Lately, I’ve been catching up on all the back-issues of The Atlantic that have been sitting around my apartment. I made some good progress this past week during jury service, when I waited in the courthouse for several hours before being told I could go home (I can promise that my non-selection had nothing to do with my other reading material, the copy of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that was in my handbag), and now I have finally gotten to the June issue. I just finished reading the article on Richard Spencer, a.k.a. that white supremacist who got punched in the face in January, and I had some thoughts as I read about how he attached himself to his extremist worldviews.
His path to white supremacy might have started in some juvenile urge to rebel, to agitate against mainstream values: i.e., tolerance, unity, diversity, equity, and the other social ideals that we see encoded in children’s movies, school policy handbooks, political rhetoric, TED talks, and ‘Coexist’ bumper stickers. The way kids rebel in a mostly liberal environment? They become conservative. They read Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and other philosophers and theorists that provide an alternative to the mainstream liberal-leaning values.
The problem doesn’t lie in studying these ideas, or even entertaining them as viable. It lies in taking them at their face value without turning a critical eye to them, and without understanding their historical and cultural context. Was political theorist X, who writes about an essential national spirit, are they writing from a time and place where people are just learning to see themselves as a member of a newly formed state instead of just a farmer from a certain valley? Is writer Y, whose worlds are a place where people are inherently evil, writing in the wake of a major war or a national tragedy? Is religious leader Z’s strongly-worded speech decrying literalist interpretations of law arising because literalist interpretations are causing injustice and suffering around them? Does this guy over here seriously think the Irish should eat their babies? You can delve into a text as deeply as you want, know its arguments back and forth, and it makes you sound very erudite and impressive, but you’re completely missing the picture if you don’t understand why the argument is being made in the first place. I think this is how something like Richard Spencer happens – not him specifically, his body language lets you know that he knows exactly what he’s doing* – but how incredible, insane theories can appear sane and credible. (It can work in reverse too, making legitimate theories appear the opposite.) And I think it results from our educational systems not doing more to encourage critical thinking, and more specifically, encouraging exploration of context.
I’ll explain this in a roundabout way through my own experiences. As a college student taking English courses, I learned that there are all sorts of different approaches you can take to evaluate a piece of literature (by “evaluate” I don’t mean how much you liked it, but studying how it works and appraising its merit and meaning). You can approach it as a source of biographical information, as a historical document, as a moral teaching tool, as something that causes a reaction in the reader, as something that is inherently contradictory and should be picked apart. For fun, let’s use, How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an example. Depending which approach you fancy, you could examine why Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss might have written it at that period of his life and use the book to learn more about him as a person, or ask yourself what elements make it a heartwarming story without caring about the author’s intentions at all, or you can problematize whether Cindy Lou Who perpetuates stereotypes of women as innocent and childlike as opposed to the male Grinch’s aggression, or read it as a story of religious epiphany and conversion, or as a criticism of capitalism, or as a response to aggressive marketing of Christmas at the time of its publication, or compare the message to that of other books that came out in 1957, or compare it to later iterations of the Grinch, or… can you tell I have fun with this? There are almost endless paths to take when you look critically at a work of literature, and the hallmark of a great work is that it lends itself to so many rich and varied approaches.**
I was particularly enamored of the type of criticism that evaluates the text’s inherent value; the only tool you require is the text itself. You appreciate its internal logic, its language and prosody, its symbols and imagery, and how well it works as a self-contained work of art, instead of needing to have a background in subject areas like history and philosophy and psychology to appreciate it. It’s the approach that I most easily grasped, and this was how I was primarily taught in school to approach literature through close readings. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also probably the easiest method to teach. In Honors English we acknowledged that some intellectual movements influenced each other, but by and large we examined fiction and poetry based on its own merits. We didn’t spend much time examining the connections across literature and into other disciplines like history and economics, about who might have reacted against whom and why. My history classes didn’t examine those connections, either. We read textbooks dryly listing one event after another, dates and names continuing in an endless march. Even though I took notes as best as I could, I didn’t realize the cause and effect, the interconnectedness of history, until it presented itself on the photocopied multiple choice test, almost as an accusation. “Why did Britain send such-and-such a ship over to this place?” Why didn’t we cover this in the review session?
My single history course in college wasn’t much better either: no research paper, but a collection of terms whose definitions were to be memorized, dates that were to be paired to events by graphite lines, proper nouns in long-dead languages that were to be assigned to amorphous shapes on a map. Again, time flowed forward like a river, names and places surfacing briefly before being pulled back under by the current as other names and places arose from the depths to replace them. I didn’t learn how to see the strings connecting them, how one name tugged another upwards, and another, even as it faded out of sight. How there was a different-colored string connecting this name over here. How one single string could connect so many ideas, even though it changed color so many times and was barely visible to begin with. So I ignored the strings, and more than one literature instructor noticed this weakness of mine. If I had dedicated more time squinting to finally see those strings, if I had given myself a better foundation in history, perhaps I would have had a chance at being a literature scholar. At the very least, I would be able to better understand what Tolstoy is saying about late 19th century Russian identity in the 900-some pages of Anna Karenina, instead of waiting for Levin to stop whining so we can get back to plot and character development.
To be sure, my personal inability to identify historical context isn’t at all due to my college instructors. I don’t necessarily think it’s due to my high school teachers either. I had good teachers, and I had bad teachers, as everyone does, regardless of their school district’s test scores or tax base. Some teachers were fairly fresh from pedagogical training, others had first learned a teaching philosophy that had long since passed out of vogue. Some methods that didn’t work for me worked well for other students. I think the aims of the curriculum might have been a bigger issue.
I’m not an expert on the history and development of education, but it comes up when you’re in college long enough and take courses in book history (okay, so I lied, I did take a couple more history courses) and learn that hundreds of years ago, we were studying Greek classics as a method of developing moral character. We avoided teaching subjects that we thought would lead to moral decay, and outlawed books that might pervert our sensibilities. At some point we decided to offer education to everyone, and when Sputnik was launched, we brought a renewed focus on science and mathematics to our curriculum. Now STEM is the big thing, and I host science programs at work for elementary school students and wonder how to integrate coding and computer technology into my offerings. It seems that our curricula are now more focused on preparing young adults for the workforce and to be good citizens than it is to breed thinkers. We measure student outcomes with multiple choice tests based in retention of “facts,” such as the glossy, clean rendition of American history that I received that made me think we had gotten rid of institutionalized racism with the Civil Rights movement, and that the founding fathers were basically infallible, and that our current system of government is the best. There are heroes and there are villains in this constructed narrative, and constructed it is. History in any form is not truly a fact-based field, but is our attempt to get as close to the truth as possible. Even science and mathematics are only fact-based to the best of our human ability, and our facts sometimes change. Of course, we need some sort of framework if we want to grow our knowledge, so we decide on some basic facts. Gravity pulls us downwards, so now let’s come up with equations for mass and acceleration. Two plus two equals four, so let’s make a multiplication table. Democracy is the highest form of government, so let’s view non-democratic countries as “developing” and help them achieve this form of government by stepping in when they experience political destabilization, or view them as enemies when they reject democracy. We also separate our disciplines, further obfuscating those strings I was talking about. You take History class, or English, or Economics, or Biology, or CAD. And then you learn the associated facts and develop the skills. As if history and English don’t inform one another, or science and literature and economics and design somehow aren’t affecting one other’s trajectories.
The joint effect of the focus on measurable and marketable knowledge and skills, and the way we rend apart our disciplines, discourages us from developing intangible skills that are just as important, if not moreso. Like seeing context. Like having the ability to question one’s sources. “That’s what college is for,” some might say. But I disagree. I think everyone, regardless if they’re going to be a bioengineer or an auto mechanic or a CEO for a financial advising company or a picker at an Amazon warehouse should have some critical skills. They don’t have to be mastered – not everyone has to geek out and apply feminist criticism to children’s books – but critical thinking skills make for better citizens, better workers, and most importantly, better and more empowered human beings.
On a hiking trip in rural New York this past summer, I had a conversation with an older gentlemen who was out hiking for the day. He showed me his map and guidebook that he had borrowed from his public library, and we talked about how awesome libraries are. But when I told him what my husband does for a living, he waved his hand and said, “like we need another historian.” This came after he said he expressed admiration for “that black guy” – no, not Obama. Ben Carson.
But we do need historians. Especially right now, in 2017. Does the general population need the specifics of high-level historical research? I would say no, we won’t all benefit from reading my husband’s dissertation. I probably won’t read it and I live with the guy. But we do need people like him who are skilled in understanding structures, who can see the strings better than anyone, and who can explain how they work. Historians, philosophers, and others with high levels of liberal arts education can identify characteristics of political and cultural movements, can analyze policies and how and why authorities use language the way they do, and hypothesize outcomes. They are well-equipped to explain how our country is moving towards authoritarianism, and what we can do to reverse it. We desperately need people with the intangible skills that are developed through study of history, and literature, and the other humanities.
And we need the general public to trust them. As the gentlemen in New York demonstrated to me, we have a problem with active distrust of education. This is convenient to authority figures who are adept at manipulation. If we focus your educational system on workforce preparation, as our current policymakers do, our bioengineers and warehouse packers lose access to those intangible critical skills that help us realize when we are being played. Political rhetoric in this last election has constructed a wall between the highly educated, who tend to be left-leaning, and the right-leaning blue collar workers. Educational attainment has become a partisan issue. But that makes every single one of us more vulnerable. When we distrust those who can look critically, and we haven’t been taught how to do it ourselves, we are vulnerable to those that know how to subtly, strategically cause emotional reactions in us and make us feel victimized. We become more vulnerable to social injustices like Spencer’s white supremacy, which can sound reasonable when you disregard the knowledge of those who have studied how white supremacy has played out through history, and you have somebody telling you that this is the way to make you no longer feel like a victim. And when you disregard that knowledge of how white supremacy works, you also disregard the knowledge of what white supremacy has ultimately led to.
* I am trying to choose my words carefully so as not to inject too much of my own emotion into the way I’m writing about Spencer. His tactic relies on people like me to react strongly and emotionally to his statements, which makes me appear unhinged and, as a result, makes me look like the irrational party and thus adds credibility to his worldview among those who don’t agree with me. Read another blog post, and you can probably guess how I really feel about somebody who was fired from conservative publications for his extremist views.
** Literature is one of many humanities disciplines that can be approached in multiple ways. In history, you can look at a primary document such as a list of people who didn’t pay their taxes, and from that you can infer not just who didn’t pay their taxes, but with some outside research, you can infer if a country was funding highly unpopular wars that people didn’t want to pay for, or if it was trying to make things difficult for women or religious minorities or immigrants or certain social classes, or if it was bankrupt and putting the burden on its citizens, if its infrastructures were too big or too disorganized, if other countries had similar tax policies, if an individual tax collector was manipulating the system for his or her own gain, etc.