Apparently it’s not just Syracuse undergraduates who want to talk or read about “spirituality,” “technology,” and “the Holocaust.” Yesterday’s post about my students at SU brought the second highest number of all-time visits for a single day at JPP. I will, of course, grant that this may have something to do with the fact that I linked this post on several list-serves. I received feedback from three responders, including colleagues who tend not to agree about anything but who both agreed in the strongest possible terms that it’s not our job to provide students what “they want.” Our job is to teach them what they “need” to know.
But if the kids don’t show up, then who has been taught what?
I think a little “intellectual equality” is in order here. I think the better wisdom not to regard as imbeciles the people whom we as educators seek to educate, in this case, our students. This means trying to respond to what our student interlocutors say to us from the point or places at which they stand and from which we stand, without any abdication of our responsibility to “the truth” as we see or claim to know it. About “intellectual equality” between persons, I’d point to Jacques Rancière. I posted about him a couple of days ago. And now again.
The view rejected by Rancière is the view that “What the pupil must learn is what the schoolmaster must teach her. What the spectator must see is what the director makes her see.” Instead, this is the meaning of “the ignorant schoolmaster: from the schoolmaster the pupil leans something that the schoolmaster does not know himself.” Rancière goes on to refer to avant-garde or political artists who claim to “simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy of action. But they always assume that what will be perceived, felt, understood is what they have put into their dramatic art or performance” (p.14).
Sounds familiar, yes? The problem, of course, is that it never really works out this way; nor should it.
Watch out for critical theory theorists overinvested in notions of ideology critique and false consciousness. About treating people like idiots, Rancière has us consider, “Forty years ago, critical science made us laugh at the imbeciles who took images for realities and let themselves be seduced by their hidden messages. In the interim, the ‘imbeciles’ have been educated in the art of recognizing the reality behind appearances and the messages concealed in images. And now,, naturally enough, recycled critical science makes us smile at the imbeciles who still ting such things as concealed messages in images and a reality distinct from appearances exist” (p.48)
Rancière’s own approach is to assume “that the incapable are capable, that there is no hidden secret of the machine that keep them trapped in their place. It would be assumed that there is no fatal mechanism transforming reality into image; no monstrous beast absorbing all desires and energies into its belly; no lost community to be restored…It means that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification…I believe that today there is more to be sought and found in the investigation of this power than in the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast” (pp.48-9).
I’m not going to assume that our students don’t know what they need. Who cares, for now, if they don’t know how to place an apostrophe. That’s easy enough to learn. Treating people like idiots is not, in general, the best way to understand people or to do things. In fact, that nasty habit might be much harder for academics to unlearn that is for an undergraduate to learn how write a term paper. I’m going to assume that they are plenty capable, even more so than me, the ignorant schoolmaster.