Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like

I quite often doubt the value of what I do, and have done for most of my adult life: teaching and research in a humanities discipline. I'm lousy at math so I didn't have any choice.

I don't imagine for one minute that what I do is worth anything close to what engineers, doctors or nurses do--but I do think it's worth something. My research advances knowledge, albeit knowledge of a peculiarly useless sort, but much more importantly I believe that in teaching I can do some good. I promote clarity, reflection and abstract thinking, all of which seem to be largely missing from discourse in the public square. And most importantly: I debunk. That seems to me the most important thing philosophy can do.

But now I am just sick at heart because the message I've been getting is that what we're supposed to be doing is teaching what's current and what students want. This is the way in which theologians have been operating for years. Most don't believe in God so they're working in a field which, for them, has no subject matter. So they prefer to call their discipline "religious studies" and spend their time engaging in speculative anthropology, armchair psychology and "critical theory." I've asked friends in theology why they're obsessed with Freud, Marx and Feuerbach who are not only hostile to religious belief but not even intellectually respectable. They tell me it's because Freud, Marx and Feuerbach are "Thinkers" who are influential in "intellectual discourse" and so that they need to "come to terms" with them.

That is to say, Freud-Marx-Feuerbach is Stuff White People Like. It doesn't matter whether they make sense or not. What matters is that the right people, those who contribute to our culture's "intellectual discourse," think that they make sense and, more importantly, talk about them. So, as academics in humanities disciplines, we're supposed to know about them, talk about them and teach our students to talk about them so that they can pass themselves off as intellectuals at the better cocktail parties. I suppose that by the same reasoning we should teach students to talk intelligently about herbal medicine and chiropractic.

This isn't what I signed on for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the post.