Working Through

Though I felt sympathy for Joyce Goldberg’s feelings that she could no longer teach military history to students whose primary interest in the material was therapeutic, I ultimately thought she was reproducing a binary opposition that will have increasingly dire consequences for 21st Century scholarly communities. Goldberg argues that as a scholarly historian, her “pedagogical goals focus on honing cognitive skills through the tool of history”, and that these goals are frustrated or deferred by students who are seeking psychological comfort or closure from their own military experiences or the military experience of loved ones.

I completely understand that feeling of inadequacy in the face of strong emotional reaction to academic subject matter. I’m no more trained than Goldberg is to provide expert therapeutic advice to people who need it. But students didn’t end up in Goldberg’s classes because they misread the sign on an office door and thought she was a PTSD counselor. They were in a classroom studying military history because they thought that history had something to offer them that they couldn’t get from therapy or counseling. I think that’s not just a reasonable expectation, it’s one of the reasons why we study history in the first place.

The key point is that the understanding that comes from studying history, anthropology, literature or other disciplines addresses our feelings and experiences, our lives as humans, but often indirectly, through layers of mediation. That is not ‘objectivity’ or anything like it. We “work through” our human experiences by understanding the experiences of others, by investigating how systems and structures produce and confound human agency and desire, by considering the maddening dance of cause and effect, intention and accident.

So I can see telling a student who has an expectation that there will be a simple lesson from a relevant history that there’s nothing of the sort to be had. I can see telling a student that they’ve got to be willing to defer their need for an explanation, an answer, that they can’t be healed in a moment, a lesson, a simple act of knowing.

But I can’t see the good of saying that scholarly knowledge of military history (or anything else) is inevitably at odds with arriving at an understanding that might be therapeutic, might provide some serenity, or at least connect suffering and uncertainty to a wider, richer human range of suffering and understanding. That’s not just something which might happen in the study of history, it’s something which should happen. We make no promises of healing or peace, but we ought to think that scholarly work is a kind of working through, a vastening of the kind of experiences that can trap and isolate us in a lonely misery and confusion. Why should we imagine that scholarly inquiry develops “cognitive skills” and make that development antagonistic to trying to understand the meaning and feeling of human experience here and now?

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2 Responses to Working Through

  1. Historicist says:

    This post has stuck with me for a few days. I like your response. Yes, it is tempting to say that our classes and work are about no more than the academic histories we wish to tell. But what does that then say about our classes and work? Even if we are uncomfortable expanding the implications of our work and teaching past our comfort zones, can’t we still trust our students and readers to do what they want with the knowledge we share? We may learn something too.

  2. nord says:

    Weird, the personal drives much of my scholarly pursuits … but for Star Trek, I wouldn’t have taken nearly as much physics or astronomy as I did in college. I know many pre-meds/biologists whose interest in oncology, heart disease or whatever is driven by the loss of a loved one …

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