I’ve been lucky to have Dean Dettloff, in a series of interviews, lead me through my ways of reading, teaching, thinking, writing. The two posts following this one explore how my philosophical-literary writing is lyrical. The post you’re reading right now focuses on teaching and classrooms. Dean begins with a “wow” reaction to the two posts that come next.
Dean Dettloff: Wow. I feel as though you’re already performing a kind of intimacy-refinement on me in these interviews! The themes of renewal you trace are neither bound to psychological experience nor public consciousness, though they deal with both.
You clearly have a heart for interpersonal relationships and societal healing, which seems to bleed into your philosophy of education and a desire for these kinds of ideas to reach a public audience instead of staying within the academy.
Would you discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?
“Instilling intimacy” captures something that ought to occur in teaching and learning, especially in the humanities, where I teach. We need to instill intimacy because we’ve repressed intimacy in our lives — and we’ve repressed it in the books we pick up in the humanities that deal with the elusive non-factual things we should embrace for the health of our spirit.
This ideal gets lost in the bustle about “learning objectives,” about generating knowledge for the social-industrial-military complex—the specialized research university as a knowledge-generating machine.
In my view (I’m in a decided minority), the best humanities education is intimate. It’s paternal, avuncular, maternal, fraternal, “sisterly.” Platonic “care of the soul” is front and center. Fact and theory aren’t everything. You and I can discover (and rediscover) the truths of “intimacy” – let intimacy happen — in the company of mentors: Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Basho, Nishitani, countless others.
Just this morning I received an email from a student in an on-line class I teach (I ask everyone to send me emails regularly as they read through various assigned texts). I had assigned Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form for an introductory on-line class called “Religion, Meaning, and Knowledge.” My student writes:
Reading The Inward Morning has been one of the most profound experiences in my life… Philosophy is a step into the confessional rather than a dispassionate look at external subjects… There is no more direct a path to the evidence as to how the exposition of my personal philosophy affects those around me than to put it out there and await the reaction.
I was most struck by the idea that wilderness can be viewed not as literal but as a construct…a place out in the world or internally where to experience true recognition one must be open to the most basic examination. Being open to what at once seems inconsequential but on second viewing . . . —the tiny detail explains the whole.
I want to write [in the upcoming writing assignment] about the unseen hand that guides us to places that were previously unimagined. Bugbee alluded to this in his writing about being on the boat during the war. How he had come to be in that place through a set of unseen actions. How even the most mundane, which at first seems beneath notice, can nonetheless be fundamental to the journey of self-discovery.
Ultimately, this trek through the wilderness is about sensory awareness. Moving outside the sheltered world to look for, even anticipate, the unexpected. Every moment is one in which a new reality can be born. Living life in this manner requires a leap of faith, a certain bravery and an openness. What is really happening in the world around me and what does that say about me?
Well, what more could one hope for as a teacher?
This is a model of intimacy-exchange between text and reader, and then student and teacher. I shared the moment this student shapes through passing it on in a mass e-mail to the rest of the class.
By and large I think the academy and departments in humanities have abandoned the allure of such learning-teaching exchange—or abandoned giving it much publicity or reinforcement. After all, don’t parents want to see classes that lead to corporate tangible success?
Of course, technical training and skill-acquisition of the sort physics and economics can provide are important. But the humanities ought to have care for our souls. The loss of an articulate expression of this calling is unsettling.
Imagine a department meeting where the dean has put pedagogic practice in the spotlight. This is what I could expect:
Professor Mooney, what are you saying! That you throw a book out to a class and wait to see what happens? No lectures, no tests on information acquired, no honing of necessary skill! Do we pay you for encouraging free-form emotional response?
I hope I’d say, Yes. I’m paid for this because the best teaching in my field encourages free emotional-cognitive-intimate response. In other contexts I’d lecture on backgrounds to this or that text or writer or movement, and comment on modes of analysis. But I’d want all that to be propaedeutic to the deeper sort of learning expressed in the student’s email I’ve quoted at length.
I shared this student’s email (name removed) through mass-mailing, and then added a preface from me:
From time to time, a book really works into your soul, reminding you that you have one. Encountering THE INWARD MORNING was like that years ago—decades ago—for me. And from time to time, as I meet a class and pass on the books that have shaped my sense of things in the deepest ways, I catch sight of at least some in class having the books work an excitement, intimacy, and sorrow into their souls; the books are reminding them (and reminding me) that they have souls.
The class learned something “factual” about a book, and they were alerted to themes in it that they might have missed. But more important, I hope they get a visceral feel of a fellow student being deeply moved by a text (or parts of it), and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of being deeply moved themselves by texts.
They might see why their professor, somewhat eccentrically, believes that such “intimate” experiences are most valuable. They may even come to try to reciprocate in intimate response.
Dean, you ask about the reach of “education-as-intimacy” occurring outside the University or College.
I’m writing from Israel, now, and I have a dear friend, also a Kierkegaard scholar, who gives what they call here “Public Lectures.” These are not sponsored by any academic institution but presented by the sort of management agency that in the US would organize rock-music tours.
People buy tickets for a series on all sorts of subjects: “Love,” “Power,” “Ayn Rand,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Kierkegaard,” “Spinoza,” “Desire,” a new movie-release. It’s a kind of night school without assignments, tests, attendance checks, or degrees.
So, there’s a way the sort of intimate teaching-learning I value can flourish outside the academy. But culturally—regrettably—it doesn’t seem to be part of “The American Way.” In a sense learning is corporate, intimate-community based among Ashkenazi Jews.
Personally, my sensibilities’ provenance is dark or shaded. I’ve found myself up to my neck, in a good way, in writing and speaking in a voice saturated with certain interests or ideals, vulnerabilities and desires.
I can tell you how I happened to encounter Thoreau, Dostoevsky, or the ‘Existential Wittgenstein.’ But I’d be hard pressed to say what in my background prepared me for these encounters.
They’re just flesh and blood and soul at this point. Once these ideals, sensibilities, intimacies and desires become my flesh and voice, they are just me. They inescapably shape the part I play in academic, family, and musical life—willy-nilly.