1997 Convocation Address - Moral Teachers

Convocation 1997
Tom Gerety

In my last year in college I took a seminar on Karl Marx's Das Kapital. The professor was a bone thin young man of wild intensity and seriousness. Often his wife--who looked to us like his twin sister, equally thin, smart, and unamused--co-taught the course, though she was not listed in the catalogue or on the roster of the economics department. Both were said to be Maoists and members of the progressive labor party, the hardest line of the various small revolutionary parties to be found on campuses in those days.

It was a bizarre assemblage of students for an advanced course in economics: most of us were in philosophy or literature. It seemed that all of us had read nearly everything written by "the young Marx"--because in those days across the land every course that touched on the 19th century seemed to assign him. There was, as I recall, one initiate among us, a shy young man who wore a suit every day. He was a member of the communist party, an alien from the '30s, and he seemed to all of us like a religious missionary or an insurance salesman who had wandered into the wrong class. Most of the rest of us had never before seen the three thick volumes of Das Kapital, published lavishly and cheaply in English in Moscow. The volumes themselves were in dark blue and deeply embossed as if they were bound in leather and belonged on the shelves of a collector of first editions.

To us, Karl Marx was a young, trenchant Hegelian, bitter, romantic, aphoristic, a poet of rebellion. The older Marx whom we were to study by way of these volumes remained trenchant and in his own way romantic: but the prose was assembled into heavy paragraphs, with charts and statistics gotten up with his collaborator Friedrich Engles. Page upon page of these volumes labor through the specifics of British industrial history to show the workings of capital accumulation and the slow evolution of class consciousness in factory workers. I could not then--and cannot now--say how well done all this research was. Plainly it was research in fealty to an idea, a vision, more powerful and animating than any but a very few the world has known for hundreds of years. The work itself is, by almost any standard, deeply eccentric: a hodge-podge of facts and figures thrown together with definite conclusions and passionate conviction. Most of us were ill-equipped to understand the work or its author.

Our teacher, I will call him Professor Advocate, met with us each week to work through sections of this great work, which to him was a kind of scripture. He took us as he found us, a ragtag group of would-be radicals with no rigorous preparation and a hesitant, mildly skeptical, curiosity about a way of thinking that to him was the sun's first light on a very dark night.

I have had funny teachers, warm teachers, brilliant teachers, even mystically inspired teachers; never have I had more intensely passionate and committed teachers than this pair of revolutionaries. I don't know what became of them. My guess is that they are still believers. I wonder if they still teach.

One day in the spring of 1969, in the minutes before class, they went after a bunch of us for what they took to be the poor quality of our war protests on campus. A large group of us had walked out of the senior dinner because the speaker was McGeorge Bundy, a one-time mathematician and dean, then a leading strategist of the war in Vietnam. I was the one who had seized the American flag, struggling with a security guard over its symbolic ownership as the group of us marched out of the hall where the dinner was held. (I knew the guard and felt ashamed to have out-wrestled a man thirty or forty years my elder. So I surrendered it to him once we were outside on the street. Later I learned that he was cheered when he returned it to the dais.) We had besieged the president's office demanding the expulsion of ROTC. But this seemed like paltry exhibitionism to the advocates. "What's going on here?" the two professors asked. "It's not based on any analysis of what can be done, here and now, to end the war and weaken the system. It's an effort to keep up with protests on other campuses, to make sure that this campus is not left behind. It's like a sports rivalry: you're keeping up with the other schools you read about in the papers. This is not a real or effective response to the war-machine." There was almost no arguing with them, on this or anything else. They were smart, of course, and they were learned, but above all they were convinced in a way that none of us was--or ever expected to be. We listened; we nodded or murmured very quietly. We asked questions carefully and tentatively, in the age-old student desire not to look the fool.

How much did I learn? Little that lasted about Marx or capital; something about the intellectual history of Marxism; much about the contrasting temperaments and methods of Marx and Engels. Next to nothing about economics, socialist or not. Perhaps more than anything I learned from the advocates about the workings of a zealous, intelligent, fanatical faith: how it sharpened their analysis of our political situation and made them clear and alert about the hypocrisies and uncertainties afflicting the rest of us in almost everything we did. The more we tried to do the right thing, the idealistic thing (as we would have called it), the more we were befuddled and embarrassed by their harsh critique.

Why did they teach this course? It was a job, I suppose, and a chance to reread and study works of great importance to them. But why did they bring such intensity to their arguments and expositions? It would be much too simple to say that they sought to convert us all to a hard-line Maoism. They were savvy people, alert and subtle. They knew our tentativeness was not wholly deferential and submissive. They could tell from the start that many of us went along with them, with their course, with a deep reserve of skepticism. And these thick ponderous books of Marx's, while great and powerful, were also flawed and unpolished, crude and imperfect.

I don't know anyone who left the course with a resolve to follow our professors into the progressive labor party, a group whose later evolutions must have troubled even the firm faith of these two teachers. Yet when I think about how the two advocates took up teaching as a profession, I have to believe that they did it as revolutionaries, as teachers intent on convincing others of the need for and proper direction of a revolution against the social order.

Now there is a view abroad among teachers and scholars that what the advocates did was wrong: they set out to teach the truth in morality and politics, feeling themselves in possession of that truth. They themselves did not much use words like truth and morality. The clash of ideas, of ideologies, was to them a brute fact of all argument and culture. The better idea was the accurate one, the one more exactly predicting the working out of history's logic and end. What is wrong with what they did, some would charge, is that they taught without detachment or openness, with answers rather than questions, with open scorn for those who differed from them.

How should teachers teach? Are they--or should they be--moral teachers as well as chemists, sociologists, or what have you? Or should they simply somehow explore with students, showing the way, raising questions, posing dilemmas, providing information? This is a much more difficult question than it may at first appear.

When I first started teaching I was a law professor. I had many illusions about what it would be like. It was the late '70s and law schools were hiring several new professors every year. A lot of us had very little experience, of teaching or law, and we talked intently about what we were up to. Among the most vivid of those conversations are those that took as a rough theme the question: what can one hope to accomplish by teaching, day-to-day and over a working lifetime? The most exciting and simplest answer that I recall was the one that went like this: I went into law in order to change this society for the better. I'm going into teaching in the same spirit. For me, the best thing I can do is to radicalize my students so that they too will graduate with a commitment to changing things for the better.

But this account never seemed to me to capture the experience of teaching: it is much too neat for the results that most of us achieve--or strive for.

I taught constitutional law for a dozen years or so. I love the subject--and believe in it. But I learned quickly that I had no stomach for whole classes of students who would see constitutional issues as I did. In fact it was much more thrilling--and revealing, analytically at least--to have students who took up ideas long since out of fashion or discredited by people like me and the judges and lawyers I admired. The class learned more, it seemed to me, when real differences enlivened the cases and made old principles and old debates vital and even urgent.

A joy and a curse in teaching constitutional law is the almost constant relevance of the subject to what's in the papers and on the evening news. No old case lacks a vivid modern illustration--often one that offers the spectacle of sharp controversy or at a minimum sharp irony. But this relevance sometimes curses study and discussion with shallow gestures of opinion mongering on the part of students or even professors: Marbury and Madison had to be decided the way it was, a student might say, because otherwise the congress would have no check on its present proclivities to yield all to lobbyists and contributors. One is caught at times like that doing what Mark Edmundson calls rebounding: dignifying a shallow and naive comment with a resonant "yes" that suggests that with a little elaboration and extension such a comment may be seen to raise profound questions. But better than easy relevance the real wonder that stops most of us in our tracks when we encounter something truly strange and hard to understand, Othello's rage, for instance, or the disappearance of neanderthals or the amazing simplicity of c-elegans. Yes, connections to the everyday and the contemporary are helpful and enjoyable; but much does not connect easily or lightly or quickly.

Complacency is a moral category along with many others, and I found--as most teachers and students do--that the facile analogy or discussion, even the agreeably interested one, did not hold for me or my students much that was bracing or challenging or revealing.

No teacher is so graced as to have student dissenters ready and willing in every class. I found that the classes I taught were worst when all agreed, often blandly, on the received opinions or common wisdoms of constitutional law. So much was this true, that no cases were harder to teach than those where bedrock moral principles were declared in ways that seemed to me and my students self-evident. As the semesters went on, I found myself dissenting, awkwardly at first, feeling sometimes dishonest or disingenuous, but then with increasing conviction. I kept coming back to the feeling that I was there, as Kierkegaard said, to complicate things, to make them difficult and awkward: to challenge my students--and myself--whenever complacency and easy assent reared themselves up and threatened to dominate an hour's discussion.

In effect, I found myself inviting and then prodding my students to be difficult, intellectually difficult, to resist the easy or obvious path, even when I felt sure that it was the morally or politically righteous one. Ronald Rosbottom, the Arms Professor of French, tells his students to be Kramers and not Seinfelds. Be crazy rather than cool, wild rather than tame, odd rather than ordinary.

There are many ways to challenge one's own and one's students assumptions, but I will call this style of teaching the teacher as devil's advocate. I want to make the contrast plain between the advocates who taught what they themselves believed in, passionately, and the devil's advocates among us, who try to teach against either what they themselves believe or else against what they suspect their students will all too likely believe.

For me, there are two surprises in this comparison of teaching styles: the first is this: I find that I cannot really take sides between the two. Both seem to me important to the liveliness and rigor of a curriculum. Something in me prefers the advocate to the devil's advocate, I admit. It may be the frankness and directness of the approach. It may be simply that, remembering my own teachers, the oddballs, the true believers, the zealots stand out. But it goes against my own practice as a teacher and that of most of my colleagues. Most of us see ourselves not as purveyors of views but as challengers of assumptions. The second thing that surprises me in the comparison is how both approaches seem to merge when we think hard about the actual practices and purposes of teachers.

Real advocates and devil's advocates alike do not want to build in straw. Solid foundations matter more than anything else to people with a passion for ideas. The most zealous true believer, setting out to convert her students, does not want them to come round too easily. "I would not lead you into the promised land if I could," said Eugene Victor Debs to his followers, "because if I could lead you in someone else could lead you out." My two instructors in the work of the mature Karl Marx didn't want us to buy in so much as they wanted us to listen and possibly heed a powerful critique of our own society and its foundations. They were believers, yes, but they didn't just want us to fall in with their beliefs. As they saw it, they had worked at them, examined alternatives, tested concepts and assumptions against study and experience.

I have had many great teachers, but few of the great ones were people with whom I agreed in the obvious points of politics or morality. The great ones inspired me with their passion for the truth and, above all, their passion to reexamine and to question. And this was true, it seems to me, wherever they fell across the spectrum from true believer to skeptic or even cynic.

None of us ever fully eludes true belief, or dogmatism. Bits of it cling to us in one way or another, like thistles in wool socks. Some make their dogmas obvious in the grand scale with which they dissent from ideas to which most of us nod. It is easy to see the dogmatism in the Maoist or the mystic, the positivist or the Platonist. What's harder to catch is the dogma in skepticism, the rhetoric in doubt. Assumptions are as necessary to intellectual life as hypotheses and questions. The purpose of the great teacher, her hidden purpose, is to get at the assumptions--and to test them: to see how they work, where they come from, what they imply. And always the great teacher asks, "what other assumptions might we make here?"

Is this a moral purpose? Is there a morality in this characteristic way of teaching? There is, but it is not the morality that critics of colleges and universities sometimes call for, the unambiguous morality of do this and don't do that. We, too, require definiteness at times, at Amherst, and thus proscribe wrongdoing in the residential halls--assault or theft, say--and in the classroom as well. We have an absolute prohibition on plagiarism, on submitting another's work as one's own. But the morality we teach is the morality of freedom, of free inquiry and free conviction.

It begins with an assumption, an act of faith: you the students have the intelligence and maturity to think for yourselves, to make up your own minds and to respond to challenges--from us, from your classmates, from within yourselves.

As I look back now on the most passionately committed of my teachers--a mystic, an existentialist, an anthropologist, a constitutional lawyer--all of them went before their students with this faith. Whatever else they believed in, they believed in their students' ability to respond to serious challenge. They had no sense that we could not take it, that we would need coddling or soft-pedaling. This is not to say that they had no patience for learning, for the time it took us to acquire the rudiments of a discipline and some of its background information.

But there was urgency in their teaching. You will see it in your own teachers here, when they push harder than you would like or dismiss a plausible answer as inadequate. The urgency is there because the stakes are high. What hangs in the balance is not the question that will often worry you in class and in exams: am I smart enough, can I keep up with or even outdo my peers?

The bigger, more enduring question, the one you will have to ask yourself as long as you live is this: Are my thoughts and stances my own? Do I deserve the respect of these teachers, deserve it because I am what they deeply want me to be--not a clone of theirs or a convert but a free, independent thinker, an adult with the courage and tenacity to come to my own convictions?

To say that the mind is free is in some ways a paradox. Immanuel Kant demonstrated how difficult it is to believe in freedom by showing the inescapability of determinism--of unfreedom--and yet its moral impossibility. He called his demonstration an antinomy, or contradiction. For most of us, moral life is full of contradictory principles. But Kant was right to make freedom the basis of the moral life. In this and in his faith in human reason, he is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the liberal arts.

Kant's most powerful image was of human moral life as a kingdom of ends, not means, a kingdom in which we treat one another, as he put it, as ends in ourselves, as deserving the respect that a moral being deserves for its freedom and its rationality. It is an apt image for us. A college ought to be a kingdom of ends, where each of us thinks and chooses unhindered by convention and conformity and where we treat one another as equally capable of freedom and rationality. This is an ideal; we sometimes fall short of it. But I urge it on you as a worthy ideal for a community of students and scholars.

Thank you.

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