“I have the feeling that the closest Allan Bloom came to rock music was when his car might have been stopped at a red light with the window down. Yet, it doesn’t stop him from talking about it in an entire chapter or section of a chapter. That’s what I mean about respect.”
Lawrence Levine said these lines in a 1997 interview conducted by then Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Sheldon Hackney (who died last week). In Levine’s view, Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind lacked respect for different ideas, different cultures, and different peoples, not because Bloom criticized them, but because he did not attempt to understand them. Bloom’s notorious hatred of rock-n-roll, which he described as a “voyage to the underworld,” exemplified his lack of respect. It was one thing to dislike rock. Levine admitted he was no fan. But Levine also admitted that he was in no position to judge something he had not tried to understand on its own terms. Moreover, the lessons he took from studying other vernacular musical forms suggested to him that rock had value for regular listeners. Unlike Bloom, Levine had respect for rock, and those who listened to it.
Respect defined Levine’s teaching philosophy. In modernity, he argued, when “parents have lost control of the education of their children,” when the kids increasingly “come home with different ideas and different notions,” it was more crucial than ever for teachers to be respectful of their students. He claimed that some professors often exacerbated the culture wars over higher education—the “canon wars” and such— because they “are not always as respectful as they should be of the ideas the students are coming in with. One has to be respectful.” This was not to say that teachers should avoid challenging students. Levine explained this apparent contradiction in the following way:
“What I’m trying to say is I have had strong beliefs and I’ve acted on many of them. But I decided a long time ago that that wasn’t my function in the classroom, that my function in the classroom was not to promulgate beliefs. You learn as a scholar and teacher that if you argue with the dead and you don’t win the argument, you’re a fool, so I decided that arguing with the dead wasn’t what I wanted to do. And the same thing is true of arguing with the living when the living have less power than you. You can force your ideas on them—that wasn’t my goal. So, always admitting what my own ideas were, I tried to teach them with balance and to leave room for other ideas.”
Levine taught his students how to think differently, not what to think. The difference was to be found in tone, approach, and style.
“Doing it in such a way that you introduce the students… to very complex issues, so that if they do take another point of view, they have to do so in a different context. They can’t just easily reiterate what they came to the classroom believing. They have to assimilate other things, and that’s the goal of education, to mix things up enough so people can see the context and then reform their ideas or restate their ideas in a different light.”
Levine’s elegant articulation of the pedagogical importance of respect is convincing. (Perhaps I am rethinking my own teaching philosophy?) Teaching in a foreign country has also been formative. Because my Danish students often have such different assumptions, they integrate new knowledge of American history by doing a lot of comparative work. They constantly think about American historical developments relate to the Danish and European contexts more familiar to them. I love it when they do this because it makes for an exciting classroom. We implicitly recognize that we’re all forming new understandings. There is mutual respect at work.
Such ideas about cross-cultural communication are not new. The Fulbright is predicated on them. But by giving these ideas a word—respect—Lawrence Levine has made me think about them in a new light. I hope to remember this lesson when I return to teaching in the United States, where, because things are more familiar, respect is harder to earn.