Monday, April 30, 2012

Pedagogy & the Iron Curtain of Humanism

In a nutshell: Two decades after the Culture Wars, has humanism slipped behind an Iron Curtain? Advocates of a values-free academy would have us teach the humanities minus the ongoing confrontation with freedom and justice that veritably defines the humanistic tradition. How do we, as professors of humanity, respond?

As I wrote my recent post on humanism in a post-human world, I began thinking of two books published since the multicultural revolution of the 1990s: Gerald Graff's 1993 Beyond the Culture Wars and Stanley Fish's 2008 Save the World on Your Own Time. In 1993, fresh from the Culture Wars and in the midst of the multicultural revolution, Graff argued that
the best solution to today's conflicts over culture is to teach the conflicts themselves, making them part of our object of study and using them as a new kind of organizing principle to give the curriculum the clarity and focus that almost all sides now agree it lacks (p. 12). 
In his second chapter,  Graff describes how exposure to Chinua Achebe's essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" caused him to change his approach to teaching the story. "In short," he writes, "I was forced to rethink not just my interpretation of Heart of Darkness but my theoretical assumptions about literature" (29). He continues:
First, I was forced to recognize that I had theoretical assumptions. I had previously thought I was simply teaching the truth about Heart of Darkness, "the text itself." I now had to recognize that I had been teaching an interpretation of the text, one that was shaped by a certain theory that told me what was and was not worth noticing and emphasizing in my classroom. I had been unable to see my theory as a theory because I was living so comfortably inside it. (29-30)
I don't always agree with everything Graff says, but you gotta hand it to him this time.

In 2008, the core of Fish's argument was that teachers should keep their own religious and political views out of the classroom, refrain from "trying to form their students' character or turn them into exemplary citizens" (66), and instead fulfill their "obligation to present the the material on the syllabus and introduce students to state-of-the-art methods of analysis" (97). My first inclination is to object that there are no academic claims that are not also political and ideological, and to claim that there are is only to deny your own politics and ideology. Fish addresses this objection at considerable length. For example, the first time the matter arises, Fish writes
I am not urging a restriction on content—any ideology, agenda, even crusade is an appropriate object of study. Rather I am urging a restriction on what is done with the content when it is brought into the classroom. If an idea or a policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance—aided by the instructor, students are to decide where they stand on the matter—then the classroom has been appropriated for a partisan purpose. But if an idea or a policy is subjected to a certain kind of interrogation—what is its history? how has it changed over time? who are its prominent proponents? what are the arguments for or against it? with what other policies is it usually packaged?—then its partisan thrust will have been blunted, for it will have become an object of analysis rather than an object of affection.
We can see the limitations of Fish's approach if we consider Graff's example about teaching Heart of Darkness. As Graff recounts, in response to reading Achebe's essay on Conrad's racism, it was not enough to say to his students simply, Okay, here is another valid interpretation of Conrad's novella that I would like you to consider alongside mine. Rather, he experienced a fundamental change in his own understanding of literary response; namely, the realization that he was all along practicing a literary theory, not identifying the truth about the text. Thus, even when, as he goes on to recount, he contextualized Achebe's argument within a broader debate about race in Conrad on the one hand, and "political" versus "traditional" readings of the text on the other, I would argue that Graff was presenting an idea "as a candidate for allegiance" and not merely "an object of analysis," to use Fish's terms. It's not that Graff was presenting Achebe's reading of racism in Conrad as a candidate for allegiance; on the contrary, Graff makes it clear that his students know that he remains committed to what he calls a "traditional," "humanistic," or "aesthetic" reading of the text (I'll have to debate that contention elsewhere). What Graff is presenting as a candidate for allegiance, however, is precisely the idea that Fish claims is "both true and trivial" (p. 175); namely, that everything is political.

Ultimately, Fish concedes that "everything is political," but pronounces this "a claim that is both true and trivial" (175). The problem, I think, is that this claim is nowhere near as trivial as Fish makes it out to be. I just spent an entire semester seeking to convince my first-year graduate students in comparative literature that all criticism was political because all literature was political. And while they all got the basic idea by the end of the semester, some of them continued to think that politics is primarily about institutions of government and diplomacy, and that extending the term, as Terry Eagleton does in Literary Theory: An Introduction, to encompass "the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves," was a bit of a stretch. Others accepted the premise as a matter of fact, but did not necessarily think it had much bearing on their own work as either scholars or teachers.

I call this an "iron curtain of humanism" because humanism is precisely about saving the world. We cannot profess the humanities in general, and literature in particular, without acknowledging the presence of morality, the ongoing confrontation with freedom and justice that veritably defines the humanistic tradition. If we have it Fish's way, discussions of freedom and justice are effectively off the table, unless we structure them only and entirely as objects of study rather than as candidates for allegiance. Fish may have proposed his "save the world on your own time" doctrine as a way to keep Holocaust deniers out of the classroom, but to me, it seems to be no less than an engraved invitation. What better way is there to perpetuate ideologies of slavery and injustice, than to prohibit the teaching of freedom and justice in the humanities classroom? Of course there are going to be debates as to what freedom and justice look like; but such debate, too, is in the nature of the humanistic tradition, and should be fostered, not stifled.

If we truly believe that aesthetic experience, including literature, is transformative, than we must not only teach the capacity for self-transformation (as I argued in a recent post); we must also teach the fundamental morality of aesthetic experience. Yes, "morality" is a suspect term these days, no less than "humanism" itself. And yet, isn't this precisely what Eagleton is referring to when he says that politics includes social life and power relations? Acknowledging the moral dimension of aesthetic experience no more implies a particular moral commitment than acknowledging the political dimension of aesthetic experience implies a particular political commitment. Rather, in both cases, what we are doing is affirming that the creative endeavors of human beings, from art to literature to science to philosophy, have both moral and political dimensions, and that to read a poem, to see a painting, to hear a symphony, to comprehend an idea, is to engage with relations of right and wrong, weak and strong, the moral and the political. The pedagogical challenge is to teach students how to think critically about morality and politics, while upholding freedom of moral and political choice, not only as a a matter of academic ethics, but as a humanistic ideal.

Blah, blah, blah. I know you've heard all this before. If I'm boring you, just click on the play button below.

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