Monday, July 27, 2015

Do Universities Need Departments Of What The Hell Is Going On?

I assign pretty contemporary stuff in class, so I was surprised and amused recently when my students recently started complaining that the texts I was assigning were too old -- so old, in fact, that they were having trouble reading them at all. "We can't read this!" they said. "It's written in a style we can't understand! Help!" I didn't say this out loud but I thought to myself, "We are not talking about Middle English or something here. These are articles from the 1970s! WTF."

Beyond just the complexities of understanding, I feel like there's a broader thing going on, a thing about wanting to learn about there Here and Now.

It's a trend away from learning old languages and deciphering old handwriting, away from studying the culture of Byzantium, away from curiosity about the writing system of the Shang Dynasty. It's a trend toward the study of, say, "American films of the 1980s," a trend toward interviewing English-speaking 60-year old living people as a kind of human primary texts.

In certain obvious ways, the study of the here and now is, well, easier than the study of the far away and the old -- and there's a certain kind of person who always gets a little eye-roll-y about this sort of thing. Sure, doesn't it seem like less work and more fun to go around interviewing people with questions like "And when you first saw Casablanca, how did you feel?" than it is to learn a new language or new way of thinking or whatever.

But I think there are actually good reasons for the surge of interest in the here and now. The main one is a widely shared feeling that these days, the here and now themselves feel foreign, obscure, confusing, and strange -- our own culture feels like something you'd need to really buckle down and do some serious research before you'd get a glimpse into what is happening and why.

As always with this sort of thing, I don't know if things are more complicated, or if they just seem more complicated because we know more, or if we're setting the bar higher, or what. But I do have a thought, which is that more than ever, "understanding what is going on" is not something you can outsource.

There used to be a sense that if wanted to know what is going on, you could look at an encyclopedia or the news. But now we're acutely aware of the ways in which various starting points, biases, and blind spots figure in. In fact, it might be in part the easy access we now have to the knowledge sources of the past that gives us pause about the knowledge sources of the present. It wasn't that long ago that we were measuring people's heads for racism.

Sometimes it seems like the deep complexity and elusive objectivity of thinking undermines the humanistic project, but in my mind it's exactly the opposite. The more complicated things are, the less likely that data and facts are going to help you understand, and the more you're going to need judgment and thinking.

If that's right, then to understand what the hell is going on in the here and now, you need to actually learn things, study up, read opposing views, get a backstory, ask some people, and think about things.

From that perspective, the obsession with the here and now would be a sign not of laziness or screen addiction but rather a proper recognition that we really don't understand what is hell is happening and someone better get on it.

Since higher education these days is all about catering to the customer base, how about it? Personally, I think a major in WTF Is Happening would sell like hotcakes.

1 comment:

Janet Vickers said...

I agree. We need this in the academy and civil society generally.