Monday, November 6

Always Academicize

Always Academicize: My Response to the Responses

In my post of October 22, I argued that college and university teachers should not take it upon themselves to cure the ills of the world, but should instead do the job they are trained and paid to do — the job, first, of introducing students to areas of knowledge they were not acquainted with before, and second, of equipping those same students with the analytic skills that will enable them to assess and evaluate the materials they are asked to read. I made the further point that the moment an instructor tries to do something more, he or she has crossed a line and ventured into territory that belongs properly to some other enterprise. It doesn’t matter whether the line is crossed by someone on the left who wants to enroll students in a progressive agenda dedicated to the redress of injustice, or by someone on the right who is concerned that students be taught to be patriotic, God-fearing, family oriented, and respectful of tradition. To be sure, the redress of injustice and the inculcation of patriotic and family values are worthy activities, but they are not academic activities, and they are not activities academics have the credentials to perform. Academics are not legislators, or political leaders or therapists or ministers; they are academics, and as academics they have contracted to do only one thing – to discuss whatever subject is introduced into the classroom in academic terms.

And what are academic terms? The list is long and includes looking into a history of a topic, studying and mastering the technical language that comes along with it, examining the controversies that have grown up around it and surveying the most significant contributions to its development. The list of academic terms would, however, not include coming to a resolution about a political or moral issue raised by the materials under discussion. This does not mean that political and moral questions are banned from the classroom, but that they should be regarded as objects of study – Where did they come from? How have they been answered at different times in different cultures? – rather than as invitations to take a vote (that’s what you do at the ballot box) or make a life decision (that’s what you do in the private recesses of your heart). No subject is out of bounds; what is out of bounds is using it as an occasion to move students in some political or ideological direction. The imperative, as I said in the earlier post, is to “academicize” the subject; that is, to remove it from whatever context of urgency it inhabits in the world and insert it into a context of academic urgency where the question being asked is not “What is the right thing to do?” but “Is this account of the matter attentive to the complexity of the issue?”

Those who commented on the post raised many sharp and helpful objections to it. Some of those objections give me the opportunity to make my point again. I happily plead guilty to not asking the question Dr. James Cook would have me (and all teachers) ask when a “social/political” issue comes up in the classroom: “Does silence contribute to the victory of people who espouse values akin to those of Hitler?” The question confuses and conflates political silence – you decide not to speak up as a citizen against what you consider an outrage – with an academic silence that is neither culpable nor praiseworthy because it goes without saying if you understand the nature of academic work. When, as a teacher, you are silent about your ethical and political commitments, you are not making a positive choice – Should I or shouldn’t I? is not an academic question — but simply performing your pedagogical role.

Of course the teacher who doesn’t think to declare his or her ethical preferences because it is not part of the job description might well be very active and vocal at a political rally or in a letter to the editor. I am not counseling moral and political abstinence across the board, only in those contexts – like the classroom – where the taking of positions on the war in Iraq or assisted suicide or the conduct of foreign policy is extraneous to or subversive of the activity being performed. Dr. Cook, along with Dr. Richard Flanagan, Ignacio Garcia and others accuse me of putting aside every moral issue or sterilizing issues of their moral implications or leaving my ethical sense at the door. No, I am refusing the implication that one’s ethical obligations remain the same no matter where one is or what one is doing or what one is being paid to do.

In fact, my stance is aggressively ethical: it demands that we take the ethics of the classroom – everything that belongs to pedagogy including preparation, giving assignments, grading papers, keeping discussions on point, etc.– seriously and not allow the scene of instruction to become a scene of indoctrination. Were the ethics appropriate to the classroom no different from the ethics appropriate to the arena of political action or the ethics of democratic citizenry, there would be nothing distinctive about the academic experience – it would be politics by another name – and no reason for anyone to support the enterprise. For if its politics you want, you might as well get right to it and skip the entire academic apparatus entirely.

My argument, then, rests on the conviction that academic work is unlike other forms of work — if it isn’t, it has no shape of its own and no claim on our attention — and that fidelity to it demands respect for its difference, a difference defined by its removal from the decision-making pressures of the larger world. And that finally may be the point underlying the objections to my position: in a world so beset with problems, some of my critics seem to be asking, is it either possible or desirable to remain aloof from the fray? Thus Fred Moramarco declares, “It’s clearly not easy to ‘just do your job’ where genocide, aggression, moral superiority, and hatred of opposing views are ordinary, everyday occurrences.” I take him to be saying at least two things:1) it’s hard to academicize a political/ moral issue and stay clear of coming down on one side or another, and 2) it’s irresponsible to do so given all that is wrong with the current state of things. As to the assertion that it’s hard, it’s really quite easy, a piece of cake; but the second assertion – academicizing is not what we should be doing in perilous times – has a genuine force; and if, as a teacher, you feel that force, your response should not be to turn your classroom into a political rally or an encounter group, but to get out of teaching and into a line of work more likely to address directly the real world problems you want to solve. There is nothing virtuous or holy about teaching; it’s just a job, and like any job it aims at particular results, not at all results. If the results teaching is able to produce when it is done well – improving student knowledge and analytical abilities – are not what you’re after, then teaching is the wrong profession for you. But if teaching is the profession you commit to, then you should do it and not use it to do something else.

The issue not explicitly raised in the comments but implied by many of them is the issue of justification. If the point of liberal arts education is what I say it is – to lay out the history and structure of political and ethical dilemmas without saying yes or no to any of the proposed courses of action – what is the yield that justifies the enormous expenditure of funds and energies? Beats me! I don’t think that the liberal arts can be justified and, furthermore, I believe that the demand for justification should be resisted because it is always the demand that you account for what you do in someone else’s terms, be they the terms of the state, or of the economy, or of the project of democracy. “Tell me, why should I as a businessman or a governor or a preacher of the Word, value what you do?” There is no answer to this question that does not involve preferring the values of the person who asks it to yours. The moment you acquiesce to the demand for justification, you have lost the game, because even if you succeed, what you will have done is acknowledge that your efforts are instrumental to some external purpose; and if you fail, as is more likely, you leave yourself open to the conclusion that what you do is really not needed. The spectacle of departments of French or Byzantine Studies or Classics attempting to demonstrate that the state or society or the world order benefits from their existence is embarrassing and pathetic. These and other programs are in decline not because they have failed to justify themselves, but because they have tried to.

The only self-respecting form justification could take is internal and circular. You value the activity because you like doing it and you like encouraging others to do it. Aside from that, there’s not much to say. Kathryn Jakacbin makes my point (inadvertently) when she observes that while “inquiry into the phenomena, their origins, extent, implications would be enlightening,” it would, if “untethered from a basic moral base also be weightless.” Just so! I’m saying that “weightless” is good, because “enlightening,” without any real-world payoff, is the business we’re in. And I would give the same reply to Andrea who is worried “that what we do as academics may be irrelevant to the active/political life.” Let’s hope so. In a similar vein, John Dillinger (a great name) complains that, “As it is now, academia in the U.S. couldn’t be more depoliticized, and more irrelevant.” Would that were true, but read any big city newspaper and you will find endless stories about politicized classrooms, stories that would never have been written if teachers followed the injunction to always academicize. You know you’re doing your job if you have no comeback at all to the charge that, aside from the pleasures it offers you and your students, the academic study of materials and problems is absolutely useless.

My mention of the pleasures of the classroom brings me to a final point and to the complaint most often voiced by the respondents to the initial post: an academicized classroom will be an arid classroom, a classroom that produces mindless robots and “cold passionless non-critical thinkers” versed only in the bare facts, a classroom presided over by a drab technician who does little but show up and could just as easily have mailed it in. Nothing could be further from the truth. Excitement comes in many forms, and not all forms of excitement are appropriate to every activity. The excitement appropriate to the activity of college and university teaching is the excitement of analysis, of trying to make sense of something, be it a poem, an archive, an historical event, a database, a chemical reaction, whatever. Analysis may seem a passionless word denoting a passionless exercise, but I have seen students fired up to a pitch just short of physical combat arguing about whether Satan is the hero of “Paradise Lost” or whether John Rawls is correctly classified as a Neo-Kantian or whether liberal democracies are capable of accommodating strong religious belief. The marshaling of evidence, the framing of distinctions, the challenging of the distinctions just framed, the parsing of dense texts – these are hard and exhilarating tasks and the students who engage in them are anything but mindless, not despite but because they don’t have their minds on the next election .

Of course, there will also be excitement in your class if you give it over to a discussion of what your students think about this or that hot-button issue. Lots of people will talk, and the talk will be heated, and everyone will go away feeling satisfied. But the satisfaction will be temporary as will its effects, for the long lasting pleasure of learning something will have been sacrificed to the ephemeral pleasure of exchanging uninformed opinions. You can glorify that exercise in self-indulgence by calling it interactive learning or engaged learning or ethical learning, but in the end it will be nothing more than a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.]