U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Starting Materials for Battling White Walkers

As the White House pushes the ship of state ever closer to the edge of the flat earth, I’ve been thinking, ever more desperately, about communication. Scholars and historians have long talked about our role as public educators, especially if, as is becoming increasingly clear in a time of alternative facts, politicians and pundits cannot be trusted to impart even the most basic skills of critical thinking.

Obviously, so far we’ve spectacularly failed at this. But if those of us in the social sciences deservedly come in for a harsh critique, the fundamental problem is far bigger than us. As study after study has shown, there is only so much impact a teacher – especially a professor, I would think, who encounters students well past their formative years – can make on a student’s world view and ideology. (As I heard quipped on the radio the other day, “Research shows you don’t give a damn about research.”) If the entire society is more or less set against some central precepts of social science, then there is only so much we can do.

Let me get a little more specific. A common problem of attempting to explain structural critique to someone who has never seriously encountered it before is that you end up sounding, to your interlocutor, like a conspiracy theorist. I once attempted a joke about this dynamic when I responded to a series of incredulous questions by saying, “Well yeah, basically everything you believe is a lie.” This at least succeeded in getting to the heart of their hesitance, a productive step towards clarity and empathy. Because yes – why, after going through life assuming that reason more or less reigns and things are more or less what they seem, would you listen seriously to someone throwing around terms like “hegemony” and “respectability politics,” casting doubt on the sacred cows of the Enlightenment like absolutist free speech and generally telling you you’ve been thoroughly duped? “Oh wow, cool! I see now what Kool-Aid I’ve been drinking, thanks!” responded no one ever.

Charles Krauthammer.

Granted such developments take time. Still, recent conversations have brought me to reflect on how unless you actively pursue an education in the social sciences, the likelihood of encountering the assumptions and theories that inform the majority of work produced by experts on society and history is incredibly slim. Even receiving a higher education will not necessarily do the trick unless you take those courses in college – STEM majors, if they ever were required to take the intro courses to history, sociology, or cultural studies (and hey, we all know political science doesn’t count!), are increasingly freed from even those basics. I’ve watched biologists gaze at me like they are listening to a crazy person talk simply because I suggested that classical economics is not, actually, an objective description of how the world works.

The most effective remedy for this situation – short of a social and cultural revolution – would be an educational system that seriously integrated the social sciences at all levels. And we have, and have long had, a lot of people fighting that worthy fight. But in the meantime, what to do when you know someone who would be open to learning new methods of analysis? I don’t think it is a good idea to just rattle off a reading list consisting of social theory and historical criticism from Marx to Butler and say, have at it. First, the vocabulary barriers in so much of this literature are real. Unless you regularly engage with people not steeped in the lingo of the social sciences, it is easy to forget just how little sense we make to the outside world. Second, any such classic text usually assumes a reader already relatively versed in the basics of the questions they are about to tackle – but what if you have a reader that hasn’t been fully introduced to the idea that such questions could be asked in the first place?

There is, it seems to me, a serious shortage of what I’ll call starting materials. Textbooks simply won’t do – who really wants to read a textbook? Short, explanatory videos on YouTube can be helpful but, unless the person in question is very good at not being defensive, can come across as far too pedantic or, if they employ cutesy techniques such as cartoons, condescending. Some may say nothing can substitute for the original texts themselves, but this is nonsense, and not even always necessary. For example, I’ll confess: beyond selections in other texts and interviews, I’ve never read Foucault. I started to hear about him my first year of graduate school and cobbled together a general understanding of his key contributions and then double, and triple checked with other colleagues and sources that I had it right. I’ve heard he’s a good read, so I might be missing out, but as far as my understanding of his value and utility goes, I’m not currently worried about it. But not everyone has a graduate school of friends and professors at their disposal to take this easy way out.

There are some resources for the curious non-academic. Introductory texts exist a-plenty, of course, but some are hardly an improvement over a dry textbook. One resource I have made extensive use of myself – for example, to indeed make sure I’ve got Foucault right – is the Introducing: Graphic Guides series. These are generally well-done, explaining concepts both verbally and visually in a manner that doesn’t require at least a BA in the humanities to grasp. (Usually: even I got pretty lost by the end of the Zizek one, I’ve got to admit.) They use the usual lingo, but explain what it means very clearly before doing so – and although they are extensively illustrated, they don’t look or read like they are written for anything less than an intelligent person. At least you won’t be handing someone something entitled Politics for Dummies!, or whatever. Jacobin has also done some wonderful work in this regard, making good on their attempt to organize for more than merely academics; The ABCs of Socialism might have an unfortunate name, but otherwise it is sharp, clear, and incredibly accessible.

But we need more of this kind of stuff. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise it is in low supply – such texts make almost no one’s career, and in a field so devoted to performative intellectual trapeze artistry, being easy to understand can even be read as a weakness. But we’ve got no time for such ego indulgences anymore, because soon enough we’re all going to die – or I’m going to lose my mind, whatever comes first. This post is merely one way I’m trying to battle back an ever-present sense of despair these days by finding reasons to believe that this wall we all keep running into can be torn down, one way or another, even if only one brick at a time. So help me out here with suggestions; because if we can’t figure out how to convince everyone human that the White Walkers and their Army of the Dead are coming – for Christ’s sake, they already run the show! – we are indeed, as Tyrion put it, fucked.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Being exposed to social theory and social science will probably make it less likely that one will end up as a supporter of Bannon and his agenda or what the post calls the White Walkers. But it certainly does not ensure one will become a leftist (as the post would understand that term). A lot of social scientists and historians (some of whom, at least, I think don’t want to be called social scientists, in some cases for good reason), in the U.S. at least, aren’t leftists, and their political views are to some extent distributed across a spectrum.[*] Your own research on Moynihan, Glazer, et al. shd be enough, I’d think, to indicate that an education in the social sciences doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome in terms of political position.

    [*] I think it is known that the majority of academics in the social sciences and humanities are decidedly more liberal (in the contemp. U.S. sense of that word) or left than the population as a whole, but that’s a different statement than the one that seems implicit in the post.

    • That’s most definitely true, but as much as I enjoy giving liberals a hard time, I certainly think the world would be better off if the only political divide were between them and leftists!

      That aside, there is an interesting question to be pursued here about the relationship between information, education, and politics. Put simply: would most educators be as enthusiastic about teaching “critical thinking” if they somehow knew that by doing so they would produce say, Nazis? (Totally ignoring the problem of fascism not being rational; it’s a hypothetical, right.) I say no. But that’s another post and another can of worms for another day!

Comments are closed.