Every age has its predilections and ours is skeptic. Ideas, theories, intentions, facts, nothing is beyond the shadow of our doubt. Perhaps this is a byproduct of capitalism, the effect of a world in which it is assumed that everyone is selling something. Perhaps the program of liberation implemented in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s worked too well; critical consciousnesses evolved to epistemological crisis. In an age where people doubt the moon landing and John F.Kennedy can be seen speaking to Tom Hanks in a film, who can blame people for their uncertainty?
In discussions with young people, I find the doubt most frustrating when I am trying to share with them an author of former eminence. My problem is not so much the lack of respect, but rather the refusal by students to engage an author on his or her own terms. Take John Dewey for example. He is not my favorite philosopher–he is far too pragmatic for my tastes, too American–but I enjoy his optimism and methodical approach to inquiry. There is a clarity that is often lacking in contemporary philosophy. Reading him gives me the feeling of progress being made and hearkens back to the era of the public American intellectuals who made appearances on television and wrote for newspapers and were esteemed by a wide audience. I share this with students hoping that they will engage in the matter of his arguments, imitate his style, and think passionately about the world.
However, what they hear in the prose of Dewey is a blowhard know-it-all. “On Democracy and Education” sounds preachy and obvious to them. Same goes for Descartes and William James or even a random New Yorker article. Before the meat of the article is even approached, they get hung up in the tone. They see exactitude and completeness as a sign of simplicity. Moreover, they will say, in effect “Who is this man to make such claims? Why isn’t my opinion on the matter just as valid?”
This is a vexing moment for a teacher. On the one hand, I do not wish to discount their skepticism. I see it as a precursor to critical thinking. And I am not willing to invoke some essentialist attitude, saying “This is a classic therefore you must read it!” On the other hand, I wish they would have a great deal more respect for the accomplishments of a thinker and a writer. They do not need to like these people, but they should pay attention to what is being said. An original thought, no more how trivial, is still worth understanding. But I keep my mouth shut. Authority in every form is under suspicion and for me to argue against them would simply reinforce my student’s assumptions.
Now, permit me a minor change in subject: Can you tell a Nikki Minaj song when you hear one?
Well, I couldn’t until recently. For thirty years I dismissed any kind of corporate, top-forty, Ryan-Seacrest-type music as sham. Passing through the spectrum of radio stations, I’d grow indignant if I heard but a single note (or more likely a beat) from a pop song. To my thinking, the best music was unheard of. That is, there was a correlation between how few people liked a song and its quality.
Then one day I decided I was going to listen. I wasn’t going to like it, but I was going to listen.
Despite the fact that I believe this music to be artificial in a number of ways, I have to accept the fact that top forty, corporate backed music is the essential musical expression of our culture. And if I am to understand our culture, and if I am to appreciate the time period in which I live, then I must at least listen to this music. And that goes for watching Housewives or Kardashians or any other public utterance.
Mind you, I do not pander to my students. I do not mention pop culture in order to win them over. But as hard as it is for me to watch Nene Leaks pick a fight with Kim Zolciak, so too is it hard for my students to read Thus Spake Zarathustra. In that sense, I can at least embody the change I wish to see in the world.
We must engage in that which seems most unattractive to us. In short (as gleaned from the 1962 edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature in this instance speaking about the unattractiveness of the Victorian Age)
Sympathy may not be essential, but condescension is fatal to understanding.
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