In what Dean of Harvard Law School Martha L. Minow described as a “very unusual event,” University President Drew G. Faust and visiting Law School professor Leon Wieseltier discussed the status of intellectualism and the humanities Tuesday night.
The discussion, held in a question and answer format between Faust and Wieseltier as well as members of the crowd at Wasserstein Hall on the Law School campus, revolved around the potentially corruptive influence of technology on public thought.
“What we really have to think about is the impact of this technology on cognition and on consciousness and on culture,” said Wieseltier, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institute, a think tank.
Wieseltier tied “the tyranny of the devices” and the rise of “snackable” reading to what he described as the decline of the humanities.
“In an academic setting, as far as I’m concerned, this comes to a fight for the humanities,” Wieseltier said.
For her part, Faust posited that the role of higher education is to encourage more long-term, substantial thinking.
“I wonder if the part of the responsibility of the university is to nurture sustained attention,” Faust said.
Wieseltier also discussed the shake-up of the New Republic, for which he was formerly an editor, and the future of journalism during the discussion. Last year, after a change in management and editorial decisions, a flood of editors and writers for the magazine left the publication in protest.
“I’m happy to see that the collapse of my magazine was a moment in our culture. The solidarity that I and my colleagues experienced was breathtaking. The event was heartbreaking, but the consolation was the sense that the people understood the principles,” Wieseltier said.
He added that, while the business model for longer-form, in-depth writing might be in trouble,this form of writing remains necessary.
“The need for extended serious conceptual and scholarly analysis has never been greater,” he said. “And the terrible thing is that the economic and technical pressures on the institutions of deliberative thinking have also never been greater. And I worry about that a lot.”
Wieseltier undertook graduate studies at Harvard and was a junior member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
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