Jennifer Keating, a former student of mine asked me some nine months ago to make up a panel at the NEMLA in Montreal. I’m very fond of Jen, I’ve never been to Montreal and Denis’s daughter Laura is starting as undergraduate at McGill. What could be more pleasant than a weekend in Montreal. Nine months later I stand freezing waiting for the airport flyer cursing the fact that a) the temperature has dropped 40 in the last four hours and I am dressed for summer b) that it will take six hours and a layover to fly the short distance to Montreal thanks to the fact we are no longer a hub airport and c) that I have been fooled by the young temptress Keating into participating in a panel on pedagogy ( perish the word as well as the thought).
One of the reasons I agreed to the request was that I had written a short paper for an internal department seminar. On re-reading I wonder how suitable it is for public consumption as it deliberately challenges a whole number of idees recus in a way that is easy enough when you know all the people you’re talking to but may well go down very badly with a crowd of strangers. To my surprise it is very well received and I wonder if perhaps the appalling weight of political correctness is finally lifting.
In the evening Laura and I go to the Montreal- Toronto hockey game ( a sort of re-run of the Seven Year’s War). Suddenly the visit to Montreal seems to have been a very good idea.
The short paper was entitled On Certitude:
The original request to talk about certitude and secularity in the classroom came with reference to difficulties experienced by some teachers with students who are fundamentalist Christians, I confess that these are not problems that I have encountered very often and I deal with them by asking of the student at what church they pray. My next question is for them to describe to me the history which links that church to the one established by Paul in the first century of the common era. This discussion raises enough questions about texts, and their transmission through institutions, for most pedagogic purposes that I can imagine. I confess that my slightly mischievous argument comes from that least mischievous of divines Richard Hooker who when confronted with those tiresome Puritan preachers who went on about the direct relation to the deity guaranteed by the sacred Scriptures, asked the Puritans what agency divided the canonical books of Scripture from those apochryphal texts which offered no access to the divine. The answer is of course a human institution – a Church.
But the question of certitude in the classroom has bothered me considerably since I first arrived in America and heard people state unselfconsciously and unironically that “my politics is my teaching”. This concern has been exacerbated by overhearing students talk of authoritarian feminists and bullying Marxists. Of course, there is one sense in which teaching is obviously political. Some of the most beautiful passages that I know on the role of the teacher come from Andre Bazin where he talks of the teacher in relation to his community as the most conservative and the most radical of figures. Conservative because it is the teacher’s duty to preserve and continue the most ancient of traditions, radical because those traditions must be brought into continuous dialogue and opposition with the most modern developments within society, developments against which many of those traditions must break.. But Bazin is there talking about the political form of teaching, he is certainly not talking about a political content.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, a book which he wrote with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and which he tells us in his dedication to the book “belongs as much to her as to me’ says that “ Truth gains more even by the errors of one who , with due study and preparation , thinks for himself than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.. There have been , and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people “ (pp.33-34)
I fear that this general atmosphere of mental slavery is currently very widespread in the universities and I want to take two examples where it seems to me to hold back not simply thought but the possibility of thought that might help to improve the world. The first is the question of the difference between the sexes. I want to advance the argument that the physiological difference between the sexes and, perhaps more importantly, the genetic differences which are the grounds of those physiological differences make it initially plausible that there are essential differences between men and women at the sociological and psychological level. I want to advance that argument, not because I know it to be true, but because it is an argument which I have never heard advanced by any serious scholar in the humanities or social sciences in the last 40 years. Mill argues that it is impossible unless you have thrown yourself into a position of those who think differently from you to know the doctrine which you yourself profess. It seems to be that much of the discussion of sexual difference suffers from an almost total ignorance of the features of physiological and genetic thinking which should be an essential component of any argument about sexual difference.
In l965 Daniel Moynihan published a report entitled the case for national action in which he argued that many of the problems confronting African Americans stemmed from systemic failure in the black family and particularly of the failure of black fathers. I first became aware of this report when I arrived in the United States in the early eighties to realize that the problem of race was of a different order to any that I had experienced in Europe. I was also made aware that in university circles to refer to the Moynihan report was already to label oneself racist and that to assume that Moynihan’s report had anything to contribute to the subject of race was to rule oneself out of any discussion. Much as in the previous case, independently of its final correctness, it is absolutely essential to consider Moynihan’s arguments in relation to a problem which has in many ways got no better in the intervening 40 years and to which Moynihan’s analyses are arguably more pertinent now than they were then.
I have taken these two examples of where the problem of certitude comes not from the students but from the university but I think they have some relation to the problem of fundamentalism. By abandoning the search for truth in favour of the most mealy mouthed intellectual consensus, the university has offered no model of reflection on the relation between individual death and species life which underpins all religion. Born-again, as an adjective, is a term which only dates back to l961 and while as a Marxist one can only congratulate George Bush and his co-believers on their immanent critique of capitalism ( the first time round obviously wasn’t good enough), the modern phenomenon of fundamentalist Christianity relates, amongst other things, to the current inability of traditional liberalism and humanism to confront and analyse its own incertitude.