Shaffer: A critical education

On Truth and Lies

There’s a great joke in The Record. It’s a fake letter that goes like this: “Dear Directed Studies Freshman, Thank you for your criticisms of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Gee, I guess I really hadn’t thought that through. Yours, Friedrich Nietzsche.”

The joke hits me hard as I write my senior thesis on Nietzsche, and it sums up what is wrong with humanistic scholarship today.

There’s a formula for a good paper in academe. Avoid all semblance of style, never go three sentences without a direct quote; say nothing bold or imaginative; and construct an original thesis that contains a modest criticism of previous works. Then receive an A. If you miss a step, receive a B+ (only awarded in extreme circumstances), and never get tenure or become a respected member of the Bar.

We are to adopt a critical stance toward and contribute something new to everything we read. Your Ph.D. and tenure are awarded not according to your breadth and depth of knowledge, but according to your original contributions and “research.”

But freshmen aren’t qualified to correct Nietzsche; neither am I, and neither are most academics. As I read Nietzsche, I have more and more eureka moments, more desire to share his wisdom with the world. But Nietzsche is so beyond me that I’m not sure I really have anything to add — no criticism, no grand original thesis, no great ideas. Mostly, he just strips me of my great ideas. I just like letting him change the way I live and see. But if I tell my adviser that I partied at Feb Club, instead of writing, because Nietzsche taught me the joys of intoxication, he’ll give me a B+.

The critical stance is stunting. Education should slough off our old certainties and destroy the aggressive ignorance of our adolescence. We should inhabit greater minds, let them take a critical perspective on us, losing ourselves for the moment. But criticisms and theses have made reading into a process of self-assertion. We dismiss Shakespeare for classism; we ignore Marx, imagining him discredited by history (there’s irony in that). And we miss chances to lose our narrowness, because we’re critics before we’re readers.

Every evening last July, I walked three blocks to Central Park, and made an effort read a novel a night. Through 31 books I identified no themes, had no opinions, adopted no critical attitude. I just read. I have nothing to show for the experience, no intellectual credential or writing samples. But I think I’m a more whole person, a step closer to passing some small wisdom, some sense for beauty, to my children someday. It’s a feeling I don’t get when I contrive awkward theses and criticisms I only half believe, as we all do, for papers each exam week.

Orthodox Jews and observant Catholics have told me that it is not their place to stand in judgment of their sacred texts, but to let their sacred texts stand in judgment of them. Something of that attitude should be adopted toward our best literature and philosophy. Real critical reading leads us to the most difficult of all criticisms — self-criticism. We require literary and philosophical traditions precisely because no man can be judge in his own cause, because we need people smarter than us to challenge our stances and theses, the narrowness or our little individual minds.

Some time ago, I wanted to become an academic. While in Harold Bloom’s seminar I decided I couldn’t envision a future that wasn’t devoted to great books. I still want to be Bloom, but now, I’m not as keen on graduate school. The university is no longer devoted to wisdom. It researches. It’s about me, me, me — the student, the scholar, the academic. My perspective, what I can contribute, what flaws in the text I see.

The humanities have switched from tradition to research. Humanistic research ought to be an oxymoron. It was invented to give the humanities more credibility, for the benefit of scientists and philistines, the kind of people who ask, “So what do you plan to do with that English degree?” We don’t do anything with the humanities. They help us understand our lives, recollect our childhood, find the words to express our love and hate. They civilize us, a tradition of wisdom to be passed down, not a series of math problems to be solved. We should contribute to them, no doubt, but as conversant artists inspired by them, not as scientists picking them apart.

And we should also realize how much more they have to contribute to us than we do to them.

I hope that in the future, more of our intellectual life will resemble students meeting in a professor’s house to talk about books they love, and less like college freshmen (or seniors) offering their corrections to Nietzsche. And I hope that academe as a whole will realize that the real life of the mind is an immersion in tradition, a devotion to conversation — little like scholarship, as it exists today.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.