We Are Not Who We Will Become

One of the things about the reaction to Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home by a small subset of incoming Duke undergraduates that is important to grasp is that I think it’s a deliberate–and possibly even coordinated–re-deployment of activism about the content of college education that’s previously come from a “left” direction, right down to the way that the students articulate how reading Fun Home would harm their identities and how they ought to have the right to choose a college education that would never compel them to experience either content or instruction that contradicts the identities that they have chosen for themselves.

There is much more embedded inside of that set of moves than just distaste for a single book or the expression of a single ideology about sexual identity, and it is a good example of why many of us worry about political tactics even when we are sympathetic to the particular concerns, feelings or aspirations of people employing those tactics. Because tactics are mobile: they’re not copyrighted or trademarked.

But it’s not just tactics that’s the issue. It’s also philosophical substance. The Christian students at Duke and left or radical students elsewhere are sometimes proposing something basically similar about themselves, and about the relationship between their sense of self and liberal arts education. They’re proposing that identity is a product of agency (whether through struggle or chosen freely) and that the content of a liberal arts education may destabilize, challenge or unsettle that choice.

I think they’re complicatedly wrong about the former assertion: not only are we not necessarily a product of our own conscious self-making, I’m not even sure that we should hold that out as an aspiration for ourselves. Some aspect of our becoming should be a mystery (and will be whether it should be). They’re not wrong about the latter: the content of a good education may in fact destabilize, challenge or unsettle what we are in ways that neither faculty nor students can anticipate. I wouldn’t even care to guarantee that in the short-term that this shifting or unsettling will have positive outcomes for individuals or communities. But I would still say that it ought to be done.

What unites this particular set of complaints against liberal arts education is a kind of resurgent functionalism, a belief that specific content creates specific outcomes. That classical literature creates Western domination, that Fun Home creates sexual desire and lesbianism. That “problematic” texts create predictable problematic outcomes, that knowledge has a relationship to power over people and power within people that can be known in advance of acquiring that knowledge.

The Duke Christian students may even be right in some sense, if in ignorance of what is actually inside of Fun Home. It is not that there is one panel of oral sex that they should fear, but the fact that lesbians (and a closeted gay man) are present as intimately knowable, familiar human beings. That is a danger if you require them to be unfamiliar and inhuman to sustain your own sense of self. But that might be equally the real fear of some students and activists on the left: that texts that they believe to be doing nothing but the work of oppression nevertheless contain multitudes, just as oppressors do. That to pursue liberal arts education is to live a life without guarantees, to love, or at least make peace with, our own uncertainty.

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10 Responses to We Are Not Who We Will Become

  1. Withywindle says:

    The Duke students don’t state this properly, but the problem is rather the PC skew of all such common readings. I know, I know, an old polemic in the Culture War–but still, I take the polemic to have a point. This is something the National Association of Scholars bangs on about — see for example


    The argument is not against a liberal arts education as such, but rather that the overwhelming choice of lefty books amounts to agit-prop in the guise of such education. Why, let us say, is Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic not assigned as often as Bechdel? Or in combination with it? Oh, it could be literary quality–not having read either book, I can’t speak directly to that. (Although I read enough earlier Bechdel to suspect her of having a Political Point of View.) But I suspect that is not a sufficient answer. And ya know, I think the two together would be far more educative than either alone.

    Now, I think the students are not really addressing the nub of the issue, so your critique of them is somewhat tangential to the actual stakes. But on its own grounds, I think you made a move to “identity” which is not precisely what they meant by “Christian”–a profession of faith, of devotion to God, of proper behavior. A commitment, even. There is always going to be a tension between such a profession, such a commitment, and the completely unmoored inquiry of a blithe pagan–but this is not a tension about identity, as such, but about the proper relation of man and God. To call it a question of identity is, in effect, among other things to assume that no such relation exists–and therefore to avoid what is the nub of the students’ objection.

    There is another post you might write on the sometimes tense relationship of faith and a liberal arts education in modern America–but it is not one, I think, that requires a discussion of “identity”.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    For the moment, I’ll decline the terms of the old polemic, because I think it leads us elsewhere.

    The faith and education relation is a more interesting thought to take up. I will point out first that the mimicry of the discourse of identity is rather visible in what the students themselves have said, nor are they alone in this respect. In fact, I’ll go out a bit further: many conservative evangelical voices in the public sphere increasingly articulate their interests in terms of this discourse: that they are a minority deserving of the same considerations and protections as others, that their faith is in some sense as much a “given” about themselves as sexuality or race, that what they believe is what they are. The degree to which a credo or faith is external to the person holding it, is a set of specific propositions about the universe, about God, about human life, seems to me on the wane for many religious conservatives in the United States.

    When faith is still held in this sense as a set of propositions, in a liberal arts education I think it enters the room where something like Fun Home is being taught in a dramatically different fashion. For one, the believer should ideally be able to articulate, defend, or meditate upon those propositions in conversation like any other person with a creed in relationship to some text or question under consideration. The relationship between this mode of education and faith is abstractly “tense” only if any given person in the room assumes that their belief or code of ethics is in peril from the very act of having to discuss it or treat it as one among equals.

    Now it may be that there are faiths, beliefs or creeds which feel consistently disfavored within those conversations. It is worth considering first whether that is because of some intrinsic philosophical feature of a given belief. Some beliefs and philosophies bend easily with the wind, others are brittle and can stand little challenge. That might be a place where one could ask, “If a liberal arts education requires treating most beliefs and philosophies as notionally equally prior to a given discussion, isn’t that itself a hard structural rebuke to a belief that believes that anything which challenges its truth is an offensive heresy?” E.g., a belief which takes the existence of other beliefs to be one of the things which the believer is obligated to correct is going to struggle with any dispensation that says, “Most ways of thinking are welcome in this discussion, and everyone is encouraged to explore other possible ways of interpreting or thinking about this problem.”

    But if the proposition is that everyone should at least have the hope that they can walk away from such a discussion having strengthened or intensified the beliefs and perspectives which sustain their life, it is important that a professor–and peers–keep that hope alive in most liberal arts classrooms. Let’s take Fun Home. If I had a very socially conservative evangelical who believed that homosexuality was a sin in my class, what could I offer them from reading Fun Home?

    I think the first thing I’d offer them is, “don’t trust what other people tell you is in a book, and don’t make a fetish out of singular passages or images in any work”. That’s a healthy interpretative skill even for a Biblical literalist–after all, even literalism does not treat every passage, every word, every story in the Bible as carrying equal instructive and inspirational weight for contemporary Christians. Everybody needs to treat definitions seriously, and I would suggest that any definition of “pornography” which includes Fun Home is a definition so broad as to be worthless, and very likely includes the Bible itself.

    I think the second thing I’d suggest to my hypothetical student is that if they sincerely hope to carry the Good News to all of humanity, they have to know all of humanity in its own terms. This should be and at times has been an unexceptional thought to offer in response to evangelical or missionary impulses. Now it is true that this thought raises unsettling further thoughts for the believer about how to reconcile sympathetic understanding of the entirety of human experience with a belief that there is only one road to God and that most of human life is defined by sin, but all philosophies have their conjunctures of difficulty and contradiction. That’s what the work of belief is all about.

    I think the third thing I’d suggest to that student is that one is not required to interpret a text as the author or the author’s affines prefers. It’s possible to read Fun Home as a work about how repression of one’s impulses is a condition of adulthood and responsibility and question whether doing what one desires is in fact liberating. One could ask whether the irony of the title doesn’t carry a deeper inversion: that had Bechdel had a genuinely “fun home”, would she have been happier or more fulfilled? Would her father? etc. I think these are perverse and incorrect interpretations, ultimately, but the text does offer some rich grounds for talking about obligation, pleasure, the genesis of desire, and the question of what is or is not sin in this world or in any other. A Christian who runs away from those conversations because somewhere in the text there’s a lesbian giving oral sex isn’t much of a Christian.

  3. Once again you say what I wish I had said. I blogged about this today, but not nearly so well. Thanks for being so clear!

  4. Withywindle says:

    As to religion and identity: it is possible that the lamentably identitarian discourse of the here-and-now has infected the religious significantly too. I honestly don’t know if it’s more or less than in the past–after all, the equations of Irish=Catholic, Serb=Orthodox, Swedish=Lutheran (for example) are old, the polemics against and self-critiques of Christians may be overstated, and it is possible that the transformation of nominal Christians into agnostics or atheists has left the remnant who identify as (evangelical, conservative) Christian less identitarian than in previous generations. Or not; but it’s not a simple question to answer.

    For your other points–there are some deep assumptions going on in your discourse, which broaden ultimately into queries about the general nature of education. One thing I would say is that the tension between faith and humanism is very long, and that indeed one Christian answer has been to put fig leaves on a great deal of humanistic inquiry. Another is that a great deal of prior humanistic education has said that education of course does not include X of null educational value. So, you would, I trust, not allow a very artistic snuff film in a college curriculum–and I fancy the majority of the humanistic tradition would not have dreamed of allowing anything like Fun House into the curriculum. There is an argument about the educational value of the pornographic within the humanistic tradition, prior to the engagement with faith. And then, some combination of Christianity and humanism, a combination of discussion with a presupposition of faith, is also a–the–major tradition of humanism. Famously Cardinal Newman, but most humanists over the centuries. That is a tense combination–there is a tendency for conversation to burst the bounds of faith–but not an impossible one.

    Now, you apply the adjective “brittle” to faith, and a refusal to sin. This involves various assumptions–but I would put it to you that, yes, refusing to engage in sinful activities, restraint of the will, is a very difficult thing to do, but difficulty is not synonymous with brittleness.

    And this argument for knowledge of sin–wasn’t that the serpent’s? Screwtape’s? Faust’s? I hear an echo somewhere …

    You also, I think, engage in what Gadamer calls the deformation of the Enlightenment–the idea that there is no value to the acknowledgment of other people’s authority, the discounting of the value of prejudice, tradition. This is a very long discussion, but that is lurking in your account, and it should not be a given.

    You also take the knowledge of sin–“know all of humanity in its own terms”–to be something that needs prioritization. Alternately, we may take that knowledge to be all around us, and the inculcation of virtue to be what college should prioritize. This also a long educational debate, of course–but let us say that much of modernity is about showing character as it is as an indirect education to virtue. You can justify Fun House on those terms–but one can also say that the more obvious point of Fun House is to present Bechdel as a character to be praised, not blamed. If the colleges were to welcome a genuine, impartial discussion about whether she were praiseable or blameworthy, that would be of some value–tho I hae me doots that any such discussion is intended.

    But then, is it impossible that what is valuable in Bechdel (arguendo) could be done without the pornographic elements? Is there no other book that can convey knowledges of sin, unhappy families, etc., without resort to the explicit? Let us assign Bordewijk’s Character, say–which would have the added benefit of teaching the students about people who aren’t contemporary Americans–surely something of great value if we want to learn about the variety of humanity?

    This is all a little inchoate and rushed–please forgive. But let me add: I would take the standard student at Duke (or what have you) already to be familiar with the world-view Bechdel represents–that it is somewhere between the familiar and the catechismic. If you were choosing a book for our little sprigs of the liberal gentry, wouldn’t you choose something a bit more mind-stretching? Something to unsettle the liberal pieties?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    It is always a basic problem of education that like must teach to unlike. A basic thing for me as both professional and as human is that I approach unlike–whatever that might be–the way a sailboat approaches the wind. I move this way and that to find how we might sail at a good clip together. If we must be becalmed, so be it, but I will try first to search out the wind. I think this applies for any teaching situation where a student is not me–and of course in catching the wind, we may discover that my hand on the till is less sensitive than the student’s.

    As for other thoughts, forgive me if I leap around a bit. “Fun Home would not have been allowed in a great deal of prior humanistic education” is wildly unconvincing to me in more ways than I can count. Neither would Joyce or DH Lawrence at a certain moment, and so on back and back, until most of what we account as literature vanishes in the flames.

    Some of the tension you refer to for the Christian (humanist or otherwise) is something with which I may empathize as a teacher and a fellow human being but which has no pull on my own soul. So at a certain point, I feel free to say: that is your problem, however appreciatively I might listen to someone else’s witness.

    As for whether Bechdel can be done without some specific element in it, that is also not my problem in some sense. E.g., my role as teacher and critic is not to be the Boss of Culture. It is to appreciately engage, even critically, with what artists and designers and performers and essayists, etc., produce, to take it for what it is. If the culture were full of snuff films, and the framing of a class was called for attention to them, I’d teach them. Indeed, at times that’s precisely what historians have to do, and to do unsparingly. I’m not required of course to approve of horrors in the past, but I do need to teach them in their context, to ask if there is a way in for us to understand what they meant to those who committed them.

    In the classroom, my main goal is teachability: some combination of talent and invention with provocation, persuasion, interest. I am not Matthew Arnold: my class is not a beauty pageant of the best said and thought. Nor is it a space for transmitting some fixed list of values that I have decided upon. It’s a gambling den. Perhaps a few of the games will have favorable odds, and perhaps a few will be as innocent as the dunk tank or a high striker to prove one’s strength. A few might allow placing all the chips onto a long shot.

    If I were laying out a few things to read in the summer before starting college, I’d have Fun Home on my list. Yes, I might also choose books to unsettle every taste and creed. In fact I often do. But another thing I have less taste for than most is to ride herd narrowly on the professional judgment of all the colleagues in my world. We would all be a lot happier if we second-guessed one another at this level of granularity with vastly greater reluctance. “Nothing human is foreign to me” has corollaries, and one of them is that we should try very hard to be delighted in the choices of others. I know of no surer sign that I live in a free society than the existence of such variety.

  6. Withywindle says:

    You would be willing to teach a snuff film? I will pray for you.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    If I were teaching a class on the cultural history of the horror film, for example, I would teach the film Hostel. I hate the film, I hate its subgenre, but it’s important to that history, and…it’s teachable. It’s important for me to think about why I hate it, and why it might be possible to not hate it. It’s essentially a snuff film, only barely redeemed by fiction.

    Would you teach or show the famous shot of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a captive? Snuff film. Would you show the dead at Auschwitz? Snuff film. Would you show Prince Johnson executed by his men? Snuff film. I would show all that and more if I thought it was what the class called for, if what honest inquiry needed. We should never fear in our courses to see what many others in our society see. If there are millions on YouTube who see it, then we should at least know it is seen. If the occasion is right, we too should see it. Not as they do–that is where a classroom is different. But nothing should be forbidden to know if our fellow citizens know it. Hypocrisy is the sin I’d pray for.

    Sanctimony, no, I’d not pray for that. But I would find it faintly amusing, like fastidiousness at a table where everyone else has long since dug in and eaten like honest folk.

  8. Ben A says:

    I am sorry to see an interesting discussion go a bit off the rails. The central question surely cannot be whether some moral horror is worth teaching in a liberal arts curriculum. I hope, Professor Burke, you’re being a bit flip on the advisability of teaching snuff films (!). Your move from “If the culture were full of snuff films, and the framing of a class was called for attention to them, I’d teach them” to “Would you show the dead at Auschwitz?” suggests this. I suspect most of us would agree there’s a big difference discussing and showing ISIS beheading videos in the context of a class on the modern middle east and discussing and showing the same in the context of a class on innovative modern cinema. Right?

    The more interesting set of questions (to me, at least!) are more like the following:

    1. I suffer from the impulse to define ‘brittleness’: an ideology is ‘brittle’ if it cannot withstand the knowledge of contrary positions. Thus ‘trigger warnings’ to the *concept* ‘homosexuality is morally acceptable’ or ‘traditional gender roles can be life-affirming” suggest a brittle ideology. Here we have an equal (classically liberal) standard to judge (and condemn) brittleness.
    2. But! We know that ‘mere concepts’ are not the only issue. It’s about what concepts or people are presented sympathetically or heroically, it’s about how the message is delivered (a porn film isn’t the same as an essay arguing that a substantial sexual promiscuity can be part of a well lived life).
    3. As a great Terrence fan, I always love to see his line “nothing human is alien to me” deployed! As an aside, the play from which that is derived is itself an almost perfect example of how liberal education could go. A modern American reading “The Self Tormeter” is immediately struck with two thoughts. First, “how incredibly modern — in tone, affect, these characters could be my contemporaries.” Second, “good lord, a crucial plot point centers on the fact that these modern-seeming people *attempted infanticide* several decades ago.” One can take from “The Self Tormenter” a lesson in the commonality of human nature, the banality of evil, or, perhaps, an undermining of the distinction between manners and morals. As an aside, I think this suggests stacking a liberal curriculum with works that *don’t* tap into obvious current political/tribal divides. “Richard the 3rd” now is a wonderful exposition of human themes. “Richard the 3rd” to a Yorkist in 1490 might read as infuriating propaganda.
    4. Ultimately it does seem hard to separate these curricular decisions from some moral view about what kind(s) of life we want to endorse. And that gets us back to the more standard polemics which we have avoided: the reality that no modern selective university would likely assign a novel that advanced an anti-gay marriage crusader or tobacco executive as a sympathetic protagonist. I might not like those books myself! (I am a fairly typical educated American of my class). But it’s not like the Christians are wrong: they are being lobbied against…

  9. I went to Withywindle’s blog, and he or she fears for the souls of people who would show snuff films to a general public. The first–and I hope the last snuff film I saw–was about 13 years ago on the nightly news. I was in a hotel room and pressed “on” on the remote. I had not a second for my finger to find a new channel before seeing a ten-year old Palestinian boy shot by Israeli soldiers as his father covered his body and begged them to stop. I have never understood how the journalist could stand there filming instead of trying to help but realistically the alternative would be running into a stream of fusilage as opposed to staying under the cover of an opposing wall. I was traumatized and didn’t sleep for many nights–I wish I’d had a history professor with me to discuss the history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn’t mitigate the trauma, but educating myself and the world does hold out the promise that we can figure out how to avoid future atrocities. Even slim hope makes confronting human crimes bearable and I don’t see anyway to end them without talking about them: there is no hope if we sit tight and wait for God to do something. Anyway, Withywindle, pray for the nightly news, not Timothy Burke, who has something to offer.

  10. Nord says:

    Laura – this one? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Durrah_incident

    Luckily, the consensus I see is that the video shown is edited, not sequential, and likely does not show the child being shot by the IDF. YMMV

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