Wednesday 5 December 2018

The Humanities and the Teaching of Good Judgement

We’ve seen an erosion in the concept of good judgement over the past forty years. The partisan arguments over US Supreme Court appointments, the increasing emphasis that all moral values are relative, the insistence that anything other than the most mathematically proven declarations are arbitrary, the notion that “subjective” is a synonym for “random” and “rationally groundless”—all of these speak to the growing sense that all statements are either completely objective or utterly arbitrary.
To be fair, the concept of good judgement originally came under fire for good reason, which lies in the fact that good judgement has been historically coded as white, cisgendered, heterosexual, male, and old. But it’s also important to acknowledge that just as historically marginalized groups and individuals were finding a voice in public discourse, this trend was accompanied by a growing skepticism toward the notion of good judgement and expertise in general. It seems that many would rather live in a world with no intellectual authority rather than allow historically marginalized groups to lay claim to this authority.

The problem with all of this is that when a person confronts a judgement they don’t like, they can completely write it off. This leads to a social (or should I say antisocial) phenomenon one could rightfully call the privatization of truth.

What’s been lost in all of these conversations is the principle that one can, through education, improve their subjective judgement. A graphic designer might not have an objective sense of which designs will be better received by certain audiences, but to say that their aesthetic judgement is therefore arbitrary, groundless, and no better than anyone else’s is to throw out the concept of good judgement altogether.

This crisis of faith in good judgement is part of the crisis that’s impacting the Humanities. Part of this crisis is the notion that good judgement, no matter how well-argued, can never compel agreement. One could offer a strongly argued reading of misogyny in the works of William Faulkner, but the fact remains that any student, if they wish, can fold their arms and argue, “It’s not there. You’re just reading too far into things.” The professor can offer mounting evidence, but all the student needs to do is continue shaking their head. For some instructors, this type of response can badly rattle their confidence in their own reasoning. But good judgement doesn’t rely on the acceptance of others to show its worth. The values and hallmarks of good judgement are many. Persuasiveness might be one of them, but compelled agreement isn’t. Persuasiveness is a quality of the argument itself; agreement depends entirely on the caprice of the listener. If the recalcitrant position of “I’m not persuaded” were enough to completely undermine the concept of good judgement, a majority of our institutions would completely collapse (including the law itself, which is based solely on judges’ subjective, informed judgement of the law as it’s written).

So what are the hallmarks of good judgement? Thankfully, they are skills that the Humanities continues to teach very well, the first of which is verbal acuity—the ability to make a point clearly. Another is discursive command, the ability to be intentional about what types of language (be it medical, literary, religious language, etc.) one is drawing upon when making an argument, and what types of language their interlocutor is using. Another still is embodied knowledge, the ability to listen to one’s physical reaction to certain statements, assessing this reaction to sense whether there is “something wrong” with what is being said, the using verbal acuity and discursive command to try and formulate this objection in words. Another still is empathy, the ability to inhabit (however imperfectly) the perspective of another person, or at least to acknowledge that that person’s lived experience is radically unknowable to oneself (as is the case with a white male speaker like myself trying to speak on behalf of individuals whose lived experience is radically inaccessible to me. In that situation, the principle of empathy defers to listening).

All of these skills, and many others, are taught by the Humanities. But here’s where I think the Humanities faces its biggest conundrum. The Humanities, generally speaking, is not content to uncouple the skills it teaches from the values it wishes to instill. For example, the ability to critically reflect on how language can shape reality is a core skill learned in an English program. But what are we to make of a Republican politician who stands on the floor of the US Senate arguing that climate change reports are simply representations of reality and not the thing itself? To many English professors, this argument would constitute an irresponsible misinterpretation of what critique is meant to do. But on the other hand, what exactly prevents this senator from using critique in this way? What happens when critical doubt, when applied to subjects as diverse as climate change and sexual assault, becomes the greatest weapon regressive conservatism has at its disposal?

At this point, the Humanities faces a choice: to focus on teaching discrete skills and then encouraging people to use them in responsible ways, or to continue arguing that there is something inherently progressive about the skills it teaches. This is where some Humanities instructors might argue that they are teaching habits of thought rather than something as superficially utilitarian as "skills." In any other discipline, critical thinking is simply another name for problem-solving or problem identification. In the Humanities, it seems to carry with it a progressive (or at least anti-authoritarian) mission, due in part to the inheritance of "critical" from 20th-century critical theory. This isn’t to say that the Humanities should abandon its values; rather, it might need to give up the notion that there is something inherently progressive about the skills it teaches.

Further, the Humanities needs to stop arguing that there is some sort of moral improvement or “becoming more human” that is inherent to the skills it teaches. The critical reflective skills taught in the Humanities can just as easily be used for self-deception as they are for self-knowledge; they can just as easily be used to rationalize unjust practices as they are to critique them. Indeed, it’s the double-edged nature of these skills that makes them so powerful and so dangerous at the same time. The problem lies in thinking that a certain progressive mindset is inherent to the skills taught by the Humanities, which if we are to be honest, can produce a regressive devil’s advocate just as easily as they can produce a progressive critical thinker.

What remains in all of this is the importance of good judgement and the skills that constitute it. When Eve Sedgewick speaks about the homosocial continuum, the quality of her judgement and the salience of her points does not depend on compelled agreement. If someone folds their arms and says, “Bullshit,” it doesn’t matter. The quality of Sedgewick’s argument depends on the skills she built over her career, and her ability to use those skills to create a strong argument.

What needs to be reasserted (and it’s a shame that this needs to be argued) is that one’s judgement can improve through education, and that the majority of our social world is predicated entirely on the quality of people’s subjective judgements, something the Humanities helps to improve. Talk about good judgement in a boardroom today, and heads will nod. Talk about good judgement in a Humanities classroom, and suddenly people start using words like “arbitrary” or “groundless.” The Humanities doesn’t need to apologize for the fact that some people’s judgement (with allowances made for context) can be better than that of others. But even more importantly, it needs to emphasize that a person’s judgement, through education, can become better than it previously was.  

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