Our Beloved Humanities

“Our ‘benefactors’ are, more than our enemies, people who make our worth and will smaller. When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you.”


Following the recent exchange of ideas between Michael Clune, on the one side, and Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr and Kevin Dettmar on the other in the Chronicle Review, I started thinking about the intellectual life of the liberal arts student. I thought that what Starr and Dettmar call “aesthetic empathy” must be a type of “intellectual levitation” that elevates students beyond all serious moral thinking, allowing them to take somebody else’s “pleasures” without a critical stance, without presupposing that they might be nothing but empty opinions, which, properly examined, could reach authentic character. Maybe I am not taking my institution’s spirit seriously. So that I can evaluate the worth of my education, I would like to investigate Starr’s and Dettmar’s pedagogical stance.

Let us first look at the language used in Starr’s and Dettmar’s article: to explain the origin of our values, they point to our “pleasures” as the entity shaping our values. They suggest that “[w]e learn what we value because pleasure points the way.” In a sense, this premise is similar to Hume’s assertion that “[r]eason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” This entails that there’s, so to speak, no absolute “rational” approach to things. It’s only to be expected that one’s pleasures — which are the refined expression of one’s passions – would point to “the way” of what we ought to value. But what is pleasurable to one can be unpleasurable to another. This means that we all have our own hierarchy of pleasures, which can either be idiosyncratically ours or borrowed from the community; it is mostly a mix of both. That the formation of this hierarchy involves moral evaluation goes without saying. But it is not always the case that one’s pleasures are conducive to virtue, to say nothing of intellectual responsibility. If we use our pleasures as the main standard shaping our formative education, we will only study what we find pleasurable. Under this practice, it would be in the best interest of the professor to ask students what they find pleasurable and then teach them that. Of course, collective dialogue would become an impossibility: everyone has different pleasures, and it will be harsh to expose students to things they might find unpleasurable. I know I am taking this to absurdity, but that’s why it’s important to be precise with your language, especially when you’re in a position of power. Our pleasures may be an important guidepost in shaping our conception of value, but they should not be the sole deciding factor.

The sophist teaches the art of rhetoric. The teacher of rhetoric shows people how to articulate their opinions, with no regards as to the actual moral worth of these opinions.  Starr and Dettmar suggest that in this institution we have “learned a style of self-awareness regarding our critical processes, and we encourage our students to do the same. Not to adopt our values, but to better articulate and support their own.” Now, I do not agree with this assessment because my professors in this school impose their values on me whenever I read the class material.  (That’s an essential aspect of the craft of pedagogy). But this is beside the point. There are a couple of things worth pointing out about their statement: that (1) this “self-awareness regarding our critical processes” is a “style” and that (2) this style will help students to better “articulate and support their own” values. This intellectual style need not be sophistry: an intellectual style can help us reach a moral resolution, akin to the case of the Socratic method. This particular intellectual style, however,  is presented as morally neutral; so long as it teaches students to better “articulate and support” their values, it serves its purpose. This presupposes that students’ experiences are somehow beyond good and evil, or even worse, beyond good and bad. This is not only pedagogically irresponsible but also outright cruel because students—especially underrepresented students like me—don’t need any more assurance that they’re right; unconditional assurance is not teaching—it is instead a type of indoctrination that takes advantage of the ideological proclivities of people.  It’s not helpful for students to be told that their experiences justify their values: one doesn’t earn moral superiority by virtue of being from a certain demographic. To say the opposite is to presuppose that students have never been deceived in their lives, which would entail that they’ve been incredibly lucky (or unlucky?) or that they are intellectually and emotionally infallible. It also presupposes that students are morally righteous by virtue of their experiences. Denying a person’s agency to be “evil” because of their group identity is veiled discrimination, as James Baldwin rightly points out.

But let us return to the topic. It’s not obvious that teaching people an intellectual style will help them to better “articulate and support their own” values. What if this style undermines their values? One only needs to learn how to ask a question to stumble with contradictions. If this happens, the students will need to create their own values. That’s a torturous thing to do, especially for young people. Serious revaluation of one’s values (the valuable ones, of course!) more often than not ends in nihilism, not in the levity of “aesthetic empathy.” It’s also likely, in this scenario, that students will end up conforming to the opinions of the community. If the “wise” people of the college—the faculty—renounce their responsibility to teach students values which are more respectable than cheap common opinion, then the college will no longer be a place of higher thought but a “marketplace” of opinions. Pomona College is not a marketplace of opinions, but we need to be cautious. The moment we start funding the production of political propaganda—like other colleges in our community which ought to remain unnamed—we will become a marketplace of opinions, and not a free market but a tyrannical monopoly. We should not treat the academic sphere as separate from right and wrong. If values are no longer taught in academia, common opinion—group think—will take their place.

I am bitterly happy that Clune exposed the inadequacies of my institution. My criticism maybe overly harsh and could express uncritical moralism. But it’s helpful to take a moral stance—to stick to one’s values—when confronted by the contradiction of a value-free orthodoxy. Contradictions are often used by the powerful to secure power—that’s doublethink. Clune rightly points out that people like Starr and Dettmar pretend that “they don’t tell students what works they should value, and then claim they are showing students works that transmit the values of difference and empathy.” He suggests that this contradictory orthodoxy is the reason why our “beloved humanities” are in crisis in Pomona College. I cannot agree more emphatically with this conclusion—but what can we do about it?

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