Alienating Labour II: What Else Should We Expect If We Teach Like This? Jamming, 21/08/2015

Continued from last post . . . I think the humanities suffered the most from the inflationary expansion of class sizes in universities. In the sciences (and this includes the social sciences) early undergraduate classes teach you about the basic concepts and the history of the discipline. 

But they also teach you mathematical, statistical, laboratory, and real-world research techniques that very clearly require years of practice and expertise before you can do them properly. In the humanities, we only teach concepts as simple, technical terms (usually ending in -ism and defined in two sentences) designed to be easily memorized by rote and spewed back on the exam and in papers we expect to be written at 1.30am the day before deadline. 

Deep, nuanced education is tough in classes this huge.
It’s a function of the time crunch. As classes get bigger, professors have less and less time to spend with more and more students. So depth of analysis has to be sacrificed to maintain the breadth to give students the sense that they’ve learned any content at all. This approach is so widespread, it's become an institutionalized norm. I used to get funny looks from colleagues and superiors for even suggesting that there should be better ways to teach our material.

“Why would you bother? They’re just first-years!”

I saw so many undergrad textbooks when I taught philosophy that included, for example, introductions to Descartes as three-page excerpts from the Meditations that were meant to be taught in a single hour. Expertise in humanities disciplines requires throwing out these simple definitions to examine the ideas, the entire books that developed them, and their histories. 

Humanities disciplines don’t teach our research techniques at low-intensity undergrad levels because they don't have agreed-upon pablum definitions like Dualism or Utilitarianism. So someone who only gets a basic training in the humanities never gets the opportunity to examine the disciplines’ content in detail, or even the suggestion that there’s more detail to the tradition. 

When desperate humanities professors defend their departments from budget-slashing administrators as teachers of critical thinking skills and how to understand the complexity of society, their own course content for first and second year often stand against them.

Humanities educators’ condescending approach to humanities education* results in many people understanding complex concepts, thinkers, and traditional superficially at best and completely arse-backwards at worst. A wonderful example appeared in a Twitter fight between two major figures in the online Doctor Who community on one side, and a right-wing Gamergater type on the other.

* Not all of them, of course. I was lucky enough to have encountered many professors in my education who treated students with the respect that their intelligence deserved. I was especially fortunate that my first philosophy teacher, Jim Bradley, and my doctoral supervisor, Barry Allen, were this type of teacher. I was also fortunate to observe many examples of the worse. 

Whatever is valuable in Karl Marx's
writings and research, the atrocities of
the Soviet Union and People's Republic
of China (combined with the popularity
of Friedrich Hayek's powerful anti-
socialist writing in Road to Serfdom)
has made the philosophy irredeemable
in popular North American culture.
Basically, a sarcastic comment about a technical detail in the writings of Georg Hegel** was taken totally seriously. Then @ThalesLives wrote a completely serious post about why Hegel and everything he wrote – and therefore Marx, Marxists, and everything they wrote – was stupid and wrong. Please take a moment, click the link, read it, skip his invective if you want, then come back.

** A standard go-to when you want to crack a joke about over-complicated philosophy.

If my friends B.Rad and Bull Market, two of the biggest Hegel fans I know, read this, I don't blame you for being upset or for laughing so hard that you start hiccuping. @ThalesLives describes Hegel's thinking as entirely and simply defined by the old stereotype of thesis+antithesis=synthesis. 

It's a gross oversimplification of Hegel’s actual concepts and logical ideas, and he cites the authority of a single professor for the rightness of his argument.

Now, he does point out a solid problem with Hegel’s legacy as a thinker, which is that he designed his system of logic to be the philosophical framework of the entire historical and conceptual development of all human science. And it never bloody worked. 

That’s a problem that a lot of philosophy researchers have grappled with in a lot of books that, given what I currently know about him, I don't think @ThalesLives has read. Now, I haven’t read them either, but that problem isn't really what I'm interested in for my own work. And if I've sounded unfairly dismissive about this in the past, well, I’m sorry and I’ve learned my lesson.

So we have here, at least so it appears from his post and his dialogue with Phil and Jack, a textbook*** case of someone who has taken an oversimplified (mis)understanding of an incredibly complex thinker and tradition as a clear and obvious truth. It illustrates very well how humanities education has institutionally fallen down on the job, teaching dogmatic misconceptions instead of how to think.

*** Hehe.

Because the truth is, humanities education has it backwards. The discipline teaches simplified versions of its content at lower levels, which makes people believe that they understand some of history's most complex thinkers with a few definitions, a three-page excerpt, and a chat with a prof.

Humanities education should concentrate on its content as examples to teach critical thinking, argumentation, and interpretation. How, for example, to juxtapose and relate an idea or a subtle hint from one text with an explicit argument from the same author to see what strange new ideas we can generate. How to expand that idea into other ideas and practical implications, understanding what a concept permits us to think and what it obscures.

So we can end up, even with a thinker like Marx who's been the subject of forests worth of books and articles, like Jameson building an interesting use of his ideas that had never quite been discussed in his context before. What that idea is will come tomorrow or Monday.

That’s how we’d understand humanities expertise if it were taught properly in the first place. . . . To be continued.

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