Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scott Alexander on Jordan Peterson on What the Humanities are For

Scott Alexander had the same experience with Jordan Peterson's new book that I had with his videos:
I got Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life for the same reason as the other 210,000 people: to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.

But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good.
If you're curious about why, read Alexander. I recommend it. Like me, he found that all the political hot air surrounding Peterson has nothing to do with his real message. He is a prophet, come to call us to a better, harder, way.

But I wanted to write about this:
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.

But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.

You can almost believe that there really is this Science-Of-How-To-Live-Well, separate from all the other sciences, barely-communicable by normal means but expressible through art and prophecy.
I took dozens of humanities classes, too, but in only one did the professor really try to relate the material to the problems of human life. It was called Freud and Philosophy and it was basically about how everything in Freud's teaching related back to older stuff in western culture, all the way to Socrates and Euripides, and how to shape your own approach to life based on all this old wisdom. It blew my mind. My lecture notes, which I still have, are dotted with stars and exclamation points. And it was taught by a graduate student, which is one reason why I have never been impressed by complaints about having graduate students teach courses.

Why isn't more of this done in college? Are professors too embarrassed and unsure of themselves? (Jordan Peterson, whatever else he may be, is clearly one of the most confident people on the planet.) Do they feel that trying to impart life wisdom is not part of education? Do they not believe in life wisdom? Do they think that their students have no interest in the wisdom they might impart? Do they worry that any discussion of meaning would degenerate into a feelfest? Or a lot of silly politics?

I remember that William and Mary used to have an institution called the "Last Lecture" in which a professor close to retirement would try to distill the wisdom he or she had learned in a whole career of research and study into an hour. The one I attended was pleasant but no more. At the time I was already sure I could do much better, and now I feel certain. But I am not sure if what I would say would be very valuable to 20-year-olds; my own children don't seem to pay much attention to me.

But if we don't share our thoughts about wisdom with each other, how can wisdom grow?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Uh... I almost want to write... what college did you go to, John? Wasn't that the basis of the literature class we all had to take in one form or another Freshman year?

I think an element here is... people don't get to connect that way with every teacher/professor they are in class with.

David said...

Perhaps professors don't voice their wisdom, not because they're insecure or inauthentic, but because they're blessed with some humility before the vastness and complexity of things.

And, FWIW, after twenty years I find myself less and less drawn to teaching about greats and prophets, and more to ordinary people who, like my students, are mainly trying to get by.

David said...

Actually, I think that trying-to-get-by thing sums it all up nicely for most of us, including myself. At the end of a semester, I'm mostly too exhausted and befuddled to share wisdom and, like my students, I mainly want to go home. Of course, Peterson would probably say that makes me and my students lesser lobsters who need to take one of his get-tough courses and learn to live a life harder and better. And maybe, like a prophet, he could pump us up and gets our adrenals going for a while. But in the end we would fall back into our mediocrity and want to go home. And then we would sacrifice him.

John said...

@anonymous: no, I got next to none of that in my Great Books classes. One example: the Iliad has a really interesting psychology. Characters often divorce themselves from their actions by saying, "that wasn't me, that was my pride." Or my anger or my mad passion. Or it was a God acting through me; in the Odyssey Helen is back with her husband saying that the whole running away with her lover and starting a war thing was a madness caused by the gods. One of my instructors must have mentioned this, but as a historical curiosity; nobody asked if this was a fruitful way to think about human behavior or pondered how a society that embraced this psychology would be different from one obsessed with personal responsibility. I only started thinking about this a few years ago when I was reading about modern theories of the self.