You are here

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism...But No More

Garrett Fagan recently posed an interesting question in his very useful discussion of the crisis in the humanities: “should we embrace the competition for students in a marketplace of majors?” That my answer is “yes” is probably evident from my last post, in which I urged classicists to participate in public discourse in order to insure that the public image of Classics is both attractive to our students and acceptable to their parents. Not everyone shares this view. Many scholars cringe at the economic and corporate metaphors that often cluster around this issue (“competition,” “marketplace”) and worry about the dilution of rigor and intellectualism they connote. But in my view we do not need to choose between “giving the students what they want” and our core values as humanists. We do, however, need to give ourselves permission to reconnect in our classes with the reasons most people are drawn to the humanities in the first place.

I began thinking about this after reading a review of a report from Harvard that identified three traditions in humanities education: “skeptical detachment,” “disinterested artistic enjoyment,” and “enthusiastic identification” (pp.16ff.). The first is a “suspicious hermeneutic” that “distrusts the text as received and distrusts our own prejudices as we read it;” the second focuses “on the beauty and the form of objects, not their ideological claim;” the third “posits deep continuity” with the past. I immediately recognized the role of all three in my own career. Most of my undergraduate and all of my graduate training focused on “skeptical detachment,” as does my research and the way I design my courses. But I myself decided to study Classics because of the effect that seeing Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” had on me: I found it, and its continuity with antiquity, surpassingly beautiful, and recognized in it (as in Ovid’s text) a dark but familiar vision of ceaseless and unreflective striving, whether for a girl (I was 20, and no Apollo) or any other version of what “success” then meant to me. That is, I became a classicist because of a mixture of “disinterested artistic enjoyment” and “enthusiastic identification,” but now spend all of my energy cultivating “skeptical detachment.” The perversity of the disjunction between what I give my students and what I as a student got out of my courses never struck me until this historical perspective teased them apart.

Despite the fact that they get no structured guidance from me, many of my students nevertheless experience enjoyment or identification with antiquity. They routinely tell me that something we’ve read in class is “beautiful” or express wonder at how familiar the mindsets of ancient literature are to them. It’s clear that they get a lot of value out of these experiences; it’s clear too that this accounts in large degree to why they take courses in Classics. But until I read the Harvard report I had always considered those reactions incidental to my objectives, in part because so much of my training was devoted not just to “skeptical detachment” but to avoiding falling into what are now called “fallacies” of identification or admiration. It should, however, surprise no one if undergraduates (at least of the 18–22 year old variety), trying to establish their identity, experiencing for the first time a new degree of freedom, should be at least as interested in the romantic and the aesthetic as they are in the now dominant historicizing approach. Some amount of skepticism is a good thing. Alienation is an essential ingredient in the transition to adulthood. But one cannot live on skepticism alone. Should we really ignore the traditions that serve to bind our students to our object of study?

In my view, the crisis of the humanities, if there is one, is this: that we have too often allowed two vital aspects of our tradition to languish, leaving students to figure out for themselves how to form a personal, that is, “human,” attachment to the humanities. The good news is that we as Classicists have ample opportunities to integrate all three traditions into our courses. Achilles is so compelling because we all face impossible dilemmas, albeit usually with lower stakes; decades of anti-biographical criticism have not diminished the fundamental truth in Catullus’ odi et amo. And there are plenty of ways to invite students to engage with these traditions, if we will just allow ourselves to do so. Students could compose a journal in which they consider whether they know anyone in a relationship like that Propertius describes with Cynthia. Those same students could choose one poem that they love and one that they hate and write a paper in which they say why. Such assignments do not compromise our disciplinary priorities: to compare and contrast representations in a poem to lived experience teaches students about themselves and others, one of the six forms of significant learning theorized by L. Dee Fink. To learn that just because a judgment is ultimately subjective does not mean that it cannot be founded on evidence and close reading, can be a life-changing realization, one that will stay with a student long after they have forgotten their conjugations or how the Peloponnesian war was won.

I’m not suggesting that we stop being skeptical. As a next step we should turn our well-honed skepticism onto those romantic and aesthetic reactions, not to teach students that they were “wrong” to identify or feel admiration or dislike—we all do these things ourselves, after all—but to show them how a skeptical approach can open up even more ways of engaging with a text to which they have already formed a connection. Some students may in fact identify more intensely with the idea of an artfully constructed persona than with the lovelorn Catullus, and the poet’s virtuosity in self-representation is itself a worthy object of admiration. I myself am grateful that my training in skeptical detachment eventually allowed me to recognize the violent rape in Bernini’s sculpture, and to reflect on what it might mean that I so easily understood the sculpture as reflecting my masculine concerns and nothing else. The three traditions are mutually reinforcing.

In the current climate I don’t see that Classicists have much choice but to compete for students. But in doing so we may draw on long and venerable traditions of romantic and aesthetic criticism. Our students want to connect with our material. They want to learn about themselves by learning about antiquity. Luckily for us, this happens to be what an education in the humanities has always been about. Let’s help them do it.

Recent Posts

05/20/2018Kelly McArdle
On April 30th 2018, Maya Little, a graduate student in the Department of History at UNC-Chapel Hill, was...
05/18/2018Agnes Crawford
In a photo essay, Roman tour guide and classicist Agnes Crawford spoke to the SCS Blog about the newly reopened...
Our second post from the SCS’ Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance (CAMP) explores how to bring a...
05/11/2018Sarah Bond
In April, Reed College decided to revamp their year-long core humanities course, Humanities 110. For over 70 years...
05/06/2018Bill Beck
The Homer Multitext (HMT) has something in common with the poetry it documents: They are both monumental and...
Subscribe to SCS Blog Feed

Share This Page

© 2018, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy