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Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Triumph of Vagueness

"If we want to teach students that human life is not organized into disciplines, then we should not organize our curricula into disciplines. If we want to teach students to see historical connections across differing conditions of global power, we should not organize our literature departments exclusively around modern languages, whose effect is to reproduce over and over again the knowledge and aesthetic work produced in a period of European dominance. If we want students to take a humanistic approach to problems outside the traditional humanities, we should not feel the need to “fit” topics of political or social justice into our courses on the history of the Ming dynasty, but rather be open about the fact that humanist reason can teach us a great deal about social justice or histories of violence, and teach courses that have those things right in the name."

Human life is not organized into disciplines, but academic knowledge is. If we bypass disciplinary thinking and go straight to the meat of what we really want, "social justice," then we are leaving the students without the intellectual skills to think critically about anything at all. I agree that shoe-horning some facile point about contemporary politics into a course on the Ming dynasty is lame. 

Another paragraph:

"The time horizon for that teaching is not the single semester or the course. It’s the student’s lifetime. And so I don’t care too much whether students remember anything specific about most of the books they read with me, or about what they can do by the end of the semester. I care that, in 20 or 30 years, those students will have had a richer and more responsible life than they would have had otherwise. And I hope that the kind of thinking about the world that I helped them learn will have empowered them to do so."

God forbid you ever know anything specific about anything, or remember it a second later. The humanities are justified by generalities like "a richer and more responsible life" or "thinking about the world." It's not that I don't believe in these things at some level, but that I become distrustful of the vague language of enrichment.   

A lot of what Hayot proposes sounds very cool and forward looking. There are specific things in this proposal I like, as well. But I'm cynical...  


Leslie B. said...

Yes, I can't stand this abandonment of disciplines. Yes, the divisions between them can be arbitrary but they have traditions and they can be looked at and critiqued and GOD, this is all just a justification of bringing things to the elementary school level and the "lifelong learning" model.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I agree. Both about the importance of discipline and the vagueries of "lifelong learning" and "enrichment".

I wrote a Twitter thread about the piece, and Hayot responded. I think the tension is partly captured by whether one is "conservative" about the liberal arts or "progressive" in one's humanism. I tend to the former; Hayot, to the latter. I think we're in danger of forgetting what we know about being human; Hayot thinks we need to spread what we know around.

Jonathan said...

Yeah. I like your focus on craft. Imagine if justification for any non-humanities field were as vague.