Teaching Innovations

History and Humanities: Teaching as Destructive of Certainty

Russell H. Hvolbeck, January 1991

Editor's Note: The editor wishes to express his gratitude to Carol Pixton of Poly Prep Country Day School, Brooklyn, NY, and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University by acknowledging her constructive criticism and vital contributions to the editing of this article.

Two issues have emerged from recent studies of American higher education: 1) students graduating from American colleges and universities "lack even the most rudimentary knowledge about history, literature, art, and [the] philosophical foundations of their nation and their civilization"; 2) many of those who teach the humanities are not teaching effectively. I will address these points with special emphasis on the teaching of history and the humanities, outlining the fundamental problems hurting our ability to teach effectively and then discussing teaching as a means to destroy certainty.

I believe that the underlying presuppositions of our profession have skewed our vision and hindered our ability not simply to teach students (for all of us have information to offer), but to impart the desire to learn. This is where our problems lie—we are no longer able to inspire in students the predilection to comprehend and see the full value of our cultural, intellectual, and social past.

There are many reasons for the decline in inspired and inspiring teaching, the most damning being the perseverance of the "wretched pedantry, the meanness of motive, the petty rancors of rivalry, the stultifying professionalism," and the fact that good teaching is generally not rewarded financially or socially. But I believe there is a deeper reason. In a profession that claims to impart human values, we often ignore these for an "objective" knowledge divorced from the existential conditions of life. Losing touch with the fundamentally human element in history, what we study does not touch our own lives; indeed, we intentionally design studies to prevent too close a personal involvement in our subjects. But if our investigations lack serious importance to our own lives, if they are simply knowledge acquisitions, how can we have an inward connection to them? And how can we expect to touch and stimulate our students?

It is important therefore to reevaluate our motives for teaching, and to become absolutely clear about what we are doing when we engage ourselves in the study of culture and the past and teach students about them. Is the aim of teaching history and the humanities the transmitting of precise information? Do we really want history to be "scientific"? Is it really better to know absolutely or is it better to be in doubt? What are we educating students for in the humanities? Do we study the past to confirm our own views; and do we seek to condition the views of our students? Does all the information we now impart have any serious connection to the lives of the people we teach or even to ourselves? Do we suppose it could affect the lives of our students? Even asking such questions has become anathema. What guides our ultimate motives for teaching?

It is my contention that the primary purpose of teaching history and the humanities is to make students more aware of how their lives connect to past human experience. Teaching is a means to entice students to question actively their own beliefs and certainties, and thus participate in their own education. The first step in doing this involves, as Hegel implies, "tearing" self-consciousness. What Hegel means by this is that the psychological, intellectual, and social growth of an individual depends on a continual questioning of the presuppositions around which lives, societies, and civilizations are formed. The cultural/historical beliefs we have adopted help determine who we are; the extent to which we become aware of our unquestioned sociocultural assumptions is the extent to which we become creative independent individuals. In order to become free we have to have our "prejudices" torn. Hence "destruction" becomes a metaphor for education.

Let me begin to develop these ideas by recalling a similar issue discussed by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates meets Euthyphro (the straight thinker) on the steps of the law court in Athens. Euthyphro, lawyer, community leader, theologian, is prosecuting his own father for manslaughter and is convinced he is correct in doing so. He knows the law and what is right and pious. Socrates, gadfly, penniless philosopher, himself about to be put to trial for "corrupting the youth of Athens," asks Euthyphro to define piety so he may learn enough to convince the judges of his improved behavior. Euthyphro replies, "Piety consists in just what I am doing." Socrates then confounds the straight thinker with a series of questions that prove Euthyphro does not know what piety is, but rather, he just assumes he knows. Euthyphro has strong opinions he has never questioned. He represents the state, the right, the maintenance of the laws; he does not reflect or question his opinions. He is sure of himself. He is "uneducated."

Socrates desires the "destruction" of Euthyphro, that is, the destruction of "straight thinking." He wants to rend a seam in the consciousness of Euthyphro in order to make him self conscious. Until Euthyphro become self conscious he cannot carry on a dialogue; Euthyphro's chatter is monological. Rigid, he acquires new information only insofar as it supports his opinions. He never listens, he only narrates. He never grows more aware; he only states what is for him the obvious.

Socrates on the other hand is the wisest man in Athens because, unlike the "Euthyphros," he knows he does not know. He is unclear about answers to important questions. Plato's point is that intellectual confusion, including error, is a component part of the process toward knowledge. Socrates can carry on a dialogue because the answers are not always there. Knowing you do not know, or even that you might be wrong, leaves you open to new experiences that may change your consciousness. The purpose of the dialogue is not to teach what piety is, but to undermine the reader's faith that he actually know what piety is. Undermining presuppositions, having one's consciousness torn, allows one to receive a new idea or to develop an old one.

Socrates's dialogue with Euthyphro clarifies the fundamental problems facing the teaching of history and the humanities, and suggests an alternative premise from which our studies and our teaching might evolve. The purpose of education as practiced by Socrates is to steal away the assurance (dullness?) of mind surrounding the vast amount of data students have been forced to assimilate and which they assume to be important. Just as the dogmatic "correctness" of Euthyphros prevented him from creative involvement with alternative ideas, so too our educational practices aim at creating "Euthyphros," individuals with vast amounts of absolutely correct information but with little awareness that that information has been historically interpreted and is therefore open to interpretation.

The reasons for this are historical. For the past fifty years or so many of those who study and teach history and the humanities have been doing their best to emulate the hard sciences by aspiring to a comparable realm of truth. Objectivity, distance, and strict methodological principles have become our ideals. This means that much of history is perceived as a "social science" concerned with exact quantitative research and the erection of scientific models through which investigations are to be undertaken. The problem, it seems, is not the acquisition of positivistic knowledge but the use, or lack of use, of that knowledge. In our attempt to establish levels of truth that are "objective" and "timeless" (similar to scientific laws), we have begun to approach a subject which is in time as if it and we were out of it. We believe we can escape our own biases by creating theories (linguistic mediums) that purport to allow what is to be known in an unbiased fashion. But the theories themselves are part of our own historical biases toward timeless objectivity. By adopting this particular form of engagement with our subject, we advance our own personal estrangement from it.

Moreover, educational theory and practice have conflated the conception of knowledge recognized in the natural sciences and the means toward acquiring it with what knowledge is and how it is acquired in history or the humanities. Modern education is now modeled on a theory of knowledge lying at the heart of and practiced most successfully by the scientific enterprise. The assumptions are that knowledge begins at a low level with basic information, theories, formulae, and advances to more complex plateaus. Achievement is recognized as a building-up, an improving, a making more "intelligent" through the imbibing of more exact and complicated information. The denouement of contemporary educational practices is the "achievement test" that supposedly determines whether the student has mastered the material in order to proceed onto the next level. Such tests represent the entire range of thinking about modern education as the quantifiable absorption of information leading to a specific end, the passing of an exam.

Unfortunately, what achievement tests purport to determine (i.e., command of information) has little to do with achievement or intelligence in the humanities. In fact, the a priori assumption of modern scientifically-based educational practices—that knowledge is a progressive absorption of information that can be measured and has an end—is the antithesis of the process toward and the goal of knowledge in the humanities. The end of and education in the humanities (if we can speak of such a thing) is itself not the passing of a test or the advancement of the business or science industries. That is, an education in the humanities turns students both inward as individuals and outward as members of a society and culture, to shake them free of fixed ideas. As such it is not constructive but, frankly, "destructive," although this is no ordinary destruction. Individuals pursuing the study of the humanities seek continually to have their presuppositions confronted. What an education in the humanities should consist of is the continual confrontation with the truths and ideas that students and teachers hold self evident, and not simply the memorization of social/cultural information about the past.

Our love of and need for information are not to be scoffed at or scorned, but perhaps our love has prevented us from fully realizing and making a distinction between understanding and information. Information is just that, no more. But understanding involves synthesizing information into comprehensible relationships; and when we understand something about the past we have more than information, we have a story about human life, and that story can tell us something about our lives. This, not the memorization of states on a map or important names and events, should constitute cultural literacy. To exaggerate the point—What good does it do us to know a few more facts about George Washington or the American Revolution? Would it not be more instructive if we knew that revolutions, orginating in thought, ultimately redefine the way human beings conceive of themselves, their world, and their relationship to the world? That when thought changes the world changes, and that applies to then as well as to now? That Washington's role, symbolic or otherwise, helped create a new idea about the individual and his relationship to his society and government? And then, perhaps, to discover the extent to which that idea is present and influential in American society today? The dynamic interaction of the thought and action of the past has, indeed, shaped our ideas, regardless of whether we react for or against it. The extent to which we become aware of this shaping determines how we can decide about it. Information itself is not the goal. Understanding the ideas and actions that have shaped the world, and putting information into a coherent story about how human beings have made their world, is the goal. As this is accomplished the information becomes important.

Alas, history is now a "social science," the humanities are now the "human sciences," and universities are filled with professors seeking to become more practical, useful, and scientific. Teachers of subjective personal material have become scholars, objective and aloof from the object of their study—human life. By consciously seeking to subsume the ideals of their discipline into the natural sciences, the "human scientists" have lost touch with the humanities. And they have perhaps driven students away as well. In part this is because as "social scientists" we often transmit information that appears dull to students who really cannot see the relevance of some particular fact about the past. It is all information, equally valid and without any serious connection to their lives. At least the natural sciences seem to offer us the power to control nature.

In our science-based educational practice, what is "useful" is that which can be known in such a way that it can be controlled and manipulated for human good. But what is "useful" in history and the humanities and the type of educational practices I am advocating is that which strikes at self-assurance and urges self-consciousness. The task of the humanities professor is to make the student aware of the fact that thoughts are conditioned and fixed by society and culture so that confidence in the "this is the way things are" is undermined. The teacher must seek to undermine confidence in the obvious, to destroy "common sense," that horrendum pudendum, as Nietzsche called it, of all forms of training "education". For when something is taken as "common sense," when something is accepted as absolutely right and an end in itself, conversation is over. Conversation is over because one's own biases are not being questioned. And without the recognition of questions, fresh creative involvement is impossible.

In the humanities, answers are less important than questioning answers. And questioning must be self-reflective. To be educated in the humanities (and the sciences) is to be made aware of what one is lacking, it is to be made aware that one must continually generate new questions and do away with the confidence that one's own ideas are absolutely correct. This leads to questions, and questions are what precipitate fresh approaches to things. We discover in the latter part of the Socratic dialogue that when the dogmatic Euthyphro tries to turn the table on Socrates by asking him questions, he cannot do so. He has nothing to ask. He is closed. The point I am making can also be illustrated by recognizing that nothing is more depressing than trying to engage in a dialogue with an individual who knows all the answers (such as Euthyphro). Such an individual will seek to win an argument, to place his view over another's. Unwilling to recognize an opposing consideration, such an individual cannot carry on a dialogue. You cannot really "talk" with such an individual until he is able to recognize that his knowledge might be incomplete. Unless he becomes aware of the questionableness of his views, his relationships with others will always be over and against, never with, the other.

I am not advocating "cultural relativity". It is really not an issue. Most students will spout the "well-everything-is-relative-man" theme because it is part of their historical heritage; they have been conditioned and are trapped in that idea. That too is a "value". But is the way to get rid of "relativism" to force feed them other, what some believe are superior, values? Would it not be better to let them realize that their "relativism" is a history conditioned value they need not accept? In my experience all students want values and will seek them out. No one lives without some values. If the "value" of relativism is hurting them, and I believe it is, the problem is not that they do not want values. No—rather it is that they have no idea "relativism" is a value, that "relativism" is their "objectively" clear "value," and that there might be other ways to consider the world. Like Euthyphro, they are stuck; unconsciously conditioned by a "value," they are closed to the educational experience.

The legacy of Descartes that every step to knowledge has to follow a "clear and distinct" path, and that of Galileo who defined the scientific method as the study of the world as if it were without life, without consciousness, has stifled us.

In studying history and the humanities we are talking about consciousness as it evolves in time. The student should be forced to walk in the dark, in the abyss of an idea, and not in the white light of some assumed objectivity that consciously seeks to deny consciousness. This will encourage receptivity and openness to life and values. Then the sense of despair students feel living in the value of objectivism and the relativity of innumerable facts will recede. Nietzsche was correct when he stated that an educated person "lies servilely on one's stomach before every little fact, always to be prepared for the leap of putting oneself in the place of or plunging into, others and other things—in short the famous 'objectivity' is bad taste, is ignoble par excellence." When every idea is "clear and distinct," when we have totally divorced ourselves from a personal inward relationship with life, we will have lost history and the humanities entirely.

When one teaches the history of science, for example, the goal is not to chronicle accurately the series of events leading up to contemporary thought structures. This serves only to solidify fundamental contemporary conceptions and rigidify thinking (the relativity of values, for example!). The narrative line of historical events should be merely the structure through which one pulls apart the presuppositions behind a particular thought pattern and then discusses the implications and meaning behind those presuppositions.

It serves very little purpose for undergraduates to know that Isaac Newton, following the pioneering genius of Johannus Kepler and Galileo, derived the first law of motion. His discovery has been in our culture so long that high school students know "intuitively" that an object will continue in motion or remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. To stress this and other "facts" about history of science as statements of the gradual progress of truth only substantiates contemporary thought structures. I am not saying we should ignore data; but this should not be our primary focus. It is more important that students realize that this was a totally new way to see and live in the world that departed radically from prior orientations to reality. It makes a significant difference that they know that the first law of motion is totally counter to the immediate experience the individual initially has with nature, and that there is no such object in the world that continues in a straight line without stopping; all things in our world are acted upon by outside forces. It makes a difference that students know that Newton's science indicates growth in the West of a new theory of knowledge, a new relationship to nature, and a new conception of our place in nature that has fundamentally altered our world. It makes a significant difference that students realize that the absorption of these theories has altered their orientation to reality and hindered alternative conceptions of reality. To destroy their belief that this is the way things are, and thus to tear into their self-consciousness, is to open them to new worlds. To add more information that affirms the dull and dreary world of "objective" reality—which is a direct product of our intellectual history—is to stifle creativity.

In my experience, once students glimpse that the way they have been thinking about things is not necessarily the way they have to think about them, they become inspired to learn. This does not happen overnight, of course, and it does not happen to every student. But it is astonishing how open and desirous of new ideas college students can become as a result of one "consciousness-tearing" course. College can be the most intellectually stimulating period of most people's lives. When they become aware that there are alternative ways to think about things, lights go on. Students begin to want to understand their lives, their history, and their place in the world. They want to see connections between themselves and the past and how it has affected them. At that point, teaching becomes easy and all students become good students.

Exciting teaching and active learning are possible. Education in history and the humanities has the greatest potential for challenging and inspiring students when it abandons certainty. Giving students the possibility of having their consciousness torn is giving them the possibility of freedom. And this freedom is freedom from the "known."

—Russell Hvolbek has taught in the history department at the University of California, San Diego as a visiting professor and is currently completing a book on Jacob Boehme and the scientific revolution.