Go Positive!

It’s been more than a little depressing to listen to debate performances over the last couple of months, in which candidates seem to gain in popularity by refining a formula of indignation and hostility. “How dare you,” says the candidate, puffing out his chest, wondering how any questioner could sink so low to ask about a character flaw. The same candidate then dives even lower to cast aspersions on anyone who might be considered a rival.

The research tells us why the candidates “go negative.” It works. SuperPac donors know where to invest, and they are investing in negativity in a big way. The Wesleyan Media Project research shows outside money “went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent, in 2012.” As we leave Florida and head out to Nevada, I’m afraid we can only expect more of the same.

I’m embarrassed to say that one of the key places where candidates and citizens acquire a taste for — and skills in — negativity is higher education. For decades now, we have promoted a culture of criticism in which you show how smart you are by tearing apart somebody else’s ideas. That’s a lot safer than showing how you might build your own set of ideas into something meaningful. In my recent book, Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past, I urge my colleagues to go beyond this culture of criticism to practices of creative exploration. The first off-campus reviewer of the collection couldn’t resist bringing up my dust-up with Zonker Harris. Here is an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, “Beyond Critical Thinking.”


I doubt that this [cultivation of negativity] is a particularly contemporary development. In the eighteenth century, there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that only prized skepticism and that was only satisfied with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that’s why we teach our students that it’s cool to say that they are engaged in “troubling” an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else’s view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).

In training our students in the techniques of being critical, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded — which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social engagement by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases, we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.

Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. … If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative rather than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean making an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For some, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.
The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we often create misunderstandings in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear in the languages people use the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another’s artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. … Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers, we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.

My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and patterns and relations. In so doing, they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that animate diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will give substance and character to their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustaining.

 cross-posted from Huffingtonpost