Oxford University Press

Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz & The Battle of the Classics by Eric Adler

by
June 2021, no. 432

The higher education sector currently faces a confluence of challenges that are imperilling the future of universities as they have traditionally been understood and the sort of intellectual life they have long sustained. The most immediately pressing concern is the impact of the pandemic that has eroded the financial stability of Australian universities, resulting in widespread job losses and the closure of entire departments. Overall state funding for higher education has in fact grown slightly over the past decade, but this increase has coincided with ever more complex and invasive attempts by governments to ensure that tax dollars are ‘well spent’, such as the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise that began in 2010, the Engagement and Impact Assessment (EI) implemented in 2018, and the National Interest Test (NIT) introduced in 2019 for all applications for funding to the Australian Research Council. The impact of these efforts is felt across all academic disciplines, but some are hit harder than others, often by design, such as last year’s Job-ready Graduates Package, which has made most humanities degrees vastly more expensive than other subjects thought to lead to better employment outcomes.

... (read more)

The French have a term for weighty tomes of scholarship: gros pavés or paving stones. Alexander Mikaberidze has landed his own gros pavé, an extraordinary account of the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1815 in almost one thousand pages, based on an awe-inspiring knowledge of military and political history and a facility in at least half a dozen languages. The scale of his knowledge is breathtaking.

... (read more)

Celestial Tapestry is a gem, indeed, a trove of gems: lavishly illustrated cameos from the science and history of art and mathematics, woven into a narrative about pattern and symmetry. We humans have an innate appreciation of symmetry, judging from 5,000 years of art, architecture, mathematics, and mythical and religious symbolism. After all, symmetry is all around us – in the shapes of our bodies, snowflakes, and seashells, and in the fractal-like branching of twigs and blood vessels. In its abstract, mathematical form, symmetry even underlies our modern theories of fundamental physics.

... (read more)

This book addresses one fundamental question: is nationalism a transformative force in politics? Nationalism is usually seen as an offshoot of ‘identity politics’, which in turn is the product of long-term social change, notably access to higher education. Such an analysis can be found in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics (2017) and Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland: Identity, diversity and the reshaping of British politics (2020). There is of course merit to such positions, but it is unusual for any research-based analysis to see nationalism as the driver of political change: it is the symptom rather than the cause.

... (read more)

In the aftermath of horrendous acts of lethal violence, such as the murder by Brenton Tarrant of fifty-one people in two Christchurch mosques in 2019, and other vicious acts of torture and sadistic cruelty, it is not at all uncommon for public commentators to invoke the language of evil – that there is evil in our midst. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this was George W. Bush’s description of the 9/11 attacks as despicable evil acts that demonstrated the worst of human nature. 

... (read more)

Twenty-five or thirty years ago, when it was still fashionable to speak of the Great Australian Emptiness, we took this image of the geographical dead heart of Australia as implying a cultural emptiness as well, a suggestion that too little had happened or been made here to give the mind, the civilised mind, anything to hang on to, identify with or make its own.

... (read more)

When the Abbé Michel Fourmont travelled to Sparta in the 1730s, he thought he was going to make his fortune and academic reputation. The depths of Ottoman Greece were largely unknown territory to European travellers at this time. What fabulous discoveries lay in store for him, wondered the Abbé. What treasures had been left behind by this one of the greatest powers that the Greek world had ever known? One can imagine his anguish when, after braving numerous perils to reach Sparta, he discovered that barely anything remained of this great city-state. Indeed, the paucity of material was such that it seems to have driven Fourmont slightly mad. Rather than admit that nothing existed, he invented in his account of Sparta a series of fabulous, non-existent monuments – altars for human sacrifice, elaborate records of treaties between Sparta and Jerusalem, lists of priestesses and kings that stretched back to antiquity. To disguise his act of forgery, lest any later traveller try to find these monuments, he even pretended to have destroyed them, protesting that as a decent Christian he couldn’t allow such pagan works to survive. It would take scholars decades before they could unravel the extent of Fourmont’s deceit.

... (read more)

The figure of the child stands at both ends of human experience in Shakespeare’s plays. The span between our ‘mewling and puking’ infancy and our ‘second childishness’ of old age runs to little more than a dozen lines in Jacques’s famous ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It, before we slip into ‘mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ In the intervening years, our identity as children might shift as we undergo rites of passage into adulthood, as our relationships with our own parents evolve or as we become parents ourselves. But the child – the archetype of our essential nature – waits patiently for our return. Even Lear, the grand patriarch who disowns the truth-speaking child of his heart, must be racked on the fiery wheel of experience before he can become the ‘child-changed father’ Cordelia recognises in the end.

... (read more)

Imagine you’re trying to make sense of the universe five hundred years ago, when astronomers believe there are just seven visible ‘planets’ wandering about the Earth: the sun and moon plus Mercury to Saturn. Intriguingly, there are also seven known metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. For hundreds of years there have been just seven known ‘planets’ and seven metals. Wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to see more than a coincidence here? Take gold, for example, which ‘does not react with anything in the air or the ground, and so retains its brilliance seemingly forever’: surely its power is similar to that of the ever-shining sun?

... (read more)

Ivan Vasilevich Ovchinnikov defected to the Soviet Union in 1958. After three years in West Germany, he had had enough of the West with its hollow promises. He was a farmer’s son, and his family’s property had been confiscated and the family deported as ‘kulaks’ during Stalin’s assault on the Russian village in the early 1930s. Ovchinnikov managed to escape the often deadly exile, obscured his family background, and made a respectable career. Brought up in a children’s home, then trained in a youth army school, the talented youngster eventually entered the élite Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow. In 1955, now an officer and a translator, he was sent to East Berlin as part of the army’s intelligence unit.

... (read more)