Monday, November 16, 2015

How should we think if we wish to think together?

Although unplanned there was something satisfyingly right about my having to use my fingers and the dust, all that's left of our chalk, for the final session of "Seminar in the City" which I'm leading. (The remainder of the class is about student projects, ushered in by a guest presentation on Sekou Sundiata's "Research to Performance" pedagogy Wednesday.) 

The names of Richard Bernstein and Hannah Arendt (at last!) appeared on my board because our final reading was by Elizabeth Minnich, who did her PhD with these two advisers, on John Dewey, at The New School. Even if she hadn't been an importnat part of the New School College, even if she hadn't gone on to do work in interdisciplinary and integral studies consonant with the ethos of The New School, her bringing together feminism (and the European tradition) and pragmatism would have been a sweet way of wrapping up The New School story.

But, of course, Minnich was here for the first stab at a liberal arts college. And her subsequent work, including Transforming Knowledge, the introduction to whose second edition we read, heralds the birth of a "New Academy" very like Lang today. The book's chronicle of the multi-faceted struggle to establish women's studies in an academy devoted to understanding "Man" offers many resources for freeing ourselves from knowledges that  ... derive from and legitimate systems of domination (25) and helping us more fully address crucial questions such as these:

What has it meant to be human? How have these meanings changed across time and across cultures? How can and should we live together not despite but with all our differences? Who are “we”? How should we think if we wish to think together? How, by whom, and to what effects is knowledge legitimated? How do thinking and knowledge relate to “the real world”? Why do such questions matter; why should we care? (6)

Minnich offers tools for seeing and engaging these questions, from using plurals and verbs rather than singulars and nouns to rethinking the Man/Nature contrast, evolutionary narratives, the very idea that there are "kinds" of humans - and religion's baneful tendency to absolutize particulars.

Arendt was no fan of Dewey's, but it was fun to show how Minnich's understanding of knowledge as made in a constant shared process (of which we can become aware, and which we can bend toward greater inclusion) brings together Deweyan pedagogy and Arendtian imperatives on the importance of "thinking." The terrifying example of Eichman's not-thinking provides a strong rationale for developing the kinds of open and participatory thinking Dewey's philosophy of education seeks to foster. I offered Minnich's view as a sort of summa of what The New School has been about - a summa not of knowledge but of understanding the processes by which we make knowledge together, and need to keep at it, lest "knowledge" become the legitimator of domination rather than the way to a more just, more human future.

Then I made a mistake (perhaps). Since it was the last session of class I'm leading, I invited the students to pair up and look back over the syllabus of readings we had just made our way through and tell me how (if) it communicated this ethos: I wanted and needed to know if what I was trying to get across was coming across, and how I might do it better. I left the room to let them discuss freely. 

Their critiques were fine but ordinary: a better course title? shorter and perhaps fewer readings? reading prompts? field trips? a fuller integration of the Parsons story? They didn't say that my readings encompassed a wide range of voices and disciplines, men and women, insiders and outsiders, scholars and practitioners, faculty and students. They didn't say that these voices conveyed the spirit of a place ever on the make, in which there was no settled view of what counted as "knowledge," and in which new knowledges and new pedagogies were regularly being tried out. Perhaps I expected too much. (It is rather meta for students in their first semester of college!) Perhaps I didn't explain it well. Perhaps it's all they know... 

But of course the class isn't finished, though my selection of shared readings is. Let's see how these ideas and issues appear in the class presentations ("model seminars," we're calling them) to which we now devote our efforts.

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