Looking for Jacobs
Some Trivial Thoughts on the Study of Philosophy
by Graeme Hunter
Descartes says there are five sources of wisdom. Conversation and history are two of them, and they will be my subjects because, like philosophy, they depend on words.
Being social animals, we need interaction with other people. If we are going to be wise, we must file the rough edges of our thinking, not in order to smooth and soften them, but to make them strong and sharp. Conversation is the file society provides for this purpose. It is the best remedy for flaccid wits. Almost any conversation is good, but not all of it makes us wise. Wisdom improves fastest through conversation with people who are already wise. They needn't be credentialed, but to be useful for our mental development, they must be people who easily catch the drift of whatever you propose and just as easily detect its weaknesses. Wise people are seldom eager to converse with youngsters, unless they detect in them some dialectical promise.
To teach and learn from one another, interlocutors must share a language that is grammatically sound, delicate with nuance, and deeply loved. The inferential structure of language, normally called logic, must also be second nature to both interlocutors, and respected by both. Finally, each must appreciate, and occasionally reveal, a degree of linguistic playfulness and finesse. A hundred years ago these "trivial" matters were the subjects of primary school: They were called the "trivium" and consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They were the elementary skills that had to be acquired before you could graduate to thought. They led to what the poet Paul Valéry called un début dans la vie humaine (beginning a human life).
Avid young people who want to make it in philosophy strive to cultivate such a say, and are always on the lookout for conversational challenge. Like Jacob, they are prepared to wrestle with the angel of the Lord. To translate loosely the German poet, Rilke,
If you are conquered by that angel,
Who so seldom deigns to fight,
you go forth graceful and upright—
Not to struggle for the victor's seat—
But search, anew, for ever more significant defeat.
If you are young and serious about that kind of conversation, then you're a seeker after wisdom. But you are also an anomaly. Where could you have come from in an age where grammar, logic, and rhetoric are not taught in the schools or prized in the world? Where poetry is not memorized or read aloud at home or at school, where ideas are not avidly discussed in public gatherings? Where linguistic attainments are scoffed at by low-browed louts?
There are few young Jacobs to be found, even, or perhaps particularly, in universities. A Nobel-Prize-winning author describes his students as "post-Christian, post-historical, post-literate." And adds, "they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday" (J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace, p. 32). Their post-literate condition I have already acknowledged. But how are they post-historical?
History begins for us as a one-way conversation. Descartes says reading the monumental writings of the past is like conversing with their authors, only better, because, in their published writings, we find their finest thoughts in their most perfect formulation.
However, they ask of us a certain height. Only insofar as we allow them to elevate our thinking can we expect something like a two-way conversation with them. That begins when you approach your author with a question and discover that he has foreseen and answered it. Improvement comes faster when you begin, as you think, to forge some new path of inquiry into your author. You hack your way through the terminological undergrowth and are surprised as you enter a clearing to find your author jauntily returning from the place at which you had hoped to plant your flag.
But such edifying encounters never happen to those who cannot read. That verb, "to read," is related to the German reden, meaning "to speak." That is as it should be, because reading, as Descartes says, is a kind of conversation. And not a superficial kind. Reden is itself related to the German verb raten, meaning "to take counsel." To read you must be able to speak with an author and take counsel from him. You must see what he means and say something meaningful in return. But unless your background is very unconventional, you are unlikely to have the trivial skills necessary to do anything as linguistically challenging as studying philosophy.
Those who teach philosophy are rarely as candid about this problem as I am being here. It is customary to pretend that we are teaching people who pretend to learn and who conspire with us to pretend that we are not pretending. Some writers, however, like J. M. Coetzee, quoted above, are every bit as candid as I have been, and their educational writings culminate in despair. The novel I quoted from was called Disgrace.
The Modern Student's Strange Mind
It would be easy to continue in this mournful vein and end my paper on the same now conventional note of despair. But that is not what I intend to do. Instead, I'll push myself harder and enter as far as I can into the unfamiliar country of my students' minds. I will not presume to psychoanalyze them, or trace their linguistic weakness to social media, the internet, the collapse of the family, or this generation's loss of Christian moorings. I will not attempt to lay blame on anyone for the state in which we find universities today. Others, such as Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch and many more, have identified these causes and depicted their consequences much more authoritatively than I can. My goal is not to account for my students' strange minds but to enter as far as I can into them.
For this purpose I shall invite you to read over my shoulder a particular graduate student's work. He is not a real person, but also not a fiction. He could be a she. He is a type that I think has grown to be the norm over the last decade or two. We will attend to his paper as we would to the work of an ancient writer from a school and time we do not understand. That is the right approach because encounters with many incarnations of this student have taught me that the present is a time I do not understand, and that such students come from schools that bear little resemblance to those I knew.
Efforts to understand foreign things sometimes succeed. There is no reason why this one shouldn't. And the benefit is not always confined to understanding what is foreign. In socializing with students, I often come to see ways in which I do not understand myself. The story I would like to tell you involves, therefore, some self-discovery.
I began teaching in the mid-seventies, when the sixties' assault on education was sweeping to victory. Students now sat on university committees; students evaluated teachers; teachers were told they were not "the sage on the stage" but instead "the guide on the side." Teachers were also told that much of what they taught was not worth learning because it was "irrelevant." That was the language of the 1960s.
Today teachers are told that their work, if it is traditional, is not just irrelevant, but evil. If it glorifies the achievements of Western civilization, then it perpetuates the evils of racism, sexism, xenophobia, heterosexuality, and so on, the very things that social justice activists think universities must actively and polemically oppose. These activists despise the civilization from which I—and many of them—are descended. They were taught to despise it by the generation that began to take control in the late 1970s, the one to which I belong. I also belong, however, to the small group of conservative intellectuals who believe that real universities were at that time hijacked and turned into propaganda-generators for social justice causes. The name "university" remained, but what it designates underwent a fundamental change. We conservatives believe it was a change for the worse.
But what am I to say to a student whose whole formation (I will resist saying "deformation") has been based on social justice? Engaging with him is for me very like engaging with a Buddhist who knows as little about Christianity as I do of Buddhism. Such conversations can be pleasant and even interesting, but never deep. It only recently occurred to me that talking to students has become like that. Let me now give an account of how universities became places in which conservative professors and students can only shoot the breeze, not really converse.
Gatekeepers Without Gates
Students and professors were more alike in the past because universities were gatekeepers. They selected both professors and students from the pool of people whose interests were primarily theoretical. This pool of people was of two species. Some were wealthy enough to pay the fees, just wanted to add a little polish to their conversation, and were usually pleased to graduate with a "gentleman's C."
A smaller number were young Jacobs who were smart enough to merit some support from their church, or community, or a sponsor.
The ruling élites were themselves beholden to universities and encouraged those who taught there to exercise a gatekeeping function. We played a significant role in determining who the leading lights of the future would be. We examined them and decided which were worthy. We gave them their credentials. With our journals and magazines and broad influence on publishing, we determined which of their writings would get an audience.
We were the bottleneck through which intelligent young people had to pass. We were less concerned with what they argued for than with the quality of their arguments. Only those who argued well would go forward. Nowadays, however, the opposite is true. Only emotion is required. Angry, resentful assertion will do. In a wide range of writing, no argument is necessary.
Social changes never have absolute beginnings, but I'll begin my history lesson with The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, usually called the G.I. Bill. The same thing in Canada came a year later under the name of the Veterans' Charter. It provided funds for veterans to attend university and encouraged universities to smooth the way for them. So began the democratization of the modern university, which in turn demanded some modifications to the university's gatekeeping role.
As a society, we were, of course, colossally indebted to the veterans who returned from World War II. But when we decided to pay part of our debt in the currency of university credentials—the only currency the university has—our gatekeeping function had to be modified. All at once it became a little easier to acquire one of our degrees without mastering our language. The university grew very popular with governments because of its newfound ability not only to select the ruling élites of the future but at the same time to deal with certain social problems. Government funding flowed. Standing universities burgeoned; new ones arose everywhere; community colleges had their status bumped up. Swollen old universities and swelling young ones began to solve the problems of Jews, Negroes (as African Americans were then called), women, the disabled, homosexuals, and others. Diversity became the mantra and, as universities thought, their strength. The erstwhile gatekeepers threw open the gates; social justice activists bore the gates away.
Conservatives like myself looked askance, not at the beneficiaries of these changes, but at the implications those changes had for the mandate of the university. We had gone from focusing on theory to focusing on the practical matter of social change. We became disoriented when the historical monuments before which we genuflected (sometimes called "the canon") were diminished in stature, or derided, or simply deleted from the curriculum. We were forlorn when the gates we used to keep were lugged away.
The Features of the Paper
Let me illustrate what I mean by returning to the grad student paper I promised to discuss, the one (or rather the type) that made me reassess my understanding of my professorial role.
Here are the features of that type: Its grammar was so bad that it would not have passed muster in grade 6 in the rural school I attended in the 1950s. The writer did not know the difference between "than" and "then," between "subsequently" and "consequently," between "preposition" and "proposition," between "ascribing" and "subscribing," between "as such" and "as follows."
The style was assertive, not argumentative. It bore no trace of wit, or learning, or invention.
The assignment had been to pick any item on the class reading list (except for one I had authored) and explain why you thought it the most effective in dealing with the course's theme, which happened to be wisdom. The student said the piece I had written was the best of all and packed his essay with fulsome praise. This was in sharp contrast to the indifference with which he had greeted all the readings during the semester.
Though the topic of the course was wisdom, the paper began with a homemade survey of the history of the world, touched flatteringly on my essay, and concluded with his own views on wisdom. I gave it an F. I was the doorkeeper after all, and this guy was not going to go through.
I had never doubted my qualification for gatekeeping. After all, I had gone through university and been suitably credentialized. I had overcome stiff competition to land an academic job, and my work had been recognized by my peers. It was obvious to me that I knew the difference between good and bad writing. When students came to complain about their marks, their facile objections were easy to answer.
They would say they were A students on the basis of other marks they had received. I would ask them whether they thought I should mark their work according to what my colleagues had said about them in other courses, or according to the written work they had submitted to me.
Or a student would tell me that his girlfriend had left him at the time when he had to write the paper, and that he therefore had been unable to concentrate as he usually would, and so he deserved, for that reason, special consideration. And I would ask whether he ever based his judgment of a movie on whether or not the producer and director had been in perfect emotional health during its making.
The New Gentleman's C
I expected my current student to present himself promptly at my office with some similar plea and that I would satisfy him with one or another of my tried-and-true replies. That was what would have happened in a nearby possible world, but it is not what happened in this one. In this world, an occult impulse gave rise to second thoughts. Without any prompting from the student, an argument in support of his paper popped unbidden into my mind and convinced me to raise his mark.
Here is my argument for his case:
Sir, you are very nice and so on, but you are also a fossil. You're a bitter old man who has misspent your career serving the Platonic university of your imagination, but drawing your paycheck from a brick-and-mortar university that knowingly and proudly distances itself as much as possible from the model you affect to represent. There are no gates at this university. There is no bottleneck. The goal is to flush everyone through the pipeline and credentialize us all as we tumble out the far end.
You say we have no grammar, logic, or winsomeness of style, but all you mean is that we do not speak and write as you do. You say our writing would never be accepted in the journals in which you have published, but neither would your traditionalist, racist, sexist, heterometrical paleo-establishment-glorifying work be published in the blogs, e-journals, e-zines, and social media where we can place our writings at will.
You say I will never work in academia. But can you honestly say that if I learn to write the way you do, I will get a job there? Isn't it a lottery no matter how you write? Is not the color of my skin, or my sexual orientation, in fact a better indicator of academic advancement than the quality of my writing?
He would not have expressed his point in just those words. They have too much grammar, logic, and rhetoric in them. But the thought I attributed to him in those words is reasonable, and I believe it is likely true, and almost certainly, though inarticulately, his. You may think it looks like simple relativism, but it isn't. The student says I am preparing him for the world of an earlier age and for the kind of career that is no longer on offer. I believe he is more likely than I am to be right about what today's universities are looking for. Consequently I changed his mark from an F to a gentleman's C.
It would be nice to meet a young Jacob hoping to match his wits with an angel. But as I mentioned already, such Jacobs have become rare.
Graeme Hunter is a contributing editor to Touchstone and Research Professor of Philosophy at Dominican University College in Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate).