Literature, Teaching, Ideology

Cross-posted from The Valve

All courses are ideologically loaded. The status quo is always going to try to force courses to represent status quo ideology, all the while pretending and/or believing that this is not political indoctrination.

As Terry Eagleton notes in “Conclusion: Political Criticism” in Literary Theory: An Introduction: “Radical critics…have a set of social priorities with which most people at present tend to disagree. This is why they are commonly dismissed as ‘ideological’, because ideology’ is always a way of describing other people’s interests rather than our own.”

Beyond that, it seems to me that there are so many very effective (and needed) ways to teach progressive/humane knowledge that are not typically considered to be “advocacy pedagogy” by the status quo power structure (including every example I noted in my previous comments), ways that fall under the standard of academic freedom, that far, far more could be done along these lines than currently is being done, without potentially being confronted by any but the most extreme right wing zealots like Horowitz.

The third issue here, it seems to me, is what happens when teachers take advantage of such vital progressive/humane teaching possibilities, so that there is a greater cumulative libratory effect than currently, and/or what happens when certain teachers go beyond whatever the status quo powers accept on a case by case basis? Well, then you have real struggles for real power and real education and real action that should exist wherever illegitimate authority is imposed. That’s essential to progress.

Otherwise, if we don’t push the boundaries of what teaching and creation is appropriate, we get a culture that, well, we may contribute to some of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism —

“The modern history of literary study has been bound up with the development of cultural nationalism, whose aim was first to distinguish the national canon, then to maintain its eminence, authority, and aesthetic autonomy…. [There has been] an absolute requirement for the Western system of ideology that a vast gulf be established between the [ostensibly] civilized West, with its traditional commitment to human dignity, liberty, and self-determination, and the [supposed] barbaric brutality of those who for some reason—perhaps defective genes—fail to appreciate the depth of this historic commitment, so well revealed by America’s Asian wars, for example.”

Now Middle East wars, etc. I see it strikingly in my area of creative focus: we wind up with a culture that fails to produce a flood of overt antiwar novels, and many other so-called partisan novels about other crucial issues.

If professors and students don’t take such stands, in teaching and learning (that they are perfectly entitled to take, if not under certain laws, or certain interpretations of certain laws), then everyone contributes to Nazifying the country and beyond, actively or by omission. Nobody knows what the “tipping point” is, or might be…nobody knows how many war debunking novels, for example, need to circulate in classrooms and without, be “taught” and read, how many plays like Lysistrata need to be put on, how many women need to stop sleeping with men, and/or how much else elsewhere needs to go on before students and others on campus, say, call a “college strike” that avalanches into labor strikes, and a general strike altogether that shuts the country down for a period of time that thus forces the end of the Iraq occupation, or cuts the military budget in half, or more, etc.

The problem is – not enough people resist the illegitimate, thus – slaughter. The problem is, too often, I think, we don’t see what we are doing and not. We’re conforming to the extraordinarily ideological status quo, habitually obedient, in thought, in action – which is the only way a country as otherwise free as the US could wind up with a government that carries out such crimes against humanity and other violations. What could be more truly educational in especially virtually any contemporary humanities or social science course, at least, than teaching in such a way that is ideologically and factually and aesthetically and socially and politically and educationally, etc, liberating? Again, this is what the status quo often calls simply, ideological, as Eagleton notes. It seems to me we have an obligation to resist, though we must each choose our own way. The same goes for soldiers in the military, and citizens in general. These are often hard choices, hard decisions (though sometimes not; sometimes we just have to recognize the real possibilities). We can think of options that are suggestive in various ways. But to give advice would seem almost worthless. It’s hard enough just to try to “advise” one’s own self. Each person has to make his or her own call, in face of problems real or perceived.

Of course, some ideologies are appropriate, some aren’t. Simply holding an open argument or discussion advances certain ideological assumptions. That’s appropriate. Considering a question from all sides – that’s appropriate. Having one party dictate in a classroom what may be, say, drawn as evidence or not, or be brought up for consideration or not, is not appropriate. 

It’s also entirely appropriate for a professor to advance, to argue a certain point of view, such as, say, the US is the world’s leading terrorist state, or God is a fiction that cannot be proved, or autobiographical novels are the greatest novels of all, in a class so long as the professor also allows for and helps to facilitate open discussion. That’s all ideological and all appropriate, since the norms of free exchange of ideas (again, also ideological) are observed. The professor should want to be challenged; that’s appropriate (also ideological). Disallowing open discussion on the basis of, say, some notion that the professor is more experienced and therefore knows better is ideological, sure, but again what isn’t? The fact that it’s ideological doesn’t/shouldn’t disqualify it, but the fact that it is not normatively appropriate should bar it. It violates norms of free and open inquiry that are vital to intellectual activity (at the least).

Yes, I too had professors who couldn’t get anywhere close to 2 + 2 = 4 when discussing on certain ideological grounds.

Of course when you are examining literature as a socially symbolic form you are teaching literature “in terms of ideas” in some way. It’s also entirely appropriate to discuss and think about any number of conceptual elements of the work or that are raised in the work. I’ve here been speaking a lot of thinking about the normative elements of literature—how valuable it is, in what ways, to whom…? Also conceptual elements of all variety.

Is it appropriate to offer a class full of hate literature (like Mein Kampf or the Turner Diaries) without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. Is it appropriate to offer a class full of literature that tends to reinforce a complaisant status quo view of a society that is homicidal in many ways without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. Even less so, because isn’t doing the latter even potentially more monstrous than the former? Everyone or virtually everyone knowingly rejects the obviously heinous as compared to not necessarily seeing anything wrong with, say, the also heinous but officially sanctioned, like the Iraq invasion, etc. Is it appropriate to offer a course full of, say, progressive novels without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. It should all be questioned and discussed openly.

Some classes too are properly taught in a division of labor sort of way in that the focus may be almost entirely on some array of technical aspects of a work without going into any normative aspects or normative implications of the technical.

The thing is, it’s not unreasonable for professors to, well, _profess_ about the conceptual and/or otherwise technical and/or the normative. Haven’t you ever gone to a great talk where some author/artist/intellectual goes into great detail about his or her view of something – the world, politics, something technical, whatever? You can learn so much. Oftentimes you learn the most in the question and answer sessions that should immediately follow such talks. That is entirely appropriate in a regular classroom, so long as you encourage students to challenge your views and understandings and facilitate their ability to do so. It’s not the only way that teaching can be done, as I’ve discussed previously, but it’s one lively and appropriate way. And it works better for some teachers and students than the also effective but sometimes dry teacher-hides-his-own-conclusions approach. The one style can be problematically passionate and/or phony; the other can be problematically dry and/or phony as well.

I don’t pretend to deny that teaching has consequences. The teacher Socrates was killed by the “state” for that. And I don’t pretend to be entirely ignorant about what sort of teaching can lead to what sort of consequences. Ideas have consequences, art has consequences. The state knows it. We teachers should too, and we should use that knowledge responsibly. More responsibly than the state does, much of the time.

“Advocacy pedagogy” is a term I first heard at the Valve recently. I don’t know if it has some specific legal technical meaning in some context. But I’ve used it here to refer to teaching in such a way that teachers think is likely to be illuminating and consequently to have some other likely constructive individual and/or social or political (that is, public) effect, or any number of other effects. This, after all, is what university mission statements and expressed core values are all about: advancing the well being of individuals and the public, not least—intellectually and otherwise.

Somewhat like universities, and other public and private institutions, the military often doesn’t live up to its expressed ideals and values and missions either. If it did, none of the Generals and soldiers would have obeyed the President’s illegal and immoral command to invade Iraq. The analogy isn’t perfect, but some soldiers do stand up and stand against, as they ought, and it has been reported that lately even the Generals have been making it known they will only go so far. Teachers, students, people generally, have analogous obligations in their own various realms. We shouldn’t pretend or allow ourselves to be conned into believing that it is otherwise.


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