Rorty on the role of college indoctrinat–I mean education


It’s an old post, but I recently discovered this nugget on Edward Feser’s blog about a unnerving passage attributable to the late American pragmaticist philosopher Richard Rorty and his casual musings monologue (it’s more villainous) on the general schema of college education and his view of himself within it (added emphasis mine):

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we—we…liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists—most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions.” This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavor [sic] (that is, to get them to read Darwin and Freud without disgust and incredulity). It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

What is the relation of this idea to the regulative idea of ‘reason’ which Putnam believes to be transcendent and which Habermas believes to be discoverable within the grammar of concepts ineliminable from our description of the making of assertions? The answer to that question depends upon how much the re-education of Nazis and fundamentalists has to do with merging interpretive horizons and how much with replacing such horizons. The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that the typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei [domination free] than that in the Hitler Youth camps.

These parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students….When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank.

Putnam and Habermas can rejoin that we teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people—black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents. It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.

Pretty brutal, honest words that cause me to reflect on my time at the academy. I can think of a handful of classes that aimed to cure me of my superstitious filled bigotries. It also causes me to wonder on the introductory philosophy course I took: Why did we skip the Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, the Scholastics, more than 2,000 years of Western thought, and instead dive into Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as the first substantive and maybe one of the few works of philosophy we freshmen and sophomores would ever study? Is it because discussing the existence of God is a provocative topic that might interest a couple hundred millennials with low attention spans, or was it a bias for Hume’s epistemology that’s partial, though superficially, to secularism? Why did we spend only our time on the moderns, the implication being this is when real philosophy started? Is it because everything, prior to Descartes, at least lots of it, to borrow a phrase from Rorty, “give(s) more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures,” and we can’t have that?

Upon reading Rorty’s confession here, I’m inclined to think my professor’s selection of topics was in part due to the attitude Rorty described, though not so conscious and disdainful. Of course, not all professors whose politics are “liberal” are this unethical, as my college experience also affirms. Yet, I can’t help but think that my peers, myself and generations before have been conditioned to be chronic feelers not critical thinkers, rendered purposefully more susceptible to the sophistry of emotional and psychological manipulation.

I feel compelled to point out how illiberal Rorty’s view of education is and he admits to such. There is no plurarilty of views, no “tolerance” of the rube-headed religious “other,” no inclusivity of those who believe deplorable thoughts, as narrowly defined by the elect. Just “herrshaft.” “Hegemony.” And “der Wille zur Macht” to implement it. On the converse to whatever Horkheimer means by the phrase, “real democracy” has never been engendered by such an outlook on the universe.

Ah, but Rorty’s cause is just because the “benevolent Rorty knows best. He has a proper, pragmatic understanding of things, and as such, it is his duty as an influential member embedded in a cultural institution to convert as many as possible; cull the rest. This is the work that needs to be done. The dissenting “bigots” have no place in the society, the utopia being erected by he and those “enlightened” enough to prophesize its coming.

I’ve quoted it before, but I’ll do it again: “The philosophers have only variously interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Marx’s pithy statement encapsulates the mantra of the leftist. Rorty was thorough enough to grasp and utilize it.

What number of us have fallen prey to he and his ilk’s applied machinations?

I can’t and won’t dare to say, but too many,

Modus Pownens

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One thought on “Rorty on the role of college indoctrinat–I mean education

  1. Hey, how’s life? Could you do a post about the CNBC Republican debate and focus on the moderators? I want to hear from someone in the field of journalism that I can trust.

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