Heretics and higher-ed

“Arguments in Motion” by Guian Bolisay

I’m nearly convinced that G.K. Chesterton went to grad school in the humanities in the 21st century because his introduction to Heretics diagnoses it so effectively:

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.

Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.

I should note that even though I sigh at the state of things in academe, I am still very much a child of my age. I am—and I believe justly—immediately put on edge by meta-narratives and Grand Theories of Everything. I know their dangers and their limitations, their tendency to gain their coherence only via the marginalization of what doesn’t fit inside them.

But, that being said, I do miss the days when people still gave a shit about whether a belief was correct or not. Heck, as recently as the nineties there were knock-down, drag-out fights about the canon, the liberating (or nefarious, depending on who you asked) power of deconstructive discourses, and—well—just about everything else. Nowadays, though, true methodological believers are few and far between and those who remain seem to have negotiated a truce. Alexander Beecroft recently suggested, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that the culture wars—so long blamed for harming the standing of the humanities—might have actually been good for them, at least in terms of enrollment:

The search for what went right [with the humanities] might begin at the height of the culture wars. Is it a coincidence that over the past 30 years, the period with the largest percentage of humanities majors was in the early 1990s? Divisive though those debates were, they gave a real urgency to the question of what constitutes the proper field of study for humanists. Perhaps we’ve lost something (including some enrollments) during this past decade or so of informal truce in those wars. Perhaps, instead of trying to return to the golden age of 1967, we should be aiming for 1992, and should bring more, not less, public attention to our internal debates—conducted, one hopes, with civility and from a shared conviction that humanistic inquiry, in all its forms, is a worthwhile activity.

These days, department events and grad student cook-outs are an extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay” collegiality in which our differences remain as muted as possible. At a recent one, one student—after complaining that many contemporary poems about motherhood felt like “Luna Bar feminism” to him—wandered back into the conversation a few minutes later to make sure no one thought that he was “beating up on motherhood” because he certainly didn’t want to cause offense. There are countless other examples of the litany of caveats, disclaimers, and clarifications that bookend most everything we say to ensure that no one—at any moment—thinks that we really, meaningfully disagree with them. The closest to real disagreement that you’ll witness happens when everyone in the group discovers a shared strawman argument that we can all pummel without offense to anyone at the party—all the joys of loud disagreement without any of the unpleasantness of having to actually engage with anyone.

Thanks to this daily experience of a blandly inoffensive academic discourse, I’ve been happy to see the Catholic blogosphere taking to heart Chesterton’s solution to our contemporary predicament of never caring too much about the other’s ideas:

[…] I for one have come to believe in going back to fundamentals. Such is the general idea of this book. I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong. I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.

Just in the past week, Gabriel Blanchard, Sam Rocha, and Marc Barnes all seem to have taken a page out of Chesterton’s playbook.

Yet as much as I am frustrated with our collective cultural refusal to take ideas seriously, I still find myself doing the same song-and-dance as all my colleagues whenever I’m at a function and even when I’m just out with my friends. In my case, the reason for this is relatively simple but also quite difficult to overcome. Growing up, especially during my adolescence, disagreement meant anger and my father could always win the angriest-in-the-room contest, which equalled winning the argument. Thus, I still back away from conflict because it makes me feel emotionally unsafe. At the same time, I think this is why I so greatly appreciate the few people that I can comfortably argue with and know that I’ll still  have as friends at the end of it all. For instance, I’ve got a friend of the New Atheist stripe who loves to argue. Interestingly, our arguments are usually less about atheism v. Christianity and more about whether the New Atheism is the *best* form of atheism or not (I contend that there are far more interesting and rigorous forms). Our arguments usually terrify anyone out with us—since we all seem to share this collective anxiety about conflict—but at the end of the night I always feel like I gained access to something that’s sorely missing from most of my life: sincere, passionate, and honest disagreement with a friend. That liberating feeling of being able to call someone—and be called in return— “heretic.”


6 thoughts on “Heretics and higher-ed

  1. Pingback: Absolutely disagreeable | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

  2. I second all of this. It makes me wish I could still be a proper Catholic, instead of just a fellow traveler.

    This reminds me of a phenomenon I think I’ve noticed in the past few years that I have not seen commented on in writing anywhere: the increasing incidence (in conversations I have heard, which I admit is nonscientific sample) of the construction “I feel like” in the sorts of sentences in which I would use “I think,” e.g., “I feel like this is a good story,” “I feel like we should try this instead,” “I feel like we shouldn’t do this.”

    What do you study in graduate school?

  3. Thanks for this. Interestingly, though I do find that in most of the social and work situations in which I find myself, tramcars and Botticelli are relevant and the universe is not; when I was an undergraduate I thought I could see a theory of the universe underlying our discussions of particulars, and I was bothered that the theory of the universe wasn’t one that I had consented to or even been informed of. We’d read writers who seemed to have been influenced primarily by Marx on the universe, or Foucault on the universe, and I always wondered why we got stuck with them and not with others (the same way I used to wonder why I got stuck with the Catholic Church on the universe and not something else).

  4. Thanks Amyclae and Margaret Kelly for your kind words. Margaret, I study 19th century British literature—a time period no doubt largely to blame for our increasing emphasis on “feeling” over assertion. It is an interesting question of why particular (no pun intended) meta-theories seem to gain cultural prominence and others don’t—I suppose there’s no way to really operate outside of them, though, even if we think we do.

  5. Pingback: Is there a middle ground between “I’m okay, you’re okay” and belligerence? | Catholicism for Cutters

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