How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities

LiberationsAt the bottom of her n+1 review of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, Amanda Claybaugh laments that Lamont “fails” to answer the promise of her book’s title. Claybaugh appears to buy into the title’s assumption, that professors think differently than others. But why would professors think any differently than anyone else? Indeed, from the professor quotes offered in the review, they appear to think exactly like everyone else: “so sick [of hearing]”; “it’s hard to articulate”; “nothing is perfect”; “just still didn’t get it”; and the ubiquitous “[don’t] be an asshole.” 

Claybaugh reads in the field of English; Lamont, sociology. It’s assumed one’s discipline amounts to a special pair of spectacles, and only through the lenses of the discipline can one fully appreciate, or aspire to, or do at all. Specialty is the extreme license: “…disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method….” And to the extent that “English is seen as having no method of its own,” it also has no discipline, and its “…proposals …are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines.” Blame it on the essay, on Montaigne, all that wandering, those long trials. One English professor advances that close reading is a method, but in an apparent lack of self-confidence worries “…whether historians might not ‘know how to do this better’ after all.” Too bad; she might have mentioned Louis Menand and his American Studies or his The Metaphysical Club, or Caleb Crain’s American Sympathy, examples of English folks wandering afield successfully.

Consider the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, on the run and under the influence of the former English professor Faber, joins the radicals living outside the city, memorizing books. They become the book they digest, the ultimate specialist. That’s a cool ending, but for a professor, why wouldn’t, as Buckminster Fuller gives us, specialization lead to extinction?

In his preface to Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, Ihab Hassan asserts the professors have climbed out of their boxes: “The discomforts of the academy are already too much in the public eye. Yet how many see, I wonder, that we now strike past the college administration and campus guard, past the curriculum, past scholarship itself, at an older idea of man? The famous drawing of Leonardo, arms spread and legs apart, giving the human measure to circle, square, and universe, no longer takes our breath away. A post-humanism is in the making. What will be its shape?” Alas, that was 1971; the revolution is now in crisis.

“For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaatoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz, where would their practice be or where the human race itself were the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all the fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 116).

Where, indeed.

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