This is the text, more or less, of the talk I gave at Duke University last Monday afternoon. The talk is derived from one of the key concepts I employ in my recent book How to Think — Susan Friend Harding’s notion of the “repugnant cultural other” — but I have focused here on the university context. I have added some links that I hope will be useful. My thanks to the Kenan Institute for Ethics for inviting me, and especially to John Rose for making it all happen.
In what follows there are three things I will try not to say. I cannot promise that I will succeed in not saying them, but I will make every effort.
- I will try not to ask, in plaintive tones, “Why can’t we all just get along?“
- I will try not to make a plea for civility. (I best commend civility by practicing it myself rather than chastising other people for their failures to do so.)
- Above all, I will try not to exhort you to consider that you may be wrong. As G. K. Chesterton said about a century ago,
What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.
With those three commitments firmly in place, and with the promise that you’ll have a chance later on to tell me if I’ve failed to keep them, let me move on to one more preliminary thing.
I’m talking to you tonight about university education, and everything that I think about my topic is colored by my own experience. So let me just say quickly — and sorry if this sounds like one of those “in my day we walked five miles to school through the show, uphill both ways” stories — that I am the only member of my immediate or extended family to attend college. Neither of my parents even finished high school, though they did eventually take and pass the GED exam. Through much of my childhood my father was in prison, and my mother worked to support us while my grandmother effectively raised my sister and me. The expectation was that when I graduated from high school I would get a job and pay my own way; nobody thought that college made the least sense for people like us. As a result I ended up attending for my first two-and-a-half years what was then the local “commuter college,” the University of Alabama in Birmingham — I did not know that places like Duke existed — and paying for it myself by working 25 hours a week during term and full-time between terms. You could actually do that then, which, given the student loan burden that people carry today, is amazing to contemplate. In some ways I had it harder than most of you, in some ways easier; but it was certainly a different world in many respects, though most of the challenges I faced as a first-generation college student are still faced by first-generation college students today. Which is why my heart is always with them. Anyway, please just keep all that in mind, because that early experience is central to my understanding of the university today.
Now to the substance of the talk.
I sometimes feel that this is John Stuart Mill’s world, and we’re all just trying, with varying degrees of success, to learn how to live in it. Mill gets plenty of credit as the philosopher of the liberal social order, but I am not sure he gets enough. And tonight I want to set two brief quotations from Mill next to each other and see how they interact. Both quotations, not at all incidentally, are from Mill’s book On Liberty.
The first is a passage that has been much quoted in the last couple of years by people who believe that this nation’s universities are becoming ideologically uniform and hostile to genuine debate. It goes like this:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.
And here’s the other one, Mill’s concise articulation of what has come to be known as the Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill had a quite carefully restricted definition of “harm,” but the Harm Principle as understood today has been extended to a wide variety of experiences, often, if not always, in ways that make perfect sense.)
I think we in the American academy are living through a moment in which these two statements seem to be in serious tension with each other. For what happens if, in my view, the opposite side of the case simply through its public presence does harm to me or to others?
There are many ways of talking about this general problem. I could speak of what the United States Supreme Court, in the notorious Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision of 1942, called “fighting words.” I could look at the long history of debates about the limits of free speech. That would be to put the debate in a legal context, and indeed there are always legal dimensions to these issues — especially for public universities, like UNC down the road, but often for private ones as well. Nevertheless, I’m going to set law aside for this talk, and turn my attention instead to the ways disagreement, even painful disagreement, works in a community of learning — and how it might work better.
I’m going to start by describing a phenomenon identified by the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding. As a graduate student, she decided that she wanted to do ethnographic work on a curious social group: fundamentalist Christians. She felt she had hit upon a useful project, focusing on an understudied group — and therefore was surprised and dismayed when her professors displayed considerable skepticism about the plan. In an essay she wrote some years later about the experience, she says that she gradually realized that they were all, in effect if not in so many words, asking her, “Are you now or have you ever been a fundamentalist Christian?” (An echo of the standard question of the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s: “Are you now or have you ever ben a Communist?”)
As Harding reflected on this unexpected and uncomfortable experience, she came to understand that fundamentalist Christians, in the mental world of her anthropological colleagues played a distinctive role which she came to call the Repugnant Cultural Other (henceforth abbreviated RCO). Of course, the sorts of peoples that one imagines anthropologists studying — Bedouins, or tiny communities in the Amazon basin or the highlands of Papua New Guinea — are certainly quite other to American academics, but they aren’t nearly as repugnant, for an obvious reason: they don’t impinge on the lives of those academics any more than the academics want. When an anthropologist flies back to Boston from Sudan, the Bedouins don’t come along. But fundamentalist Christians shop at the same grocery stores that you do — and worse yet, vote in the same elections. And attend the same universities.
The psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander puts the distinction this way: You have an Ingroup, an Outgroup, and a Fargroup. Members of the Fargroup will probably be considerably more different from you than members of the Outgroup, will very likely take moral and political stances that you find abominable, but they do not arouse the same repugnance as the Outgroup — simply because they are Far. Only those who share the same daily world with you are likely to become for you the true Outgroup, the true RCO.
This is why I tend to smile when I see many academic arguments for accepting otherness. An extreme example, perhaps, is Donna Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble, in which she celebrates all sorts of connections with “oddkin,” multifarious forms of the nonhuman. When Haraway asks me to envision “a symbiogenetic join of a human child and monarch butterﬂies” I think, well, that’s cool, I guess, but what kinship do you have with that dude sharing the coffee-shop line with you in his Make America Great Again cap? Now we’re really talking oddkin.
Let me pause here to remind you of one of the things that I promised not to say, or promised to try not to say: Why can’t we all just get along? I am not going to suggest that maybe that guy in the MAGA cap is actually a decent fellow — just so, so misunderstood — and if Donna Haraway would simply take the time to get to know him she might discover that they share some interests, and then the next time they’re in the coffee shop — she sipping her organic soy cortado, he dumping three packets of sugar into his drip coffee — they could bond over a mutual love of origami, or NASCAR. I sometimes read newspaper stories about this kind of meeting of minds, and while those invariably are heartwarming, I don’t think we can assume them to be common or likely.
Let’s go, rather, with something close to the opposite assumption: that your RCO really is kinda repugnant, or at least many of his views are. What now? And — to bring this discussion back around to the academic context, where it belongs — what if you share a dorm floor, or an apartment building, or a seminar class, with him? How are you going to manage that? Can you somehow make kin with someone that odd? And if not, what do you do instead?
I think the first step should be getting a strong grip on the kind of environment you’re actually in. A couple of years ago, when there was a massive controversy that many of you will remember at Yale’s Silliman College, one of the charges brought against the leadership of the college was that they had allowed damage to the students’ home. (I wrote about this situation in more detail in this essay, and borrow from that in some of what follows.) One student wrote, “I feel that my home is being threatened.” The associate master of Silliman “did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.” I don’t blame the student for saying that, because many colleges and universities — most of them? darn near all of them? — promise or at least express the hope that students will find that place a real home. What do we call that one weekend each fall when graduates return to what some of them still refer to as “alma mater”? Homecoming. “Hi mom, I’m home!” As though alums are all Telemachus returning to Ithaca, to Penelope, after a perilous journey to Pylos and Sparta.
And this is not a contemptible conceit. Kenneth Tynan, the great English theatrical impresario and writer, wanted his ashes to be scattered at his Oxford college, Magdalen, because it was the only place he had ever felt he truly belonged; and was heartbroken when told that it couldn’t happen. I’ve talked to former students of mine who feel much the same about their own college years. And when that happens it’s a kind of victory for those of us who teach — but not an unalloyed one. Because no college or university is supposed to be any student’s home. It is, at Duke anyway and in places where I have taught, a largely residential academy where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together for about 30 weeks a year for about four years, before moving on to the rest of their lives. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship, and it is meant to be temporary. We may call that common autumn event Homecoming but after a long weekend at most the children all scatter and dear alma mater is left with her most recent brood of hatchlings. Magdalen College was not Kenneth Tynan’s home, and could not have been, because there were other people there who didn’t even know him, or who knew him but didn’t like him, or whose preferences were radically different than his, and who had no long-term bond with him to force them to come to some mutually agreeable terms beyond basic tolerance for (in his case) three years. The notion of college-as-home is not a contemptible conceit, but it is a conceit, and if we set it aside we may be able to accomplish two things: first, to lower the temperature of the disputes, and second, to understand better how students are situated.
There’s a fairly comical story to be told about my attempts, as I was thinking about this talk, to come up with the right metaphor for what I believe the college years are supposed to be, at least in relation to the problems I’m trying to address tonight. I don’t know whether any of you have seen Whit Stillman’s movie Barcelona, but it features a couple of very funny scenes in which someone tries to describe U.S. foreign policy in Latin America in terms of rival species of ant. A cautionary tale, let me tell you. For quite a while I was enamored of an elaborate set of images built around how motorcycle stunt jumpers practice their stunts without getting killed, and when I abandoned that I toyed for a while with a detailed comparison to a demolition derby — you can ask me about that in the Q&A if you want. Eventually I discarded all those images, and some others I prefer not to talk about, but not before it occurred to me that what they all had in common, what I was trying to get at, however ineptly, was the collection of ideas that cluster around our practices of play.
Please don’t bolt for the door at this point. When I speak of play I do not refer to anything frivolous or trivial. Play is a highly structured form of experience that is essential to the intellectual and social development and health of humans, and of many other creatures. We do well to reflect on how it works and the functions it can fulfill. So bear with me.
In Homo Ludens, the single greatest study of “the play element of culture,” Johan Huizinga identifies several characteristic of play, all of which are relevant, I believe, to understanding how college life should work for students. For Huizinga, “the first main characteristic of play [is] that it is free, is in fact freedom.“ Like many teachers, I often point out to my students that the word “school” derives from scholia, leisure, and though they typically respond to this by rolling their eyes so dramatically I fear that they’ll do themselves an ocular injury, the point is nevertheless true and salutary. Students’ parents, or some generous donor, or some government agency, or their future selves, have paid to liberate them from some or all work obligations so that they might have the leisure to study and think. It is precious freedom, bought for a price, often a heavy price. I am perhaps more aware of this than sime because I had the privilege, though it then seemed a heavy burden, of paying that price myself, quite directly. “Pay to play” is a phrase that has special meaning for me. Going to class felt like a magnificent luxury.
So: play is freedom. Huizinga continues: “A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Moreover, “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning…. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over.’” You see the relation between this point and my earlier claim that the university is not anybody’s home, but rather a temporary and spatially specific place of learning and development.
One more point from Huizinga: “Play … creates order, is order…. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play … seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful.” And that is one of the reasons why people love it. At its best, the university experience, with its order and structure and room for artful creativity within that order, is really, really beautiful.
None of this is to say that the boundaries between play and the rest of life are fixed and uncrossable. They are, rather, quite porous, and need to be: we easily see how the play of animals relates the skills they need for survival. We also see, in big-time college sports, the way that the elements of actual play are can be stripped away altogether from what are supposed to be games. But the boundaries are nevertheless actual boundaries, and useful.
But essential to all game-playing is some measure of resistance, of conflict — and even of pain. People get hurt in games: sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally. In the game we call undergraduate education, physical harm is rare, and excluded whenever possible … but some level of mental and emotional pain is part and parcel of the game. And that is not always and inevitably bad. When my son was quite young, I took him to our family doctor for a regular checkup, and during the examination the doctor said ”Now I need to look for bruises.“ I was instantly offended and alarmed: I don’t hurt my child! ”No, no,“ he said, ”I want to see bruises. Because if he doesn’t have a few bruises, that means that he’s not taking the physical risks that he needs to take to develop as he should.“ If playing too recklessly can lead a child into trouble, timidity can create its own, very different, troubles.
I have often reflected on what Dr. Judge said that day, and even now I apply it to myself — not in terms of physical risk, physical development (that ship has sailed, for me), but in terms of intellectual risk-taking. I see too many people my age, indeed younger than me, who have ceased to take any chances, who have settled into complacency, whose outlook on the world can never receive any bruises because it is never risked on the playing field. I don’t want to be like that, not now and not ever.
And here we’re getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it: I want to argue — with considerable trepidation, I admit — that the task of the undergraduate student is to embrace this kind of bruising, such pain, and the task of teachers and administrators is, if they can, to structure the game in such a way that that pain doesn’t escalate into harm. And if we can manage that, then it’s good for students, good for the university, and good for the society at large. So now I’m going to unpack this argument.
My attempt to reconcile those two statements of Mill’s that I quoted at the outset is based on the distinction between pain and harm. It does not follow — and in many of life’s venues we understand this perfectly well, it is an uncontroversial point — it does not follow that all pain is harmful. But it is still pain. Yet our current conversation about the culture of the academy too often collapses into hostilities between those who think that if there is pain there must be harm and those who think that if there is no harm there can be no pain.
Note this well: I do not claim to have the resources to judge for anyone else the intensity of their pain or the degree of harm it inflicts. Do any of you know the podcast Song Exploder? One of my favorites. A recent guest on the podcast was Questlove of The Roots, who described the making of the gut-wrenching song “It Ain’t Fair,” which appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit. At one point during the interview Questlove made a comment that has really been haunting me: he said that, though he appreciates what Detroit does, he does not think that Hollywood is ready to open the Pandora’s Box of black pain. That’s a very powerful phrase: the Pandora’s box of black pain. It suggests not just intensity of pain but a great variety of manifestations of pain. And it is not for me to assess the depths of that pain, or the profound harm that accompanies it.
But what is for me to do, as a teacher, and for all of us to to who work in the university, is to be aware of the potential for our educational and social environments to create pain, and therefore perhaps harm. As many of you know, I am a Christian, and while I am not nearly as prayerful as Christians are supposed to me, I get pretty prayerful twice a year: when I’m ordering books for my classes. I am very aware through long experience of the damage that books and ideas can do to young people (older people too, sometimes), and I don’t want to inflict any more of that damage than I have to.
Not long ago I saw a tweet from a professor who quoted from his teaching evaluations a student who said that after taking that professor’s class she, or he, no longer knew what to think about anything. And the professor commented, with evident self-satisfaction, “My work here is done.” No, dude, your work, if you understood it properly, is just beginning. Because most of us who have been around the academy’s rhetorical block a few dozen times know how to knock beliefs down. And some beliefs need to be knocked down, if only because of the unhealthy and unhelpful ways in which they are held and deployed; but if you’re not helping to provide the tools by which something better might be built in place of what lies in ruins, then you haven’t done your job at all. And that is a very difficult job.
This is why I pray when I’m ordering books, and while I can’t expect everyone to join me in that, I think it’s fair to ask all of us involved in education to consider the pain that inevitably accompanies deep learning. And I do mean inevitably. I taught for many years at a Christian liberal-arts college, and sometimes parents of prospective students would visit, or write, and ask me to assure them that their children would emerge from their four years of college with a strong Christian faith. And I would always say: I cannot promise you that. Liberal education is inherently risky. College students are exposed to powerful ideas and curious people that can shake the very foundations of their self-understanding. And they can’t control that exposure in the same way that they can control who they interact with on Snapchat or Instagram. Plus, you know, everybody changes, often quite dramatically, between the ages of 18 and 22!
There will be blood, you might say. But I don’t want to spill any more of it than I have to. The task, then, for people who work in universities and especially for teachers, is, as best we can, to understand some of the pain that accompanies learning, and to try to prevent the accretion of harm, and to steer those who experience that pain towards finding some benefit in it. And I mean that in small ways as well as large. When I was an undergrad — as, again, a first-generation college student who knew nothing about the rules by which the game of college education was played — I failed two classes because I had not been introduced to the concept of “dropping a class.” I thought you just stopped going and that was the end of it. It would have been nice if someone had cared about my flourishing enough to give me some information on that point.
In any case, it is in the hope of more caring surroundings for students today that that I make the recommendation to them that’s embedded in the title of this talk: Embrace the pain. Because that is not counsel that any reasonably person would take unless she is persuaded that we teachers and administrators mean her well — that we wish her to flourish. In today’s university, where administrative and legal structures tend to imprison us all in what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of rationalization and to render us all mere executors of functions, trust is more to be prized than rubies. All honor, then, I say, to those who seek it. And maybe even greater honor to the university leaders who ask: What can we do, collectively, institutionally, to nourish our students’ trust in us?
So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.
In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.
Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.
I suggested at the outset of this talk that embracing the pain, that learning to live with the RCO, has personal but also larger social benefits. In other to explain how that works, I am going to go back a couple of centuries to a fascinating little document, a series of letters by the German playwright and social reformer Friedrich Schiller on what he called “aesthetic education.” Some of Schiller’s argument I am going to take straight, some I am going to steal and shamelessly adapt for our purposes, so what follows will not be reputable scholarship — but I hope it will be enlightening.
Like many German Romantics, Schiller believed that the society of Athens in the period between Socrates and Aristotle was the greatest in human history, and what made it great was that it achieved the highest possible level of cultural richness and complexity that is graspable by the individual person. That is, the whole genius of the culture could, in theory, be held in each citizen’s mind. From this point, Schiller believed, there could only be decline of one kind or another. The society could lose some of its complexity and retreat into a less highly developed condition — or, conversely, it could continue along the path of increasing complexity and quickly reach the point at which a general comprehension of the lifeworld was impossible and people would have to become specialists in particular bodies of knowledge and practice — and therefore lose their unity with one another.
Germany in the eighteenth century, Schiller believed, suffered from this overcomplication, which led to differentiation and specialization, which in turn led to a lack of social cohesion. (I think we can recognize these conditions in our own society, can we not?) And he believes that what he calls “aesthetic education” can help address this unfortunate situation.
Schiller argues that all these specializations of knowledge and practice can be understood through the identification of two major human impulses: the material impulse and the formal impulse. It’s easy to oversimplify these concepts, and I always like doing what’s easy, so: the material impulse seeks immersion in the chaotic and manifold world of the senses; the formal impulse seeks to find, or if necessary impose, intellectual order on all that chaos. The material impulse is therefore the RCO, as it were, of the formal; and vice-versa. Here’s Schiller’ summary of the opposition:
Expressed as a general concept, the object of the material impulse is called life, in its widest meaning: a concept signifying all material being, everything directly present to the senses. The object of the formal impulse, expressed again as a general concept, is called form, both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word: a concept that includes all the formal properties of things, and all of their relations to the powers of thought.
But what if these principles can be brought into constructive relation with one another? — which is to ask, What if people who gravitate towards the one can be brought into constructive relation with people who gravitate towards the other? The result, Schiller says — and this may be surprising — is play. The union of the material impulse and the formal impulse is the playful impulse. Remember what Huizinga says about the relationship between play and beauty? Well, Schiller contends that, if the material impulse is about life and the formal impulse about form, then “the object of the playful impulse, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty.” And the centrality to Schiller’s vision of this creation and appreciation of beauty is why his little book is about “aesthetic education.”
But here’s the most important point of all: Schiller wrote these letters in more-or-less direct response to the collapse of the French Revolution into tyranny, and as an implicit accounting of what, in his view, went wrong. The kind of playful engagement — again, with the understanding that play is a particular structure of experience rather than something frivolous — with the RCO that can produce something beautiful was altogether absent from the characters of France’s revolutionaries. Schiller is therefore presenting a model of aesthetic education as necessary to political progress.
If we translate Schiller’s proposed union of divergent impulses into the terms of today’s American university, which is what in my unscholarly way I am hoping to do, then we might draw certain useful conclusions. Chief among them, I think, is that we might see the possibility of bringing Repugnant Cultural Others together in a structured, game-like social environment guided by trustworthy people as an opportunity for genuine play, genuine beauty, genuinely creativity. And we might then see that such an environment could be good for the flourishing not only of the people directly involved, but also for the good of society as a whole. Because there is nothing, except mutual charity, that our social order needs more right now than political creativity. We have been locked for far too long into the same reductive set of simplistic oppositions. If at university students can “play” in ways that take them beyond those oppositions, into a new social imaginary), then we would all benefit. And such a possibility is worth staking our universities’ future on, or so I believe.
I want to take a moment here to remember and honor Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the very greatest writers of our time and one who has meant the world to me personally, who died last week at the age of 88. In 1983, at Mills College in Oakland, California, she gave what she called a “Left-Handed Commencement Address,” and rather than conclude with my words I think I would do better to conclude with hers.
I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country…. What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.