything: New Ideas to Light Up Minds is to offer fresh, insightful thoughts from Durham University academics, communicated in bite-size essays about this and that. The true spirit of academic creativity is supposedly communicated therein.
In the post-script, Prof Chris Higgins defines this spirit against the essence of teaching, which consists in the “repackaging and dissemination of existing ideas”. Good universities should be about more than this, he suggests, which is the reason that “one of the first targets of any extremist regime is the university”.
The problem is this collection of essays contains far too much ‘teaching’ and not enough original thinking. Don’t get me wrong, amid the platitudes about the value of creativity and interdisciplinary synthesis, there are a lot of arguments that are eminently sensible. There is a fair amount of information to be imbibed, much of it even interesting; most of the facts and concepts are clearly and precisely expressed. But despite all this, the book spectacularly fails to do what it says on the tin: within its pages, there is nothing of the excitement and controversy of great minds at play.
To get a sense of the depths of mediocrity to which the collection sometimes sinks, a good place to start would be the joint essay by Jamie Tehrani and Robert Layton, which begins by pitting the problem of free will up against the ‘selfish gene’ idea of Richard Dawkins.
The authors explain that there is a disagreement between ‘social scientists’ and ‘evolutionary psychologists’, before offering a ‘middle path’: “What if culture is not the liberator of individual free will, but another jailer?” What then, dear reader?
Supposing we forgive the editors for leaving this dull fluff in, might they not have done something about the fact that the intrepid Prof Dawkins and his 33-year-old popular science book is treated to another flogging, just a few pages away, in the essay by Tim Blackman? Never mind the selfish gene, Blackman argues, non-zero sum cooperation is the key to evolution and to solving our problems. Type ‘Clinton non-zero sum’ into YouTube if you want to know exactly how radical and original that proposition is.
Blackman’s faith in selfish altruism has a positively Third Way vibe, as does the ‘middle path’ advocated by Tehrani and Layton. Yet again, I must insist, moderate reform is all terribly sensible, but one thing you can’t say in its favour is that it is “a challenge to conventional thought”, which is what the impartial observer Bill Bryson claims for this collection. On the contrary, it is mostly repackaging and disseminating. And remember, this book is supposed to be why ‘extremists’ shut down universities!
On the subject of politics, I hope nobody will confuse complaints against the status quo with challenges to convention. The distinction should be observed in the case of the essay by Stephen Graham, who argues that the concept of terrorism is elusive (bet you hadn’t heard that before) and that the context of the ‘war on terror’ is “a globe-stretching programme of political violence, emanating from the US and UK governments, among other nations, to allegedly target ‘terrorism’”.
However, never fear, because Graham provides a better definition of ‘terrorism’, a task which the rest of the world has neglected, in the light of which he concludes that “violence by non-state fighters against the occupying military forces of a foreign power is not best described as terrorism”. Oh, I see what you’re getting at: we are the real terrorists. It’s enough to turn your whole world upside down.
The reductio ad absurdum of all this tedium is Julian Wright’s essay arguing that history is the story of ordinary people: “After a century in which little people have suffered in the name of ‘great’ ideas or systems, historians badly need to discover better ways of placing the little people at the centre of our analysis”.
Compare this with what the Institute of Advanced Study says is the point of the project: “The book claims a special place for ideas, arguing that they provide a vantage point, and can help us understand the best ways of shaping the world we inhabit”.
No, no, history is the story of Willy Lowman and Joe the Plumber. Ideas are for totalitarians. As good democrats, it is our job to deal with the issues of the day: global warming, the economic catastrophe, flu pandemics, that sort of thing. In Bryson’s words, “solving all of the earth’s problems by using your head”. It’s good to know we have a plan.
Alongside all the talk about big new dangerous convention-busting ideas, Prof Higgins, apparently without irony, has marketed the book as good bedside reading. So this is why we should buy back the surplus value of our lecturers’ intellectual labours: to bore ourselves to sleep.