End Notes: On Wounds and Healing

By J.D. Phillips

Have you ever noticed how unusual academics are?

From standard oddities (like the absent-minded professor’s curious taste in clothing or his opaque sense of humor) to neurotic eccentricities (his social awkwardness or unusual parenting habits) to full-scale psychopathologies (a rigid and destructive adherence to dogma, a strange intolerance for dissent), students sure notice!

Why are academics so unusual, so abnormal? I think it’s because professors, completely devoted and pious as they are to disciplinary expertise, to their focused and arcane area of specialization, are alienated from the rest of intellectual life, from an authentic and full human life. Combinatorial group theory, or lattice gauge theory, or Chicano literature, or medieval Chinese poetry is not the proper end of a full human intellectual life. But too often we professors conceive of each of them, quite blindly, as if it were. We mistake our genuine and hard earned, but pinched and narrow, disciplinary mastery for wisdom. We flatter ourselves by assuming that our own beloved discipline can do the impossible—allow us to see beyond its necessarily limited horizons to the broader and comprehensive concerns of the nature of the world and our place in it. In this way we are, I think, wounded.

Students see this wound, our pain, and our afflicted, tremulous, yearning for healing. Students, unlike us, understand, usually only in an inchoate way, that the proper ends of intellectual life are not arcane and specialized disciplinary expertise. They yearn for something more, for something expansive; they resist narrow overtures from the blind and wounded.

The signal act of defiance of a liberal arts college like Wabash is its deliberate and systemic allowance for the possibility of resisting this myopia. Wabash carves out a space for those rare professors who view the cultivation of disciplinary expertise as subservient to much broader aims, aims that cannot be met by simple fealty to a hodge-podge of introductory “general education” courses in a random assemblage of discipline-based departments, or by the incantation of tired slogans like “critical thinking”, the industry standards in American higher education. Juxtaposed against the deeply muddled way in which our “industry” understands technical mastery, research specialization, and the concomitant “professionalization” to be the chief qualifications to teach college students, our quixotic, even heroic, resistance can be seductive and inspiring, to both faculty and students.

Eva Brann from St. John’s College offers an instructive commentary on the difference between genuine questions and sham questions that serves as an opening tonic to higher education’s confused dyspepsia. A genuine question is one that the questioner doesn’t know the answer to. It leaves uncertainty in its wake and generates authentic conversation in which none of the participants knows the answer, but all desire it. In fact, a genuine question is nothing more than the desire for an answer. A sham question—a problem set, for instance—on the other hand, is one that the questioner already knows the answer to, and hence, cares very little about; for instance, from a typical problem set in the calculus, “What is the derivative of the sine function?”

And while clearly we should be inquiring with our students by asking genuine questions, instead we usually spend our time asking sham questions (in mathematics, this takes the form of pursuing scientifically intentioned problem sets). In the absence of genuine questions—that is, in the absence of actual inquiry—a fetish for method invades our thinking and our teaching. After all, when “teaching” becomes nothing more than revealing what we already know to those who do not yet know—that is, when teaching becomes merely “professing”—what’s left but method? Here is Camus, from The Fall, on method: “When one has no character, one has to apply a method.” Classroom management techniques, group projects, lavish computer applications, multi-media extravaganzas, silver bullet textbooks, service learning schemes, pedagogical workshops and retreats, web-assisted delivery systems, even (heaven help us!) distance learning, become the heart of the matter. The professor merely searches for the most effective technique for dispensing information; he or she becomes coordinator, facilitator, and manager of “materials”. And eventually the students themselves become the material, to be shaped, cast, and manufactured by the professor.

The professor’s ultimate ambition in all of this molding—be he a conservative moralist, a political correct post-modern, or a religious fundamentalist—is to straighten his students out morally, to teach and preach virtue. And so we see that, at least as professors, the dogmatic right and the tolerant left are simply obverse images of the same worn coin. Their self-delusion about the deep-seated desire to remain morally unchallenged is coextensive. It is a self-delusion which itself challenges the freedom which is the necessary backdrop for a liberal arts education; the possibility of inquiry is simply passed over in silence.

Of course, no one wants to be used as materials, to be treated as means. So students resist. We then respond with a feverish pursuit of a better method, a renewed and intensified zeal to profess. Students, always smarter than we think they are, dig in their heels, and resist even more ferociously. The possibility of an authentic liberal education is crushed under the weight of straightening students out, of treating them as means, and not ends.

One way we try to “fix” this is by cultivating an obsession with utility, both in what we teach and in how we teach. We see this obsession in our relentless campaign to defend a college education on the grounds that it guarantees both economic success and good citizenship. The connection between love of money and love of knowing is unclear at best.

Claims about guaranteeing good citizenship are even more puzzling. A school that devotes itself to authentic liberal education, one that esteems freedom, is a radical and dangerous institution, as it systematically incorporates into its assumptions the possibility that eventually those whom it educates will turn away from all of the virtues it cherishes and embrace instead all that is subversive and threatening, to the school and to the state. That is, it is necessarily potentially self-undermining as it allows for the possibility of its own demise. Good citizenship? The state thought Socrates was such a good citizen that it executed him!

Ultimately this obsession with utility in higher education is especially pernicious in that it nullifies our claim—a claim, ironically enough, nearly unique to the liberal arts—that a life devoted to actual inquiry is an end in itself.

How, then, might we respond to this malaise? One way is by carving out a small community on the margins (as Wabash biologist/poet Robert Petty might have said) of the higher education landscape, devoted at least in part to the dangerous and subversive project of reading difficult books, asking big questions, and not being satisfied merely with technical—and hence, provincial—mastery. Our hope is that you will eventually emerge from this community a little less foolish than when you entered, and that you just might even learn how to live well. The radical message of dissent that Wabash announces to the world is that it allows for such a community, out here, in the margins.

J.D. Philllips is chair of the Wabash College Department of Mathematics and a member of the WM Editorial Advisory Board.