Do Freshman Composition Students Have Minds?: A Response to Alex Genetti

Responding to our recent episode on Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Honor in the University,” my former student Alex Genetti posed a fun question about the essay and the practice of teaching.  If you haven’t listened to the episode, give it a run: among other things, it was some of the first Hauerwas that Grubbs or Farmer had read, and David Grubbs finally sees now one of the influences that’s conspired to make me insufferable.

Anyway, Alex graciously granted me permission to reproduce the text of his email here, so here’s the question:

I enjoyed the recent episode on Stanley Hauerwas’s “Honor in the University.” I was wondering, though, if I could get your thoughts about a particular point: his assertion that “the Socratic function of allowing students to make up their own minds” is “completely corrupt” because “most students do not have minds worth making up.”  As a TA at Kennesaw State University, I’ll be teaching two sections of English 1101 come the fall, and the course I’m designing would involve letting students write papers defending their own positions on controversial issues.  Do you think that letting my students “make up their minds” about what they want to argue might still be compatible with Hauerwas’s model of apprenticeship?

One of the fun things about Stanley Hauerwas’s essays is that he doesn’t do a whole lot of systematic explication. His style, not unlike Wittgenstein’s or Plato’s, invites readers to conversation and doesn’t put a whole lot of check on how we respond.  (Yes, I think that Plato is aware of the irony that his own dialogue, the Phaedrus, offers just such a warning with no subsequent check on how folks interpret it.  Give the man some credit, folks.)  So what I write here is one way to take Hauerwas but never the only way to take him, and I’ll confess that to some extent (now Grubbs knows my secret), I try to do similar things with my own public utterances and public texts.

With that preamble out of the way, I think that Hauerwas’s basic point–that professors who simply let students “make up their own minds” do those students a disservice– stands, but he gets things exactly wrong when he calls that habit “Socratic.”  Anyone who reads Plato’s dialogues closely–and since I teach several each school year, I probably read them more closely than most by professional necessity–can tell you that Socrates is not by any means content to let his interlocutors make up their own minds.  Rather, his incessant questioning and contradiction are part of a process by which the teacher acts as a midwife for thoughts (Socrates’s image from Theatetus) and as a gadfly, an animal which by its nature does not let a horse “make up its own mind” about whether to move or not (Socrates’s image from the Apology).  Never content to let his interlocutors, be they his students or his peers, remain confident in bad ideas, Socrates perpetually puts to them question after question, so that even by the end of a brief dialogue like the Euthyphro, anyone who has genuinely listened to Socrates comes away, at the very least, shaken in terms of confidence and hopefully, if Socrates or a disciple of Socrates has done her job right, eager to attempt another account of reality so that another round of questioning can begin, always bearing in mind that dialectic’s job is to clear away what can’t be true so that we can get at what might be true.

(I realize, as I write this, that I’m taking up an argument against Stan Hauerwas in terms with which C.S. Lewis would basically agree.  I suppose strange things can happen.)

In a college composition class, to use Alex’s example, we teachers do as much un-teaching as we do teaching.  Students often come to us with a working assumption that the work of an academic introduction is there to “catch the reader’s attention”; I follow that act with a course of class sessions that tries to get students to conceive of an introduction as a text that establishes common ground, destabilizes that common ground, and proposes a way to think truthfully about the contestable territory.  Students often come to our classes thinking that there’s something called “passive voice” that’s the rhetorical equivalent of farting at the dinner table; I attempt to show them, in class and by means of reading assignments, that a more helpful question is not whether or not this or that verbal mood is good or bad in itself but where a given sentence’s subject and verb direct a reader’s attention.  Students often come to our classes thinking that “the essay” is a static form (five paragraphs, three-prong “thesis,” conclusion that restates “thesis”) that one must perform with some aptitude in mechanical imitation so that one can “get past” stupid required classes and move on to more specialized coursework.  I try to offer them a different vision of the essay, a genre that invites a reader to see more truthfully some segment of reality that before she might have ignored, a genre that stands as useful far beyond the first two semesters of college.  The ways that students respond to all of these invitations will vary, and some students won’t be ready to attempt such novelty.  But at the very least, my hope is that students must voluntarily maintain the old ways in the face of the new, and that’s both a student’s taking a stand and a student’s responding to something that the student likely didn’t carry, in as articulated a form, into the classroom on day one.

(I will grant, at this point, that some students studiously avoid anything resembling engagement with these new questions.  Those folks will do the minimum to pass my course, move on to their major courses, and likely do there the bare minimum to pass those courses.  This might make me a bad person, but I don’t mind letting those people spend their tuition dollars and then refuse to be educated.  They help pay the bills.  I try to maintain a democracy of opportunity and an aristocracy of desire: everyone gets invited to engage in dialectic in my courses, but I only worry about educating those who accept the invitation.)

All of that, of course, is just freshman composition; when I teach Dante and Dostoevsky and Platonic dialogue, and when I teach students to read and to translate Old English, and when I turn my attention to theological questions in Emmanuel College’s senior theology course (which I can’t get people to call “Profession, Vocation, Mission” instead of its old and bland name “Senior Seminar”), the midwifery and the gad-flying just keep on rolling, pushing students into questions of truth and goodness and beauty as they’re ready (I always hope) to confront more and more daunting challenges to what they’d learned and engaging joyfully in the art of un-teaching, always in that Socratic spirit of clearing away the intellectually inadequate so that we might strive towards more truthful ways of thinking and speaking and existing.

And now I’m ready to confront the false binary that Hauerwas seems to have intended to destroy with his rhetorical dynamite.  (And he always bring dynamite to a contest of ideas.)  Too many modern folks assume that the only choices, when a community educates the young, are indoctrination and consumerism.  If a school or a church or some other institution doesn’t want to make students adopt uncritically a body of propositions handed down, the only alternative, the way some folks frame the question, is to set other bodies of propositions in front of them, buffet-style, and to let them load up whatever they please on their intellectual plates.  (I’m tempted to make a joke about intellectual obesity, but I’ll leave that to my reader at this point.)  As a third way Hauerwas, certainly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre and in turn by Thomas and Aristotle and the real Socrates of Plato, proposes that the supreme aim of education is neither to transmit bodies of propositions (and punish those who depart from them) nor to offer propositions that a mess of people have suggested and then invite students to pick the tastiest ones but to initiate students into a way of life. Putting students through an apprenticeship of argument, to teach them to disagree reasonably (I got this formulation from Gerald Graff), is neither to examine students’ memorization of a list of propositions independent of a larger notion of human character nor to let students simply choose the way of life they prefer without examining what it means for it would mean for a life to be good but rather to live a segment of life with students, posing challenges to what they know and striving together to do dialectic, whether in specialized modes (like the economic or the biological or the literary-critical) or in broader, more civic-oriented teaching (like our predecessors’ attempts to say what makes for political and ethical goods).

As Pierre Hadot has suggested, this was always the point of philosophy; when the ancients wrote about Platonists and Aristotelians and Stoics and even Epicureans, the emphasis was never first of all on statements that they affirmed as true in the abstract but on the ways of life, truth-seeking and goodness-loving and beauty-beholding, that they lived.  Philosophy, as they saw it, was always a way of life, a love of wisdom, rather than a collection of statements that might or might not have been true.  It’s no coincidence, I think (and yes, I borrowed this from Hadot as well), that with a couple of centuries of the resurrection of Jesus, Christians as well were known for their lives of common study and good works for the poor and their strange habit of regarding “the least of these” as sites of divine presence.

So that’s the way I tend to square that circle in my own teaching, and I recognize that my own aversion to teaching lecture courses is shining through here.  To teach the young is neither to insist upon dogmas divorced from life nor merely to let students choose their own dogmata.  Instead, dogma (which in itself has a good role to play) serves as the starting point for a process of dialectic practice that both requires and develops philosophia.  The reason we need to keep a few Socratic-types around is precisely because most of us, when we’re young, lack the philosophia (I’m naming a virtue here, not a college major) to start things rolling on our own.  The aim, if we’ve got our heads on straight, is to help our own students develop philosophia as long as they remain our students, in the hope that they’ll continue, once they’ve left our sphere of influence, always to strive for truth by means of dialectic.  Such is not the totality of human existence, but it’s one genuinely good facet of human existence, and I stand by my own vocation to invite the young into that way of life.

2 thoughts on “Do Freshman Composition Students Have Minds?: A Response to Alex Genetti

  1. Excellent episode and blog post! I fully intend to pass this one along to some of my colleagues…

    I think there might need to be some disciplinary nuance added to the discussion of what college professors actually do. Are we there to shovel information and worldviews (sorry Gilmour) across the table (as I think one of you said during the podcast), or are we there to teach students how to think for themselves? 
    Obviously to some extent it has to be both. But at the end of the day if we have to pick one then at least in my own discipline it has to be information-shoveling. I can’t speak to what you folks do in the English world, but in Political Science there’s no point in telling students they need to form their own political opinions if they don’t understand how the Electoral College works. Or what the job of Congress is. Or where states fit into the federal system. etc etc etc
    (And I’ll resist the urge to give the standard rant about how that information should have already been shoveled in high schools. It wasn’t, and complaining about it now may be cathartic but it doesn’t change reality.) 

    The same is true on the Political Philosophy side of the discipline. Yes, I would love my students to read The Republic and think critically about it on their own. Hopefully after four years of studying with me they are better equipped to do so, though you’d have to ask them about that. But I also think that in order to exercise critical thought in any way that’s valuable, part of my job as a teacher is being sure that they’ve picked up the necessary information along the way. They have to at least have read the book, and have some kind of basic understanding of the necessary details. If my students don’t understand, for example, that the Guardians and the Craftsmen have different roles in society and correspond to different aspects of human nature, we can’t get to any kind of meaningful reflection. Once they’ve got at least some of the nuts and bolts down, then we can argue about whether Plato was right or wrong or both. Until then, there’s no point in telling them to think for themselves because they lack useful things to think about. Which means more information-shoveling, albeit hopefully in a fairly limited way. 

    Obviously these two sides of teaching don’t exist as polar opposites, they are related to each other and to some extent will always exist in some kind of synthesis. But I’m not convinced that these two tasks are equal either. It seems that at the end of the day the informational side of teaching needs to come first, otherwise we’re just encouraging teenagers to be more aggressively opinionated in their ignorance. 

    Hopefully that’s not too disjointed. This is a topic faculty at my school discusses from time to time, and one on which none of us are ever really comfortable picking sides…

  2. Coyle I’m not sure that we’re disagreeing about how to answer the same question here.  Rather, I think we’re answering different questions.

    So to grant your first point, I’ll agree that engaging with actual content is at a premium, whether it’s the content of rhetorical theory or the content of political philosophy or the content of Dante’s Commedia.  And honestly, that’s why I’ve taken to teaching my freshman comp classes not only with a couple of rhetorical textbooks but also with Plato’s Republic.  (I’ve taught the first semester of freshman comp this way for eight years now).  So my aim, ultimately, is not that students be able to recite the relationships between artisans and auxiliaries and philosophers in Callipolis (though I imagine that’s a handy thing to know in some contexts) but that students engage with a text that I’ve tried and found interesting.  I’ve taught (because I was new and didn’t want to rock boats) comp classes rooted more in personal narratives and descriptions of random objects, but by and large, students think more complex, more interesting thoughts when they’re taking on texts slightly above their range of experience than when I ask them to draw on nothing more than their (usually quite limited) experience.

    Now I do think that we disagree on the ways in which college courses best advance towards the end of that transformed mind–a concept that Hauerwas, of course, borrows from MacIntyre and around which Ken Bain has more recently built a fine book around (I reviewed that book, “What the Best College Teachers Do,” back in 2014 on this site).  Your metaphors tell a good bit of the story: as you describe things, there are facts in the world which one could “shovel” or not, depending on what choices one made.  Facts seem to be raw materials, to be formed later on but at first transmitted without concern for form.  My own approach is to treat the facts themselves as products of prior processes and always embedded in some kind of form, to put the assertions that the discipline takes to be true in front of students, to be sure (though usually as homework reading rather than as a lecture), but also to pay attention to the ways that this discipline or that deploys different kinds of sentences to do different kinds of work.  I want students always to look at content and form as constantly related, not to take any “content” as separate from “form.”

    Now I’ll admit, my own English majors always joke that I’m not a “real” English professor, that I treat every class as a philosophy class.  The longer I teach, though, the more pleased I am when students tell me as much.

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