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Humanists should encourage students' transformation (essay)

The Teacher's Task

August 20, 2013

I had a conversation not long ago with a fellow humanities professor, someone with a reputation as an inspiring teacher and a first-rate scholar.  We were talking about influencing our students. My friend teaches Nietzsche’s work (as I do); my friend teaches the Gospels (I do that too). And surely we want our students to learn from these works.

“But,” my friend said, “if a student came in and said he’d converted to Nietzsche’s philosophy, I’d be concerned.”

I nodded.  I knew what he was talking about. 

“And,” he continued, “if a student came and said that because of my class he’d decided to become a Christian, or even to ramp up his faith, I’d be concerned too.”

Again a nod from me: I got what he was saying.

Almost all of the books we teach in the humanities are powerful -- we like to say as much and it is true. But in what does their power consist? What makes the Gospels and the Upanishads and Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson as potent as they are? 

Many factors, surely.  We think of conceptual strength, we think of aesthetic appeal, we think of originality.  But ultimately I believe most would agree that what makes writing matter is its power to show us how we might live in the world. Dickinson and Nietzsche and the Upanishads have little enough in common: but they all have potent philosophies of life embedded in them.  They invite us to embrace these philosophies and to live them out. They beckon us, as Rilke said the bust of Apollo beckoned him, to change our lives.  At the very least, they invite us to be influenced by them: to change in this particular way or that.

But if this potential for conversion is at the heart of the great works -- the works we humanists teach -- why are my friend and I so concerned about it?  

Most of the humanists I’ve talked to about the issue of influence are wary as well.  They say they don’t want to “indoctrinate students.”  They insist that they don’t want to use their authority (which I sometimes think they overestimate) to influence their charges.  They’re teachers, after all, not propagandists. 

Points well-taken -- by and large.  But if we don’t encourage students to be open to being changed by what they read, what exactly are we doing as humanists, as heirs to Socrates?  In a well-known essay, Lionel Trilling talked about teaching modern literature -- Conrad, Mann, Nietzsche, Freud. And he talked about how those writers encouraged students to stare into an abyss.  He meant that the writers tended to be bleakly pessimistic, even to the point of nihilism. 

What Trilling feared was that his students would take an altogether too detached view of the dark visions they encountered in the books.  They’d talk about how deep and dark and wide the abyss was, with no awareness that the abyss had anything to do with them.  Trilling, from what one understands, encouraged his students to look at the darker visions of life that modern writing offered and then apply what they saw to their own lives. He did not want his students to become aesthetes of the abyss: he did not want to help create young connoisseurs of Chaos and Old Night.

Right now, we humanists are questioning ourselves -- and being questioned by society at large.  What can we give students that the professors of economics and business administration cannot? What do we provide as individuals in our classrooms that a computerized course can’t? 

Now most humanists -- as far as I can tell -- are satisfied to put some version of the best that has been known and thought before their students and let them use it as they will.  They do not discourage influence and transformation, but they do not directly invite it, either. They hang between. If students actively choose to be influenced, fine.  If not, that’s O.K. too.  But they won’t force the issue. It’s a little like handing someone a bolt of fine cloth and walking away. Will he make a marvelous suit or dress from it? Probably not, if we don’t ask him to or show him how. But he may.

I think we ought to follow the lead that Trilling’s essay on the teaching of modern literature offers. We ought to stop hanging back and, instead, directly invite our students to be influenced by what they read.  When a student declares himself a convert to Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power, we need to question her calmly, offer challenges and rebuttals. But in the end, we need to be ready to endorse her capacity to make up her own mind. We need to be willing to see her change her values and aspirations because of what we teach.

Such transformations can be invaluable, especially for young people. I think many of us look back to our educations and point to that moment when we decided what we wanted to be in life or what we were going to believe as among the best moments we have experienced. Humanists need to step forward and help these moments to take place, by asking the simple question:  Who are you and (after reading Nietzsche or Dickinson or the Gospels) what do you believe?  Then we need to listen to the answer with care and critical sympathy.

No MOOC can do that successfully, I believe; and I dare say no professor of economics or accounting, no matter how brilliant, can do it effectively either.  It’s what humanists since Socrates have done.

It is, I think, why we’re here.

Bio

Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His new book, Why Teach? (Bloomsbury), is out this month.

 

 

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