August 12, 2015

Liberal learning and reading in bad faith

John Agresto, former president of St. John's in Santa Fe, has an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal on "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts." It's well worth reading for anyone interested in contemporary higher education and in intellectual culture more broadly. One of my favorite paragraphs in the piece, one that speaks to my own work in higher education, reads:
"To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we’d rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen."
If there is any reason for the liberal arts, it's precisely this: to explore the "big questions" that each of us asks ourselves, to understand how others throughout history and various cultures have approached, engaged, and lived the same mysteries of existence. In my own experience teaching at a community college, liberal learning seems fairly alien, something that might get lip service, but which tends to be subordinated in practice to the most prosaic and economic considerations--"learning outcomes," data collection, assessment, employment. But even in my experiences at other universities, there is always an undercurrent of "servile learning"--learning in service to something else, rather than learning as an end itself. Of course, I love employment as much as the next person, and in no way am I denigrating the work of open access institutions. Not at all. Instead, I think we sell our students short in exactly the way Agresto suggests--we ignore the fact we are all looking for answers to questions that are bigger than our immediate futures or our economic bottom lines.

One way this servile attitude manifests itself is in the postmodern pose Agresto adumbrates here--the attitude that all claims are secretly about something else, that texts we teach are ultimately there to be suspected, criticized, and "debunked." In the teaching of writing and argumentation, we sometimes call it the "doubting game": how would we criticize, rebut, or otherwise undercut the argument or text at hand? Surely, this is a necessary skill for all of us: shouldn't we all feel comfortable critiquing arguments, picking apart someone's reasoning and showing them how to strengthen their positions--or showing them why their positions are wrong?

But there are two potential problems here. First, often we teach students to "doubt" far too easily: students pick up the names of a few fallacies, adopt the cool, self-assured pose of a "thinker" who has nothing to learn, since all claims are ultimately hidden assertions of some form of hegemony. The second problem, though, and one I find increasingly more insidious, is that the "doubting game" often stands alone, when in fact it ought to be played only after one has played the "believing game"--that is, one must first try as best as possible to understand and listen to what a text is telling us; we must learn to see the writing of others not merely as means to another end, but as an end itself, too. While many English and writing professors might say that the "believing game" is mainly a precursor to the more "critical thinking" work of the "doubting game," I think that it is far more challenging, rewarding, and significant for students to grapple with what it means to believe or accept, at least tentatively, a given work and vision of the world it entails. This is another way of addressing the issue Agresto raises: how do we teach our students to "open their eyes" to other vistas, to other ways of inhabiting the world, if we assume that "critical thinking"--that virtually meaningless term--ultimately means finding weakness in order to judge rather than strength in order to live more fully? How do we nurture liberal learning--the learning fit for a free person--if we do not force students out of themselves and into the minds of others rather than teaching them to view the minds of others as either automatically suspect or as tools for our own purposes?

Maybe what I am arguing against here is a sort of "reading in bad faith" as much as it is arguing against purely servile learning. Maybe what we need a little more of in our liberal arts classrooms and in our public discourse is the humility necessary to read others in good faith, an attitude that allows us to really "see through others' eyes" and inhabit their vision of the world. Surely that's one of the finest and most enduring "learning outcomes" of higher education--whether one is at Harvard or at the state college down the road.

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