Class Notes

Historical Foundations of Education — fifth meeting

Another long class. Three hours, no break. I think that this approach will actually become normal very soon. If it does, I suspect I’ll become somewhat infamous, but infamy has its rewards and I will not feel bad about rigor.

As comfortable as the class has always been, I was beginning to feel too comfortable. So I decided to up the ante, so to speak. I was concerned that our reading of history thusfar was a bit too unambitious and threatened to become somewhat simplistic. So I left the surface of the text — another two chapters of 19th century history of compulsory schooling — untouched and dove into the critical, theoretical subtext: historiography. I wanted to show the rigor of reading/writing history, beyond the exclusive metaphysical and narrativist concerns of all traditional approaches we find in the modern era. In this sense, we went postmodern, although I didn’t use that monstrous word.

I contrasted traditional historical narratives — classical, consensus, and revisionist — with genealogy, beginning with Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and highlighted by Foucault, especially his three books of the 1960’s, and even managed to mention Zizek’s own, peculiar affinities. The key contrast here is between a straightforward, constructive metaphysics of history and a somewhat inverted (in the sense that one does not begin with the tacit assumption of the subject), “critical ontology,” as Niezstche puts it. The brick and mortar of Empires, democracies, and activists contrasted from the hammer that results in homocide: the dead of God, the erasure of Man. We then used Chomsky as a case study of sorts to show how deceptively different similarly feeling/sounding theorists can be, cautioning against seeing this as simply “two-sides” of a coin. The whole point was to introduce more nuance and complexity into the discussion. 

It was hard work. I am not fond of theory for theory’s sake. But I am finding that, when teaching history, it is easy to descend into a “he said, she said” conversation that is always too easy and convenient, only serving the purpose of confirming one’s own opinions. Even the fair-minded “both sides of the story” approach is itself simply an affirmation of dispassionate lawyering, not seeking the truth.

Next week we’re reading Emerson and Melville, “Self Reliance” and Bartleby the Scrivener.  I hope that the theoretical exercise of last night’s lecture arms them with the imaginative resources to read these texts as historical, genealogical archives. We’ll see. All in all, I am becoming much more engaged in these question than I have been for a long time. It is astounding how teaching can re-direct my interests and constitute what I am thinking about and, consequently, who I am. 

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