Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ego and Teaching the Humanities

Is it possible to teach literature without getting one's own ego involved? That is essentially what Joseph Pearce accuses professors of literature -- indeed, humanities professors in general -- of doing in his article "What Has Become of the Liberal Arts?" in The Freeman. And I think that boils down to the complaint almost everyone not involved in teaching the humanities (and many of us with degrees in the humanities) has against how the humanities are taught.

It is of course hard to get one's own ego out of the work one does. This is true even of physicists, who more often than not give up on their pet theories only after their deaths. But while science may progress one funeral at a time, the humanities hardly let death kill off a theory.

Of course, the best science teachers keep their own egos out of what they teach to the greatest degree possible. But it seems that as we move more and more toward more complex sciences and on into the humanities, ego becomes an increasingly central part of what is taught to students and how it's taught. There are far too many in the social sciences who are going to let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good theory. And the humanities don't even have to worry about facts. A few accusations go a long way toward molding minds' opinions about the value of a large number of works.

There are of course a few who do try to bring in some facts in the study of literature -- Jonathan Gottschall, Joseph Carroll, Lisa Zunshine, Frederick Turner, et al -- but they are too often marginalized and outright ignored. Of course part of the problem is that the science they bring to bear is typically some sort of preferred social science and/or psychological theory to which the postmodernists provide as answer their own preferred social sciences and/or psychological theories. Of course, one could argue that the preferred theories of the postmodern humanities professors -- Marxism, Freudianism, etc. -- are by and large discredited within their respective fields (of economics and psychology, in the specific cases given) or by the evidence of history itself (in the case of Marx), but the postmodernists have an out in that they can simply claim that humans are blank slates, that truth is relative, etc.

Unfortunately, the solution may not necessarily be to try to remove one's ego from what one teaches. For example, I once set up an online undergraduate ethics class. The textbook presents a variety of theories of ethics, as well it should. But it occurred to me that if I were to teach that class by simply presenting the theories, my students would come away thinking that ethics was relative. I would have to present to them my own ideas on ethics, which involves a more pluralistic approach (the theories are all right in the right contexts) rooted in an evolved morality. In doing so, I can hardly be said to be unbiased in my presentation. But in this case, if I am unbiased, my students will more likely to walk away postmodern relativists than if I present my own ideas as part of the class.

It may be that we cannot argue against the inclusion of the professors' egos in teaching the humanities. Or even the social sciences. What we only ever end up doing is arguing for our own preference. Which itself is a bit of a postmodern conclusion, I'm afraid.
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