Matthew Henry John Bartlett

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Sunday 16 October, 02005

Fightin words

by Matthew Bartlett @ 10:24 am

Stanley Hauerwas in After Christendom said:

In short, the great problem of modernity for the church is how we are to survive as disciplined communities in democratic societies. For the fundamental presumption behind democratic societies is that the consciousness of something called the common citizen is privileged no matter what kind of formation it may or may not have had. It is that presumption that gives rise to the very idea of ethics as an identifiable discipline within the modern university curriculum. Both Kant and utilitarians assumed that the task of the ethicist was to explicate the presuppositions shared by anyone. Ethics is the attempt at the systemization of what we all perhaps only inchoately know or which we have perhaps failed to make sufficiently explicit.
   Such a view of ethics can appear quite anticonventional, but even the anticonventional stance gains its power by appeal to what anyone would think upon reflection. This can be suitably illustrated in terms of the recent popular movie, Dead Poets Society. It is an entertaining, popular movie that appealed to our moral sensibilities.
   The movie depicts a young and creative teacher battling what appears to be the unthinking authoritarianism of the school in which he is teaching as well as his students’, at first, uncomprehending resistance to his teaching method. The young teacher, whose subject is romantic poetry, which may or may not be all that important, takes as his primary pedagogical task to help his students think for themselves. Through great pedagogical sensitivity we watch him slowly awaken one student after another to the possibility of their own talents and potential. At the end, even though he has been fired by the school, we are thrilled as his students found ability to stand against authority, to think for themselves.
   This movie seems to be a wonderful testimony to the independence of spirit that democracies putatively want to encourage. Yet I can think of no more conformist message in liberal societies than the idea that students should learn to think for themselves. What must be said is that most students in our society do not have minds well enough trained to be able to think, period. A central pedagogical task is to tell students that they do not yet have minds worth making up. Thus training is so important, because training involves the formation of the self through submission to authority that will, if done well, provide people with the virtues necessary to be able to make reasoned judgment.
   I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity that that we should encourage students to make up their own minds.
   That is simply to ensure that they will be good conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement. That is the reason that I tell my students that my first object is to help them think just like me.

[via Joel on CD]

2 Responses to “Fightin words”

  1. Aaron says:

    o what! I really really really like Dead Poets’ Society!!

  2. Tim says:

    Good thoughts but I don’t agree with, “That is simply to ensure that they will be good conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes.”

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