Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

I woke up this morning to a retweet of JKAS’ Wall Street Journal “Has Anyone Seen Last Year’s Promising Freshman?” It was, umm, “interesting” to read a pedagogical perspective dripping with utter contempt for his students especially as I had gone bed late last night reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. hooks encourages her readers to foster an openness in the classroom driven in part by student desire but also that recognizes that every pedagogical decision is a political decision, that when one teaches only the canon that one has advocated something. Teaching is never simply teaching and if you think it is you’re either not thinking or being willfully ignorant. Now, if we take JKAS at his word at being “invited into this exclusive club” of “liberal enlightenment”, would should, I suppose, trust that he is smart enough to know how insulting his article will be taken as an insult. After all, in it he lambasts professors, his very colleagues (I suppose tenure makes rascals of folks), for not simply  extolling the virtues of the Western and instead “confuse teaching with advocacy”. But setting aside the veracity of such a claim (it seems to me to lack merit) we may assume that while JKAS is aware enough to know it will cause offense we may also assume, since he wrote the article, that he enjoys the fact that it will be offensive. He may even feel that he’s struck a blow against the complex of PC college professors whose only taste for intolerance is against the intolerant. In other words, JKAS is a contrarian and so shares less in common with the lover of wisdom than he does with the sophist who likes the way the words feel in his mouth. Ironically this means he shares more in common with the common right-wing caricature of “social justice warriors” who get off on their outrage as he clearly is enjoying his own smug denigration.

It is interesting and evidences that JKAS knows who he is subtweeting in his WSJ op-ed that he makes reference to “Toni Morrison’s Kentucky” amidst “Homer’s Greece” and “Augustine’s Rome”. But of course this is pure tokenism, an attempt to inoculate himself against the charge that he only cares about dead white men (Augustine excluded, despite how he passes) because he benefits from the world that the ideas of dead white men created. But, of course, he does and so do I. It’s also interesting he would assume someone who was interested in micro-aggressions (despite the denigration present in the article by placing a sociologically and psychologically studied phenomenon in quotation marks as if they didn’t exist, though maybe they don’t for goateed white Canadian men) would no longer be interested in Aquinas’s conception of natural law. Might it be that he has confused interest with ascent? Might it be that the narrowness he ascribes to these imaginary Sophomores is just fantasy? Could it be that JKAS just can’t believe the kids these days don’t like Led Zeppelin or, as we are all getting older, Joy Division? The dichotomy he presents is typical of a pedagogy that denigrates student interests and is unconcerned for bringing together the canon with contemporary work done on race, gender, and other issues JKAS does not appear to value past their minimal “laudability”. What else would you expect from someone who, as his twitter feed testifies to, values William F. Buckley over James Baldwin? Who, teaching in a country where a black man is killed by police officers every 24-48 hours, declares concerns with racial justice to be “cliche”?

As Adam said on his twitter today, I am tired of the denigration of college professors and the denigration of Millennials. It is interesting that students at predominately white and middle-class institution like Calvin College would raise such dad-rock ire from JKAS. It suggests that his colleagues are doing a better job than I would expect, but it also suggests that this generation is moved by the contradictions of our age to find some kind of response to the myriad problems facing their generation, ranging from the crisis of American democracy driven by our culture of incarceration and big business interests to global unrest and the subsequent need for solidarity due to climate change. Only a narrow conception of the canon would assume that we have to choose between teaching the tradition, teaching recent work driven by a concern for social justice, and teaching appreciation for “the complexity of the world”. How can a professor ever hope to aid their students in seeing the complexity of the world if they only teach the intellectual work of an incredibly narrow slice of that world? It seems to me the question isn’t where that promising young Freshman went, but why would they stick around at all if we aren’t going to actually help them engage with the world with theoretical tools. Because I think it is important not to let disdainful dad rockers have the last word, let me quote bell hooks on what drove her to theory: “I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grape what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 59).” Amen.

21 thoughts on “Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

  1. bell hook’s chapter on theory in Teaching to Transgress is probably my favorite thing she’s ever written and was exactly what encouraged my educational pursuits as I’ve undertaken them. I saw in hooks a sharp theoretical mind that was always driven by material concerns for black folks, and I was affirmed then, in my experience that the lack of overt politics in the classroom was precisely the means by which an education in whiteness occurred and if I was to have any kind of resistance to that, I would have to do so precisely by theorizing out of black material realities and lives and stories and joys and sufferings. That JKAS collapses all that into petty concerns about micro-aggressions and his own butt-hurtness about PC professors shows he never really understood in the first place what marginalized students were going through or why privileged students would maybe desire to decenter themselves.

  2. Of the many annoying things about that piece, I thought his criticism of students for having “confidence” was telling. I think one of the kind of magical things about teaching is when students, somehow, begin to have enough confidence in their understanding of the material to risk putting forward their own interpretations; in other words, when they’re not just listening with rapt attention waiting for their teachers to “invite them into new worlds.”

  3. Great title. What we have here full blown anti-PC rant, a violent Tory of the old school having a little cry. Could not be more glad people are getting up his nose by talking about micro-aggressions – more power to them! May the children of Tumblr politics and trigger warnings overwhelm his college!

  4. As a former student of some of JKA Smith’s colleagues at Calvin College, I’m pretty happy they opted for “debunking ‘traditional’ values” rather than the grumpy old dude shtick that Smith seems to love to adopt these days.

    “You’re too smart to settle for ideology” is just an embarrassingly stupid thing to say. That sounds like something that Bill O’Reilly would tell his viewers.

    Here is a link to an ungated version of the article.

  5. you can of course like dad-rock while being opposed to what JKA Smith personifies and promotes…i suppose the analogy is also, for those of us nearing 50, to always being open to blue ducks ( thanks APS) and J Dilla (thanks Dan Barber) – in other words- open to all and open to the critique and learning appreciatively from those of another generation and promote-as i believe we should- our students to critically engage and to put forward their own interpretations.
    of course JKA Smith’s position is nothing to do with age and everything to do with ethos and self-mythology- we must all know the myriad of ‘young old dudes’ who hide from the world teaching in higher education…

  6. “Dad rock”, by the very definition given in the urban dictionary, refers to the person and not to any particular music. Zep or Joy Division may transcend generation gaps, but the individual who refuses to see that not everything good true and beautiful died with their generation does not. So, that to say, one does not like dad rock, one is dad rock. So we aren’t disagreeing.

  7. Riffing off of Amaryah’s comment, I think there is also a certain ressentiment present for the dad rocker in the ability of the oppressed (as actually oppressed) to do things like “theorizing out of black material realities and lives and stories and joys and sufferings.” This is something that white bread communitarian Christianity, the PR wing of soft-neo-Constantinianism, claims to be doing for its own members, but of course this is entirely a fantasy.

  8. “And when I realized that my adolescent rebellion could be shoehorned into an ill-conceived category made up by the Church Fathers as a catch-all for their opponents — well, then I was really cooking with gas!”

  9. I just had a cold shudder after I read it and realized how he (and I in the past) deployed the term canonical . . . because you know when the prophets ranted they only did so because they would be tempered by the mellow sages that would write Proverbs later on.

  10. And the analogy to Wisdom literature, which contains its own radical rupture in two of its three canonical instances (Job and Ecclesiastes), is a terrible analogy for something meant to counterbalance Apocalyptic, especially because wisdom probably had something to do with the emergence of apocalyptic literature (see Daniel 7-12 and its concern for secret wisdom). But that’s probably too picky a comment. Anyway, I don’t really understand the dichotomy between creation and apocalyptic because creation presumes a radical departure from whatever came before it, which is the hallmark of apocalypticism. Both are radically disjunctive. And thus it’s kind of hard to tell the difference…

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