Lately I’ve been thinking about my own thinking, and specifically about how my education has created some unfortunate infrastructure in my mind that I’m now examining, pulling apart, rearranging, and sometimes throwing away.
One of the more bizarre experiences of my high school education was taking English Extension in Year 12. I tried to find the 2008 syllabus online but no dice. I think it’s maybe more fun to reflect on it using just my memories, rather than delving back into it all in a more concrete sense. The subject was primarily about getting students to produce readings of texts – so, pick a book or a film or whatever and pick a theory and do a reading of that text through the lens of that theory – in a more sophisticated way than was being taught in regular English classes. Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Foucault, among others, were presented to us with minimal background information, really just as tools of sorts. Impose this over the book you’ve chosen and you will have your reading.
I have always been the kind of person who needs to know more and needs to know why, so the way this subject was taught was extremely disorienting. I can’t just read a bit of theory and take it at face value and dive in to applying it. I need to really understand who wrote it and what they were doing in writing it, and then I need to be able to correctly place it on my mental map of thinkers and ideas and history and so on. I need to understand what I’m doing.
This subject and my difficulties with it became deeply upsetting, and I turned to trusted teachers from other courses to help me. One pointed me down the path of “lit crit is a sophistic scam”, which was extremely reassuring at the time. For a while I was someone who would quite seriously cite the Sokal hoax as proof of the failings of academia. I certainly didn’t know any better. I was seventeen, an overachiever who was becoming lazy and complacent, feeling the pressure of needing to do well in my final exams, and bewildered by my inability to understand this material.
I had been given things that I didn’t know what to do with. Last week I opened The Archaeology of Knowledge and had to smile as, for whatever reason, Year 12 English Extension came rushing back. I don’t mind the idea of introducing post-structuralism or whatever to high school students, but I hope the Queensland education department has scrapped whatever they were doing with it in 2008.
My undergraduate years were messy and featured a few strange changes in degree. I strayed from and returned to political science, eventually completing an extended major and honours in this field. A particularly strong memory is of a course that seemed to be built around the core idea of universalism vs cultural relativism. I don’t remember details but I have a feeling it was a course about human rights, which would make sense. Students were heavily encouraged to view the topics and events in the course with u vs c.r. in mind. Tutorials were basically footy matches: we all chose sides and debated forcefully. This all had an enormous impact on me, and I think quite a damaging one. The way that the course was framed simply did not and could not encourage much in the way of creative and critical thinking. It took much effort to move beyond the dichotomy presented. For some time I didn’t have the knowledge or the tools to do so.
In my final semester of my undergrad degree I was introduced to contextual intellectual history through two avenues: one, by an academic in my school who had agreed to take me on to do a research project, and two, in one lecture in the last weeks of the capstone course. I soon wondered why I wasn’t handed “Meaning and Understanding” the day I began my degree. Later I understood, but still. I felt like I’d somehow been waiting my entire degree to read this stuff. Training myself to think as an intellectual historian is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken, and it involves radically updating or completely jettisoning many of the ideas I absorbed during undergraduate courses. Not everyone taking those courses wants or needs to be an intellectual historian, of course, but an understanding of the history of political thought is vital for a student wishing to coherently discuss that thought as it exists and can be used today. The ubiquitous “intro to pol sci” course (a week for liberalism, for conservatism, for whatever else) really is an absurd kind of survey that sets the unfortunate scene early on. How else to proceed, though?
In one of our early meetings, I asked my research project supervisor (later my honours supervisor) if he might help out with a political economy reading group that I was trying to set up. He politely declined, explaining that his research required him to think about texts in a historically-informed way that made it difficult to then think about them and teach them as relevant to the present day. I was immensely intrigued – no one had ever said this sort of thing to me before. That incident folded itself up and sent itself deep into my brain and has lived there ever since.
Unsurprisingly, I find myself now similarly afflicted. Sorting out the relationship between my academic work and my political ideas and commitments is often difficult and causes me a not insignificant amount of worry and anxiety. Something to write about once I know what to write.