Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Post Which Roils

One of the blogs I troll is called In Socrates' Wake, written by teachers about teaching, especially the teaching of philosophy. I'm not a teacher, except by the abhorrent personal habit of forcing my wisdom on others, unfettered by their acceptance or appreciation of same.

Usually, ISW is instructive, even enlightening, and always thoughtful.

This post, while instructive and enlightening, just made me want to scream.

Teaching Feminist and Race Theory: problematic assumptions and positive transformations

I teach feminist and race theory to five students, four of whom are white, none of whom are female. Yet, for all their lack of diversity, they understand the philosophical relevance of gender and race. Critical theory for them, however, was remarkably new when they began. While they began their studies with me in order to broaden their perspective in social and political philosophy, none of them had ever reflected on some of the contemporary social structures and implicit patterns of thought that are implicitly sexist and/or racist. None of the students were sexist or racist when they entered the course, and they would have been quite defensive about being labeled as such. Yet, on campus, and in other classes, this was the challenge they faced.

I dare you to read it all.

Instead of screaming, I wrote this:
The most interesting aspect of this is how self-absorbed and myopic is the entire field of feminist and race theory. I am critical both of your methods and your goals, either of which you may accept or reject.

Because while you complain to young learners how difficult life is for someone who is not white and male, millions of non-white non-males are out in the world ignoring, sidestepping, or overcoming the hurdles placed in front of all of us, striving, excelling, and winning.

With the assumption of systemic "oppression", you doom all who buy into your world view to a life of learned helplessness. All of their hopes and dreams must go into cheating the system which they have been told oppresses them, or into the ballot box, which is cheating by official means.

Because individuals are not bound by the nature or the common limitations of the groups to which they belong. It is profoundly racist or sexist to say that they do.

I was struck by your statement that the students coming in had a remarkable lack of diversity, listing as your only evidence that four of them were open-minded white males. That displays an amazing lack of introspection, even hypocrisy. Because I'm sure you would agree that people are not defined by their skin or gender.

On another level, by stating a priori that there is "systemic oppression", you as the authority in the classroom establish that principle as an inarguable tenet of the class. This puts the student on the defensive. That's great for establishing the power of the teacher in the classroom, but not great for actually learning anything other than that racism and sexism are bad, which your students already seem to have known coming in.

Further, it makes the students feel guilty for being who they are. If that is your goal, you're nothing but a jerk with a lectern.

So I will assume it is not your goal. But it appears to be your major accomplishment.

As I said, it's one of the blogs I troll.


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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like that person was "nothing but a jerk with a lectern." I read it all. Bleh! You, on the other hand, continue to bat 1.000. ~Jimboyo

Ted Shank said...

It is in the best of my opinion to doubt everything you have said about 'The jerk with a lectern'. I myself am not imposing an ad hominem attack, but rather a necessary intervention on what seems to be your take on philosophical discussion. I am assuming that since you are critiquing such discussion, you also have an idea of how to do so. However, what you have said about Jason M. Nicholson's post, (I'll refer to him as JMN for now), seems very demeaning as you discredit his goals/methods upon multiple insights that he brings forward. It is disturbing to find such a fallacious attack in such a highly respected blog. I do not intend to say that your argument against JMN is wrong, but I would like to assert that your own argument requires more evidence. It appears that you have found something wrong in JMN's post, if you reformulate what you are trying to say, then it could very well be beneficial to the 'in Socrates wake' blog.

Perhaps a second look at JMN's post will clear up some of the problems that you had brought forward. For one, your denial of systemic oppression might be stronger if you provide reasoning behind it, as opposed to simply stating your approach is obvious. You have many conclusions, but the evidence behind such seems to be somewhere else entirely. To JMN, it is quite clear that a systemic oppression exists, as he provides examples pointing to such a structure. In shedding light on this concept he does not forcibly alter the students opinions, instead he creates a ground upon which the students opinion might proceed forward. It is not wrong to deny someones argument, but it is not right to deny ones' argument without valid evidence. Needless to say, students of philosophy are not taught that what is read must formulate their opinions, they are instead taught to have valid opinions of the material. A crucial task that philosophy approaches is the search for truth, by studying philosophy the truth one might acquire is bent on the students' opinion towards the material itself. The job of the teacher is to carry forward a fulfilled understanding of the primary text. The opinion of the student that follows is either a rejection or an affirmation of what has been put forth. Thus, JMN is not telling the students what to believe, he is making a suggestion of what appears to lead to the overall truth.

After reading JMN's post, I can not find reasoning in saying that JMN tells his students they are sexist as you seem to suggest. Rather, by uncovering the hidden assumptions that we might have on certain social groups, JMN puts forth a liberation for himself as well as the others in the group. Liberation in the sense of uncovering something that needs to be uncovered, to further increase the awareness of the students. As the students affirm/deny that such hidden structures exist, a new take on what it means to be sexist is put forward. The students can not view themselves as sexist when they were not previously, because all hidden assumptions they had, were indeed hidden, and not intentional. JMN is not preaching faulty wisdom, he is raising a very interesting topic that enlightens the students whether they accept it or not.

As a philosopher, I appreciate any rationale feedback that you might have to offer me. For I find JMN's article to be both informative and respectful. Judging by your opposition to his argument, might you entertain what is so inherently wrong about his post.

-T. Shank

Loren Heal said...

Ted --

Thank you for your gracious words. What I am able to glean from them is A) an assertion that JMN provided evidence of systemic oppression which somehow eludes my ability to detect it and B) that the burden of proof is on me to dispute this evidence.

I fail in my deductive powers in another way. I direct your attention to the portion of your comment that says:

The job of the teacher is to carry forward a fulfilled understanding of the primary text. The opinion of the student that follows is either a rejection or an affirmation of what has been put forth. Thus, JMN is not telling the students what to believe, he is making a suggestion of what appears to lead to the overall truth.

There appears to be some amount of argument missing between the general case that students of philosophy are supposed to be given the opportunity to decide for themselves the worth of a text and their opportunity to do so in the specific instance of JMN's class. As it was my assertion that his students were not given this opportunity, I believe we have an impasse, which I may or may not have time to explore further.

Ted Shank said...

Your assertion that JMN's class does not provide the opportunity for opinion is once again founded on nothing, but an assertion. By deeming our discussion impasse, you assume that JMN has not presented any evidence himself for his argument. That being, the existence of a systemic oppression. However, it is clear in his initial post that by using examples such as, "My big fat redneck wedding", the students had actually uncovered hidden assumptions that were once not obvious. I do not believe that we have reached a stalemate, instead I would like to say that you have gotten JMN's post wrong. My evidence is contained in his post, the source of our discussion.

What you were able to glean from my post, your points being A and B, still hold true. You are indeed unable to detect his argument, and the burden of proof is still on you.

A valid criticism of his post would most likely be his desire, but in blindly scrutinizing the man by deeming his post "one to scream about", a lack of logical coherence arises. What you are doing here goes against the grain of that which is beneficial discussion, as you have still not provided any evidence for your claims. My goal in this post is to correct your tendency of critique for it is not helpful to any of those who seek it. I have made my suggestions, and whether you put them into practice or not is up to you. My aim for this reply is to make the mere observation of your presumptuous, illogical ways of reasoning. I only intend to make you more coherent in the future.

Thank you for reading this, for that is the least I ask of you to do.

Loren Heal said...

Thank you again for your kind and charitable response, Ted.

I do not consider "My redneck wedding" to be evidence of systemic oppression. Rather, it is people poking fun at themselves. They know they are unusual, and they know that they are considered low-class. They wear their low class as a badge of honor. Redneckedness is an inside joke which JMN, and apparently others, does not or do not get.

But if it were the case that rednecks were oblivious to their own ostracization, a television show ridiculing their behavior would still not be evidence of systemic oppression.

And if it were, it would not be evidence of systemic oppression of non-whites or females.

And even if it were clear proof of such ... well, my mind cannot embrace that deep a hypothetical, because the world would have to be a very different place for that alternate reality to exist.

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