Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I Don't Teach

Frankly, I don't understand why a student wouldn't go humbly to Branford Marsalis for instruction in the craft. (That is, I don't understand why exactly his students would leave this impression.) But I must say I share his experience. I don't teach because I don't have the courage to tell students they are full of shit. More accurately (since it's not really that I'm afraid of them), I don't have the heart. Their vanity appeals to my sense of pity. In fact, my empathy undermines me.

After all, it takes one to know one. I have let the kinds of students Marsalis is talking about undermine my desire to teach because I, too, was one of those students. I did not believe that a university was a place where I might learn something, but saw it instead as a place where my talents were to be acknowledged. If this did not happen, that was a poor reflection on the institution, not on me. My error is becoming clear to me now as I again and again discover that I simply am unable to do the things I would like to be able to do intellectually. I did not work hard enough as a student.

Wittgenstein is the patron saint of this kind of incompetence. When he said that philosophy should be written as a kind of "poetic composition" (Dichtung), he added that this only revealed the extent to which he was trying to do something he was unable to do. He knew what philosophy ought to be, but he did not work hard enough to perfect his craft. And the reason, I think, is that he never really felt he had to accomplish anything. He had Bertrand Russell to tell him how right he was and how good he was and how talented he was; and besides: he did not want the prestige of an academic post. So he had nothing to live up to.

Now, Wittgenstein was also in fact good, right, and talented. (As you and I are, dear reader.) But I don't think he ever really experienced himself in that way. He said that "genius is talent exercised with courage", but I'm not sure he thought of himself as very courageous (nor am I even sure that he was). His Investigations were published only after his death. He shared his views mostly with admirers.

In scholarship, the essential thing is learning how to assert a fact in public. It's really difficult. Don't think you're being sophisticated when you find a way around the problem of assertion. You're just being lazy, and probably vain. And, the university being what it is, you will probably be rewarded for it. I, in turn, will be able to teach when I finally realize that my hard-won empathy with sophomoric bullshit actually offers a valid basis for instruction.

Maybe I just realized that now. Welcome to my epiphany!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sophomoric bullshit, I have learned, is actually a stage people need to go through.

It is one I repressed for various reasons, but I think it is the stage in which people learn to be truly independent thinkers. Or one that helps them to be comfortable with this.