Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"For the Scoffer There are No Answers"

Michael S. Roth's article, "Young Minds in Critical Condition," made me recall my college years.
A professor like Roth really is a rarity. Most hound their students to analyze, which in turn usually means overcomplicate. In literary classes, I heard two completely differing perspectives on Kipling's "The White Man's Burden"; it was impossible that both were right.
In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. They may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in the classroom.
Once outside the university, these students may try to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school, but those points often come at their own expense. As debunkers, they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.
The dates that have to shred every comment to triumphantly reveal what I "actually" think: Dude, I told you what I believe. I'm not going to defend my point all night. I have work in the morning.
Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.
As a Bais Yaakov student, I can appreciate a good analyzation of the texts. But at some point, if one doesn't stop delving, one forgets the message—one fails to see the forest for the trees.
Sometimes, a couch is not a reflection of the main character's need for psychological evaluation. Sometimes a couch is just . . .  a couch.

I have a niece, the Wise One, who really enjoys a good yentitz. You could never really tell, though. 

At the Shabbos table, her face is a blank. Her eyes appear sleepy, the gaze vague, as she slowly, carelessly dissects her gefilte fish and shnitzel. Because she doesn't seem to be paying attention, the adults go at it. After all, she's not listening, right? 

But as my little actress cackles, "I know sooooo much." 

She is a sponge, indiscriminately soaking up material; whether it is useful, intelligent, or plain stupid—well, we'll figure that out later. In the meantime, she absorbs any sort of knowledge, without judgment or critique. 

That is a great quality. 


Daniel Saunders said...

Thinking critically isn’t the same as being critical. It’s about testing propositions, not automatic scepticism. I think the attitude Roth identifies has more to do with postmodernism than critical thinking (I wrote a long paragraph here justifying this, but decided to cut it).

Despite this, I agree that this detachment and ultra-scepticism is wearying and has become counter-productive. The same goes for a culture that does not allow the creation of new meaning.

Regarding your Kipling poem, I think with literature, and the humanities in general, it is inevitable that there is no ‘final answer’. This frustrated me somewhat as an undergraduate studying history (even though my tutorial essays were masterpieces of fence-sitting!), but now I see it as inevitable. There are limits to human knowledge; sometimes all we can do is analyse and try to find the most likely answer, accepting that different people will see it different ways.

Your niece reminds me a bit of myself when I was younger! Forgive my ignorance, what’s ‘yentitz’? I was brought up without much Yiddish. Usually I have enough to get the gist of what you say and context helps, but not here.

Princess Lea said...

It is a very fine line - of course, not every scrap of writing makes comprehensive sense, but college students are often trained to lunge for the jugular first.

Ah, "yetitz." Gossip, really. "Did you heat about _________?" "The sort of girl ________ is engaged to?" "He said what to his father?"

I am not proud.