Teach Students to Be Critics—and Builders

An essay calling on professors to teach students to be builders, not critics, rests on a false dichotomy, Stephen Pasqualina writes.

September 30, 2022
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Eboo Patel’s Sept. 6 opinion piece titled “Teach Your Students to Be Builders, Not Critics” in Inside Higher Ed argues exactly what its title states. Its conclusion rests on the false dichotomy of its title: “we need more college educators who are teaching students how to be architects of a better system, not arsonists of the current one.”

For a literature scholar such as myself, this argument is vaguely reminiscent of an emergent and controversial field called “postcritique,” a catchall for a variety of methods that invite scholars to move on from “paranoid” reading methods and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to embrace the surface of the text. I am by no means a postcritical scholar, but I recognize the value of some postcritical arguments. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus are not wrong, I think, when they argue that we too often limit what a text can mean—and do—when we merely treat texts as symptoms of latent historical forces whose dynamics we have already mapped out.

I expected Patel’s argument against critics to be conversant with this field of humanist inquiry. But postcritique does not seem to be on his radar. In fact, it is difficult to decipher exactly what kind of teaching, thinking or reading methods he imagines his article might inspire. It is ironic that, due to the outright vagueness of his essay, it requires a high degree of paranoid reading to sufficiently contextualize his argument—to guess at what, exactly, he’s critiquing.

The clearest target he presents is an unnamed, “radical” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who is alleged to have said, “When we raise our voices in opposition, we are pushing against the system. And one day, it will bend so far that it will break.” In a clever rhetorical maneuver, Patel admits his early identification with this line of thinking, which then allows him to frame his departure from such radical statements as evidence of growth. But here I suppose I am being a critic rather than a builder.

This article bothered me for two reasons: due to the rigid separation it imagines between critics and builders (a dichotomy that is entirely foreign to my experiences as a teacher and scholar) and for the moment I encountered it.

The afternoon I read the article, I was fresh off a week in my Study of Fiction class devoted to theories of “home” and alienation, theories that I presented as a toolbox for interpreting—maybe even critiquing—the novels and short stories we were about to read in the coming weeks. My students and I had just finished reading and discussing short excerpts from a range of thinkers whom I imagine Patel might consider, to use his phrase, “arsonists of the current [system]”: Toni Morrison, bell hooks, W. E. B. Du Bois, David Wojnarowicz and Karl Marx. The works we read might be collectively described, to borrow a maxim from the young Marx, as “a ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

What each of these visionaries illustrates is that before one can build a home or homeplace, before one can become a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, before one can create a world that satisfies our deepest human needs, one needs critique. If our students are going to build anything lasting and meaningful, they need to first be able to diagnose why the world as it is isn’t the home they might imagine.

Morrison’s 1997 essay “Home” gave us a vocabulary for diagnosing the “raced” world, in which the construction and maintenance of race enforces human hierarchies. At the same time, she weaves a deftly imaginative and critical account of how we might distill the good of cultural difference from the constitutive violence of racial classification.

Homeplace (a site of resistance),” an essay of hooks’s from 1990,invited us to recognize the deeply political work of cultivating spaces of safety and belonging, especially for Black families. For hooks, a homeplace is a space of both open critique and community, in which the history of domestic “women’s work” may be recognized as political, and in which communities may strategize for justice.

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Du Bois guided us through the gift and curse of “double-consciousness,” analyzing both the feelings of alienation and the generative possibilities of this peculiar condition, while also calling for a newly educated Black subject to emerge as a “co-worker in the kingdom of culture,” a builder of a newly imagined, anticolonial world.

Wojnarowicz—a New York City–based queer artist and activist who worked through and against the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, succumbing to the disease in 1992—gave us terms for finding one’s sense of belonging in a world that doesn’t feel like home, that might even be organized against one’s very existence. Facing almost certain death, Wojnarowicz dared to create and dream even while many of his loved ones suffered and died as a craven Reagan administration looked the other way. His courageous attack on existing power structures enabled his insistence that another world was possible.

In his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx decries the alienating nature of labor under capitalism. And yet this critique is mediated through an extended, life-affirming supposition: “Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings,” Marx imagines. In the world he envisions, we could fulfill our human need to work, create, and build: “Our products would be so many mirrors reflecting our essential nature.” This, he argues, is a world worth building.

As I often tell my students, abstract ideas—notions like freedom and equality, or visions of a better world—are most clearly and concretely imagined in their absence or negation. If you want to understand freedom, begin with slavery. If you want to imagine a world worth building, start with a ruthless critique of everything existing.

My group of cultural “arsonists” embody this principle. They also reveal that the dichotomy underlying Patel’s article—the opposition between critics and builders—is a phantom not unlike the specter of the corrupting, radical professor.

It is shortsighted, or simply wrong, to read literary and cultural theory without recognizing that critique is almost always part and parcel of the process of building, or at least imagining, a better world.

To build without critique—well, this sounds like Mark Zuckerberg’s call to “move fast and break things,” a truly vapid Silicon Valley motto aimed less at creating a new world than manufacturing a shiny new packaging, masking and deepening the inequities that already exist under the status quo.

Patel’s call for fewer critics and more builders reminds me of the words of Anthony Levandowski, one of the original leaders of Google’s self-driving car unit. “The only thing that matters is the future,” Levandowski said in a 2018 feature in The New Yorker. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.” (Levandowski later pleaded guilty to stealing Google’s intellectual property on behalf of Uber. He was ultimately pardoned by Donald Trump, a fellow uncritical builder, on his last day in office.)

What people like Zuckerberg and Levandowski leave me feeling is not that we need more builders and fewer critics but that we need more builders who are critics—the kinds of people who can organize and create without such a naïve, ahistorical and dangerous faith in our deeply imperiled future.

What we need in an age of existential threats such as ours—climate change and environmental catastrophe, white supremacist violence, losses in women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights, imperiled migrant communities and repressive border policies—are critics who are builders and builders who are critics.

What we need are the kinds of people who are willing to build a world that is not constricted by the molds already cast. And to do that, we first need honest, unapologetic and thoughtful critique.

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Stephen Pasqualina is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Detroit Mercy. He has published in academic journals including Modernism/modernity, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists and The Journal of American Culture, and his public humanities work has appeared in Public Books and MarkTwainStudies.com.

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