‘umi perkins, PHd
What letters is about
Nietzsche’s lectures that were bound as the book Anti-Education feature one of the early critiques of mass education - that while broadening its reach, it also makes education shallow and technical. Nietzsche’s was one of the first modern critiques of the specialized technician who masquerades as a genuine intellectual. (By Nietzsche’s standard, the truly educated person is exceptionally rare). I find that the course of modern (and perhaps postmodern) education has largely fulfilled Nietzsche’s predictions in these lectures. A lawyer, for instance, who reads, at most, one novel a year, might think of themselves as a bona fide intellectual. (I know of lawyers who have never read a novel). Nietzsche prognosticates that if education is seen as a mere means to happiness, which is gained through financial success, the time will come when people will begin to skip the intermediate step - education - and go straight for “happiness.” We see today that college attendance rates are declining as prospective students learn “practical” skills through other means.
In a (perhaps) related matter, I began to find that I spend much more time at bookstores than most people - even people I think of as very erudite. I often ask people “have you seen X book?” and they have no idea what I mean. This is one of my few advantages and one I thought I might parlay into creating a digest of intellectual life.
To give only a very abbreviated list, do you have time to read, or access to, the following publications?
The New Yorker
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Harvard Magazine (and other alumni magazines)
When I say Letters is a digest, I mean an overview of the debates and topics that seem to be arising in these and many other publications, in books and conferences. But many of these publications and websites either have a focus, often literary like The New Yorker, or they are, or have become, news outlets like The Atlantic. Some of these began as publications for the general intellectual but few have remained so. It is this niche that I realized is, strangely, not being filled.
If it isn’t clear, the sections in Letters mirror the colleges of a university: arts and sciences, humanities, and social sciences. “Academy” considers colleges and universities as institutions and cultures (I will be drawing heavily from The Chronicle for this). “Public Sphere” uses Habermas’s term to look at intellectual life outside higher ed; things like cafe culture (I’m in a group called “Low Brow Salon” that meets weekly at cafes and discusses books) and intellectual debates in popular formats (such as the Peterson-Zizek “debate of the century.”) And finally, “Books” of course, looks at the book and publishing world - and it is its own world. I have yet to decide where (or even if) matters of theology would be considered - intellectuals are disproportionately, but not by any means exclusively, atheist. But the ongoing “God debates” are certainly something that will be covered in Letters.
After fits and starts, I got the site up and running and its followers have been slowly growing. I harbor the hope that eventually this project may become a print publication, but it remains to be seen how much purchase print will retain in coming years.