Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Bit More On Education

FLG certainly is not the first person to write this, and this isn't the first time he's written this either, but Derrida has been whirling around in his mind.

Proper education requires metaphysical assumptions upon which a coherent understanding of the world can be built. Once students understand how this process works -- how assumptions are both necessary and constraining -- they then can question those assumptions. The issue FLG has with modern higher education is two-fold, but those folds are related to each other.

First, it's an incoherent mess of distribution requirements across disciplines. Second, and consequently, there aren't any unifying assumptions, metaphysical or otherwise.

Once a student has been exposed to how a coherent worldview can be built upon metaphysical assumptions, and in the American context FLG is largely talking about the existence of a Judeo-Christian God, then they can question the assumption. So, after you learn how the assumption that a Judeo-Christian God exists influenced and developed into the world we now see, then you can look at how people began to question that assumption and what that implied for the world we now see. The trouble is kids are thrown into critical theory and deconstruction without ever understanding the benefits of being uncritical and constructing. So, perhaps deconstruction isn't nihilism if you understand how things are constructed in the first place, but deconstructing without knowing construction does lead to nihilism or at least down bad roads.

Imagine doing demolition on buildings without understanding how they are built. Sooner or later somebody will knock out the wrong beam and crush everybody.

End of cliched conservative rant about The Ivory Tower.


Withywindle said...

John Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University; next for your reading list.

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

I'd say epistemological or ontological, but definitely not metaphysical (unless you want to stack the deck).

Unless, of course, you're assuming coherence to be the most important quality of knowledge. How do we know we're building a house, or anything at all?

FLG said...

I think coherent is an important piece.

Let's ask whether we are building a house or anything after we've built it.

Alpheus said...

Withywindle thought of Newman; I thought of Adler and Hutchins. Adler's ideas, in particular, were very much in line with those of this post.

Miss Self-Important said...

It's hopeless; just give up.

End of cliched despair about the Ivory Tower.

Flavia said...

Uh, well, I'd say that students read uncritically all on their own. And one can't teach constructedness without teaching or at least touching on its problems and limitations. Indeed it's striking how much the deconstructive literary critics sound at points like the New Critics of the 1930s-50s, with their devotion to form above all else.

Which makes me wonder, as I always do, whether those who use Derrida as a whipping boy have actually read Derrida.

I'm not saying that to be a jerk, and I haven't read much Derrida myself--I came to theory late, and only when I actually wanted to read it and thought it might be useful (which perhaps proves part of your point). But I'm leery of claims that point to him, or indeed to any school of thought, as the DOWNFALL OF LEARNING without understanding how a particular thinker works, fits within an intellectual tradition, and is taught.

FLG said...


I've actually read some Derrida, and I'm not blaming him personally for the downfall of education.

I guess I could put it this way:
E. E. Cummings could ignore grammar or punctuation or whatever because he knew it. Picasso could go to cubism because he mastered the traditional forms.

Thinkers like Derrida or Foucault, or especially Nietzsche, who is probably the father of all this stuff, benefited from education in the Western tradition. Well, I know that's the case for Nietzsche and I'm pretty sure for the other two. So, when they reject certain assumptions they do so with knowledge of them. Their teachings are different without that knowledge.

Today, kids are exposed to the deconstruction and whatever else without the grounding in what is being deconstructed. They're taught to be critical, but they lack the requisite knowledge to be intelligently critical. I guess my point is this: It is irresponsible to give students theory and techniques without giving them understanding, knowledge, and wisdom with which to deploy them fruitfully.

Reading Derrida before understanding the Western tradition in some sort of coherent way is a bit like telling kids to ignore grammar because E. E. Cummings did.

Flavia said...

I do agree with you that it helps to have a sense of what came before--what later thinkers or artists are reacting against. But we can enjoy e. e. cummings before we've read Shakespeare, just as we can enjoy rock & roll before we know anything about the blues. Undergraduates do not take all their literature or history classes in order, and that's okay; they figure it out.

I also disagree that students these days are getting thrown into decon (or any other postmodern theory) classes and left to flounder. For one thing, theory's obituary is being read daily. There are no jobs for theory specialists. English departments are jettisoning theory requirements, if they ever had them. Hell: I attended college and grad school at what was once decon's ground zero, and in ten years not only did I never take a theory class, but in all that time I was assigned exactly one essay by each of Foucault, Barthes, and Althusser.

I'm in favor of a strong, traditional core curriculum, and I'm certainly in favor of making sure students have basic skills. But ways of interpreting ARE basic skills--sometimes they have a scary theoretical name and come from France, and sometimes they're what we've always done and think we do "naturally." You cannot teach a postmodern theorist without teaching and talking about the "natural" ways we read, and how people have historically thought about those activities.

I'd never support throwing a freshman into a seminar on post-structuralism. But honestly, that's not the way theory gets taught. It gets taught either in big historical surveys, starting often with Aristotle (here are ways people have analyzed literature throughout the ages!), or it gets taught in tiny bites (a couple of articles from a couple of different theoretical perspectives, in a course on the Victorian novel, say), presented not as definitive, but as potentially useful ways of looking at a text.

FLG said...


I did try to describe it through skills and that's certainly part of it. But my issue isn't one particular class or chronological ordering, but a coherent framework across disciplines.

We say, here's how you look at economic issues. Then in another class, here's how you look at political issues. Here's how you analyze literature.

Ah, fuck. I have no idea what I'm talking about anymore.

Withywindle said...

Which is why you need to read Sein und Zeit in the original German. Or Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

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