Many academic bloggers responded to various essays in the New York Times magazine devoted to colleges and teaching two Sundays back. I’ve been meaning to get around to this myself, specifically to Mark Edmundson’s essay “Geek Lessons”.
Edmundson basically reprises the complaint of “Why Read?” again. The problem I had with “Why Read?”, as I have with a lot of similar axe-grinding from other critics, is Edmundson’s lack of curiosity. I have a problem with a complaint against the conformity of an establishment that ends up wanting to replace one supposed monochrome with yet another. I have a problem with someone who takes their own pedagogy, preferences, interests and style as a standard without much exploration of their own limits and fallibilities.
I have no problem at all with much of Edmundson’s message about the academic humanities. I was talking with a friend earlier today about our common feeling that the humanities need to strip away a lot of the dead, cheerless weight that is the consequence of overspecialized scholarly writing in this domain, that we need to work back towards a more common-sense engagement with literature, art, cultural expression of all kinds. We need to speak to and inform a wider public while also persuading them that there is unguessed-at beauty, possibility, meaning in human culture and practice that they can and should learn to see and appreciate. In this sense, being “old-fashioned” about the humanities is very appealing to me.
It’s just that I don’t think any of Edmundson’s cranky old-man hand-waving about them kids today and their crazy machines, or about all them scholars with their cultural studies crap, is at all necessary for that project.
Edmundson’s essay is concerned first and foremost with the value of teaching, with what he calls the “Bangsian” (for Lester Bangs) professor, the person who isn’t afraid to be uncool, unhip, old-fashioned in his teaching style.
I agree that good teaching at its core comes down to some kind of dialogue with students, some primal ability to connect with them, that the best teachers would be able to teach if you put them on a desert island with students, shorn of all props save a coconut or two. There are as many ways to make that connection as there are individuals in the world, however. Edmundson allows that some teachers do well with an unorthodox style, but the limits of his allowance extend to Wittgenstein terrorizing his undergraduates.
Once you start to build up from an idealized Socratic scene where professor and students all huddle around one another in their togas, what’s an allowable prop? Would Edmundson use chalk and board? Publications that he assigns? Handouts? Maps? What kinds of references to the world around us are ok, and which are wretched signs of conformity to being “cool”? What are the narrowly approved “alternatives” to the mainstream that Edmundson will approve as such, and what makes them so?
Part of the problem here is with a generation of literary critics who are sure about what they like, sure about what “literature” is, sure about what should be taught as literature, and yet who are consistently inarticulate when it comes to defining and prescribing those boundaries in such a way that others might follow along (or take issue). These critics don’t have any kind of fully worked-out answer to the attack on canons or any way to systematically rebuild a high/popular distinction. In a way, they almost concede the argument of the historicists, or of Bourdieu, that the high/popular distinction was first and foremost a social distinction, a product of a time and place, arbitrary. So either they drift off into loosely Neil-Postmanesque reveries about building a bridge back to some favored past era, or they simply assert what they cannot be bothered to argue. They know literature when they see it, and they know junk when they see it.
If you’re Edmundson, you know what pedagogy makes someone a worthless conformist witlessly pursuing the “cool” and what pedagogy makes someone an authentic, fully Bangsian teacher. You know what tools are proper to teaching and which are not. You don’t even have to go and look at anybody else’s practice yourself: you just know that somewhere out there are computers and light-shows and gadgets and 3-D glasses. None of that is “unorthodox”, none of that calls students to the cultural alternatives (or raises critical questions about the mainstream). None of that works as Edmundson thinks teaching should work. He doesn’t have to go see it or experience it. He just knows that you can’t have a computer around.
Edmundson wants to challenge the complacency of students, but I don’t know how much more complacent you can get than some of his own armchair survey of the teachers and scholars around him. The first and worst sin for a humanist as both teacher and scholar should be a lack of curiosity, a unmoveable certainty about people and practices that we ourselves don’t know or don’t use.
If you want a sign that someone isn’t directing much scrutiny at themselves, it’s when they cite Groucho Marx with the certainty that Groucho is making fun of the other guys. Edmundson also admires Lester Bangs’ ability to “mock himself”, put himself in proportion to the exercise of criticism, but he doesn’t exactly strive to reproduce that part of the Bangsian formula.