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.