I have assigned Fear and Trembling for this semester, and though I considered skipping Problema III, my bias toward “reading the whole thing” led me to include it. Now that I’m rereading it in preparation for class, I realize one reason that I might not have wanted to include it — it… refers to things! Things the student may not have heard of! (Agnes and the merman, the Book of Tobit, etc.)
Shimer students may turn out to be different in this regard, as in so many other regards, but my past experience leads me to believe that when an author is referring to something they’ve never heard of, students tend to shut down mentally. This is the case even if the author provides enough information for you to go on in context. And in those cases where students don’t shut down mentally, the tendency is to be skeptical that, for instance, the person being critiqued is “really” guilty of what they’re being critiqued for, even though they don’t have any particular reason to doubt or any way of assessing the claim without significant further research.
The responses I hope for in such situations have been rare in my experience thus far: either taking the author at his or her word and focusing on what the author is doing with the referred-to text or figure (i.e., whether or not it’s the case that Hegel objectively is a totalizing rationalist with no room for individuality, it is the case that Kierkegaard objects to “that kind of thing”), or else looking up the unknown thing on Wikipedia. In the first case, the student sticks to what they know (i.e., the text at hand), while in the second case, the student seeks out the missing information themselves — meanwhile, in the more frequent responses, they seem ultimately to be doing little more than complaining that no one gave them the necessary information.
I should make it clear, however, that I don’t think the students are individually to blame for the latter response, because the culture of American education very strongly inculcates that kind of learned helplessness and passivity when it comes to learning. And of course, in many educational settings, the instructors themselves display a corollary form of learned helplessness, treating these tendencies in students as brute facts to which the only possible responses fall along a continuum between lamentation and bitter complaint.
The result is a missed encounter, where the students feel aggrieved that the professor didn’t give them what they need and the professor feels aggrieved that the students expect to be given everything. Yet what kind of an example is the professor, who — in a striking parallel with students who complain of the lack of “background,” that mysterious knowledge that always should have been given beforehand and yet somehow cannot be gained through one’s own effort — always expects that some previous educator should have told the students not to expect to be given everything?