Poulos on Taylor on Re-Structured University Education


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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9 Responses

  1. Avatar raft says:

    poulos is a lunatic.

    Why the fuck would ANYONE who’s interested in the humanities want to be “transmitted” with “authoritative knowledge”? And to actually PAY for the right to be “transmitted” to? Who the fuck would do that?

    Maybe in the 11th century AD. You know, before printing, or libraries, or cars, or the internet. And back when Aristotle and Aquinas (and Jesus, of course) were considered deities whose sacred texts would be “transmitted” from generation to generation within the select esoteric elite. But NOW? Any kid can log on to a computer for free and literally have every major religious, philosophical, and literary text ever written at his fingertips, plus massive encyclopedias, plus endless commentaries and explanations of those texts, plus communities of people devoted to their study. It’s all there, if he wants it. But there is no “transmission.” Because the kid is in control. He doesn’t study “under” anyone; rather, he’s self-educating himself, he’s thinking for himself, drawing on whatever sources interest him. No knowledge is authoritative, but all is contingent and incomplete. It is up to the kid to decide for himself what he wants to learn. THAT is the fulfillment of the true promise of an education in the humanities. There is no gatekeeper anymore, nor would there be any point to one. The internet’s democratization of information is the final stake in the heart of the obsolete apprentice-teacher model. What was once open only to the select (the university) is now open to the masses.

    of course Poulos, being a lunatic, actually thinks this is a bad thing.Report

  2. Avatar raft says:

    p.s. This might be a personal thing. Poulos is upset that a few decades from now there won’t be anyplace he can go to write a dissertation of “life after Napoleon.” I think it is safe to say that the rest of us will not be too upset.Report

  3. Avatar William Brafford says:

    “It is up to the kid to decide for himself what he wants to learn.”

    But at some point, the kid asks himself, “how can I have any confidence that what I want to learn has any correlation with what it is worthwhile to learn”? This question doesn’t inevitably resolve in the teacher/student model, but I don’t see why it should be dismissed out of hand as a way that communities of study bring new people into the fold. Which is not to say that I don’t think it’s awesome that dedicated autodidacts can independently work their way into communities of inquiry.

    I hope I’m not implicating myself in lunacy by disagreeing with you. Also: is it too flippant to ask if you have the same problem with the authoritarian methods of medical schools and residency periods? I mean, all that information is out there on the internet.Report

  4. Avatar raft says:

    come on. Are you really comparing a medical residency with reading Shakespeare? Obviously one of those things can be done over the internet and one cannot.

    To clarify, i never implied that we shouldn’t have schools or universities. And I think we ought to bring back the core curriculum in the humanities that used to be a staple of an undergraduate education. What I strongly take issue with is Poulo’s delusion that “highest education” in the humanities (as opposed to medicine, engineering, business, hairstyling, or any profession that demands actual tradeskills) is to be found in some sort of apprentice-teacher relationship in some university tower. That’s not been true for a very long time. It’s a stunning laughable contention in fact.Report

  5. Avatar William Brafford says:

    So the relevant distinction is tradeskills. That’s what I wanted to know.

    The first thing I’ll say is that it seems to me that there is still some level of tradeskill involved in getting into the conversation in the humanities: knowing who the important thinkers are, who belongs to which school of thought, even how to write and where to get published. This outsider still sees vestiges of the apprentice-teacher relationship in the PhD candidate-adviser relationship, though it of course hardly ever look like Strauss and Bloom.

    But beyond that, I’m having trouble seeing why you’re so quick to write off the apprentice-teacher model as a “stunning laughable contention in fact.” Let’s say, for example, that your internet autodidact is using JSTOR to read up on Shakespeare criticism and comes across an essay that just blows him away. Completely. It turns everything he thought he knew on its head. A few more clicks, and he finds out that the author is still alive, and that she actually teaches at a nearby university. Is it problematic to for him to reason as follows? “I have so much that I want to know, and here’s a person who seems to know everything I want to find out. So I’m going to apply to this school, take as many classes with her as I can, and learn what it is that she knows.”

    More importantly, do you think doesn’t happen? I know plenty of people who have had favorite professors as undergraduates, and they took courses from said professor at every opportunity. Maybe people who have been through grad school can help me out as to what the scene looks like up there.

    But whatever discussion we have here will be incomplete unless we talk about what the humanities are for.


    OK, having written that, I’m looking over your post again and interpreting it differently. Maybe you’re objecting to the idea that the scholars are just passing authoritative wisdom along like medieval monks* copying over texts they have no hope of understanding. I really don’t think that’s what James wants, but I have to admit that James sometimes confuses me and I won’t pretend to speak for him here. So maybe you are saying that studying under someone isn’t an end in itself, but rather a means to participating autonomously in the various conversations that comprise the humanities, and moreover it’s no longer the only possible means to that end and possibly not even the best means. And you’re taking James to mean that studying under someone is an end in itself, which you find to be delusional?

    *I think you’re underestimating the liveliness of debates in medieval universities—they weren’t just copyists and esoteric mystics. They flipped out on each other all the time in the form of disputations.Report

  6. Avatar Katherine says:

    Poulos is both right and not right. To make the humanities and social sciences a wholly pragmatic area of study oriented towards problem-solving would destroy a great amount of what is valuable about them – thought and knowledge for their own sake. And often it is only when we pursue knowledge for its own sake, rather than as a pathway to some goal, that we gain needed understanding that applies to problems. (A variation of this is even true in the sciences. Many of the most valuable breakthroughs in recent years – monoclonal antibodies, the role of small RNAs, genetic engineering – came through studies of rather minor topics; this is problem with politicians who think funding for a bunch of obscure research projects is a waste.)

    But the “transmission of authoritative knowledge from teacher to student” is not the most important role of the humanities. Or rather, it’s a very incomplete role. It is the foundation – we cannot study history, or political systems, or economics, or literature, without some kind of baseline knowledge, and very often that knowledge is better for having come from listening to someone with an understanding of the subject rather than simply from reading a text. But that baseline is important because it enables discussion between students, and between the teacher and the students, and that is what enables us to add to our understanding rather than simply transmitting it as something static. The most valuable course I have taken at university was a history seminar on epidemics where much of the class consisted purely of discussion. Such discussion can be useless when coordinated poorly or with uninvolved students or an overbearing teacher, or it can be deeply rewarding as it was in this case.

    What is being done on this blog is something similar. The discussion it enables is the main point, but this could not occur without the knowledge that all of you are bringing to it – and the average, or even above-average, person will not be exposed to the writings of a wide variety of political thinkers outside of a university setting.Report

  7. Avatar Max says:

    “Are you really comparing a medical residency with reading Shakespeare? Obviously one of those things can be done over the internet and one cannot.”

    This is amazing to me. Have you never had a teacher who taught you something? I feel like I’m reading a monologue from a child raised by wolves.

    Learning from Shakespeare, or learning philosophy or theology or the other humanities does not take place simply when you read them. This is a bit like saying that (to borrow a metaphor) a medical student can learn anatomy by slicing open a body and shoving his hands in. The idea that, simply because these old texts are available, they are therefore understandable without any guidance is the only laughable concept floating around this thread.

    Raft, you don’t understand Poulos (who we can at least agree might very well be insane) because when he says “transmission of authoritative knowledge” you key all in on the authoritative part, and forget about the transmission. Humanities learning takes place in dialogue and conversation, the back-and-forth between people engaging with the author and the subject. The rest is just fodder.Report

  8. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

    In terms of the word ‘authoritative’ in this context, I would say there is no final right interpretation in the humanities. It’s not authoritative like e=mc squared. More as Gadamer says (and Katherine and Max have pointed out) there is a community and a world one enters. The authoritative piece is about being in that world. There is no final right answer but there are certainly are numerous wrong interpretations.

    I agree with Katherine, I would put more emphasis on the transmission part or more classically “tradition” from the Latin “to hand over”. Something of precious value that is handed over from generation to generation like your great-grandmothers wedding ring.Report

  9. Avatar raft says:

    William Brafford: “So maybe you are saying that studying under someone isn’t an end in itself, but rather a means to participating autonomously in the various conversations that comprise the humanities, and moreover it’s no longer the only possible means to that end and possibly not even the best means. And you’re taking James to mean that studying under someone is an end in itself, which you find to be delusional?”

    Yes. That was a very clear formulation, thank you.

    It may also be my bias that I think “apprenticing” yourself to any thinker, no matter how brilliant or great, is debasing and contrary to the spirit of intellectual inquiry. Learning from them, yes. But in my mind “apprentice” connotes a sense of submission, whereby the master authoritatively “transmits” his doctrine to you and you more-or-less passively accept it. That’s not a bad thing in, say, medicine–actually is a very good thing! I wouldn’t want a third year medical student to go around inventing new surgical procedures. But the humanities/epistme are fundamentally different from tradeskills/techne. And the most important thing is to think for yourself–to figure out your own interpretations, your own philosophy, and ultimately your own values and what kind of meaningful life you want to life. We look to great works and thinkers and events of the past for guidance and wisdom, but ultimately we have to carve that path forwards on our own. The Shakespeare critic or the Buddhist priest or Plato or even Jesus can’t “transmit” that kind of human self-knowledge. That’s something everyone needs to discover for themselves.

    Re: Katherine: I agree the average person will not be exposed (or rather, will not expose themselves) to a wide variety of intellectual thought outside of the university, and for that reason among others it is a very good thing that we have universities. However, the question I’m raising is whether the process of “highest education” (that is, the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual truth as an end in itself) must take place in the university or within the context of an “apprentice-master” relationship. I am sorry it seemed like I was attacking the university itself or attacking the role of teachers/mentors or attacking the handing over of wisdom from generation to generation. My first post wasn’t very clear. But I don’t mean to do any of those things.

    Re: Max: I suppose we can say that formal education is necessary but not sufficient for true intellectual inquiry. Obviously people need to know how to read and so forth, and hopefully also have a basic knowledge base of some sort. They need a “tradeskill” in the topics of the conversation. But I really question whether a person could not understand Shakespeare without guidance. I think your typical college graduate or smart high-school student (without a background in literature) could go to the library and read his plays without too much trouble. Then if they want to learn more they could go on the internet and visit various Shakespeare websites and read the millions of words of commentary published on Shakespeare, and through that commentary perhaps branch out to other playwrights or novelists or philosophers or what have you. Then he could reflect deeply on all that he’s read. It’s not clear to me that this self-directed process of learning would be inferior to a more formal education through the university.

    I agree humanities learning takes place through dialogue and conversation. However, again, the question is whether that conversation needs to take place in a structured formal setting. I argue not, especially not for “highest learning.” Lectures are easily replaced by higher-quality books; discussions can be replicated on the internet, also at a higher level of quality. I suppose a great mentor is hard to find by yourself. William Brafford’s example of the Shakespeare critic is a good one. Of course that depends on you living next to the critic’s university, being able to get in, to afford it, having the time to attend, etc. Not exactly a very likely set of circumstances. Realistically speaking most of the great thinkers we wrestle with are either dead or inaccessible. But even assuming a mentor all he can do is guide you and prod you in this or that direction of inquiry. It’s still up to you to actually make the inquiry, to read the relevant criticism and history on Shakespeare yourself, and then reflect deeply on that reading. What I am arguing is that really learning philosophy, literature, history, etc.—the process of “highest education–is an INHERENTLY autodidactic process. It is a process of doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of reflecting on what you read, and talking with other people (dead or alive) about your reflections. For a very long time that process was only possible in universities, because that was literally the only place where the books were, or where the scholars were. But that’s not true now. Almost all published material, anywhere, is available to almost everyone in the world for almost free. If they want it.Report