Teaching in the age of suspicion

Here is an interesting article on Teaching in the 21st Century.  It asks the question – is our pedagogical method which values ‘critical thinking’ really helping our students, or are we just passing along our high-minded suspicion and starving out any real thirst for truth?  A more provocative question (and I am intentionally picking a fight here, I don’t know if I believe what I am about to say): is Huenemanniaism simply a mode of suspicion?  In other words, far from truth seeking does it instead see ‘the moment of seeing falsehood [as] the goal and summit of the intellectual life.’ ?

I should add: I am picking a fight that I may not fight at all as being a stay-at-home Dad all summer I won’t be blogging nearly as often.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

29 thoughts on “Teaching in the age of suspicion”

  1. This “Huenemanniaism” you speak of sounds interesting. Is there a pamphlet or newsletter I can subscribe to?

    I can’t speak for you, academia or the Huene-man but my concern is still to be “wise in the sense of knowing how to live”.


  2. I was playfully referring to the skepticism of Huenemann and, I imagine, his Huenemanniac followers. Huenemann has a real knack for finding the weakness in positions while not committing himself to anything. This is a strange way of putting it, but I don’t know if Huenemann has a ‘view’ (a belief or collection of beliefs he would want to defend). I get more riled up on this blog (and in classes) than he, and Huenemann once joked that ‘this was because you care to defend something, I avoid all that.’
    My question, then, is if avoiding commitments becomes THE posture of the well-cultivated intellect, then what of the pursuit of truth? Doesn’t one, then, make ‘the moment of falsehood the summit of the intellectual life’?

    This dovetails with my long-held assertion that it is simply irresponsible to teach Nz to lower division undergrads. Students ought to read Plato and Aristotle first, and read them charitably. This not simply because one cannot really understand Nz unless one understands Plato, but rather because students ought to learn to love truth before they see how to mock it. If they mock first, innocence is lost and it will be a mighty struggle to regain that classical wonder. Believe me, I know (I started with Nz and it took me a long time to recover from the hangover).

    Again, I am picking a fight here, I don’t know that Huenemann is guilty of this kind of ‘suspicion’ to begin with, though I have my suspicions! :) Anyway, there is no (as far as I know) pamphlet or newsletter (though there is a blog!). There can be not pamphlet or newsletter, because the Huenemanniacs don’t actually believe anything. If they had a creed, perhaps it would consist of a series of ‘I do not believe’ statements.

    Regarding your last point, I won’t rehash our old debate regarding the proper relation between theoria and praxis. It is not like I am somehow interested in abstract and existentially irrelevant wisdom. In fact, one of the basic points of the article seems to be the need to give students some positive vision of the human person so that they might be able to order their lives and live well. The masters of suspicion are great at tearing down, they are all really lousy building up (the positive part, transmitting wisdom about how to live well).


  3. To REALLY pick a fight with Huenemann:
    Does Huenemann’s skepticism end up being functionally the same as Derridean deconstruction? That is, they both result in nothing more than sneering at others?

    (Glad I will be out of the office for a while, identifying Huenemann in any way with Derrida should get his blood boiling). :)


  4. I do think Huenemann is a good skeptic in the sense that he values the practice of withholding intellectual and verbal assent. I also worry that ‘the moment of recognizing falsehood becomes the summit of the intellectual life’ but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. The skeptical posture can also help to delve deeply into the contextual thinking of others (and to “listen to the gentle voice of each of life’s situations” -Nz) so as far as teaching and listening goes I think it’s a great posture.

    But… whether we like it or not we’re always answering the question “what should I do now” at each instance with our actions and a lot can be derived from examining what we do (or don’t do). Understanding our MO is one way we learn honesty and maybe the pursuit of honesty is more legitimately the goal of philosophy. Perhaps also the best way it can play handmaiden to the sciences. As far as MO goes it seems like Charlie does as well as many of us, he certainly shows more patience with people than I do.

    I see some irony in Reno thinking critically about critical thinking but that’s probably just because First Things has a way of leaving me empty (never giving me any answers that would be useful in the historical moment and just referring me back to relics).


  5. To be clear – I consider Huenemann a friend and I am not impugning his character or anything like that. Mike is right, Huenemann is as patient and kind and humorous as they come.
    I also think that a dose of ‘critical thinking’ is quite useful, and Huenemann’s brand of skepticism is as consistent and fair as I have personally found (though he does frequently smuggle materialism in through the back door without much questioning it).
    Enough kissing ass. My point, and Reno’s, is that such skeptical questioning is at best instrumental to careful thought and the pursuit of truth, it is not the end. The question is whether the ‘pedagogy of suspicion’ (destroying everything while proposing nothing) is good for our students and if it encourages truth-seeking.


  6. “the question is whether the ‘pedagogy of suspicion’ (destroying everything while proposing nothing) is good for our students and if it encourages truth-seeking.”

    That one is easy: ‘suspicion’ and ‘critical thinking’ keep people from getting swindled and I hate telling people I love they’ve been swindled. And for the students out there: Amway is not a good business model unless you’re an unethical salesman (and if you’re one of those you shouldn’t have any trouble making money). Life is full of swill merchants. That’s the truth.

    But when you say “while proposing nothing” that makes me think of idolatry (i.e. it makes me suspicious). Also no lived existence ‘proposes nothing’. How would that be possible? You mean it doesn’t preach anything? Even there we have a million implicit voices.

    Have fun with your kids. I’ve been reading Philosophy and the Young Child and I’ve been loving Matthews’ interaction with Piaget and how much Matthews gathers from children’s questions. I’m off for a four day train-travel based vacation with some friends. I hope to not touch a computer and spend some time with my notebook.


  7. I agree that ‘critical thinking’ can keep people from being swindled (see above, my remark that skepticism can be useful). But at what point does the ‘skeptical spirit’ idolize skepticism, such that it makes ‘falsehood the summit of the intellectual life’?
    Count me out of the claim that all proposing is ‘preaching’ (at least in the negative sense of that word, but if the word just means ‘publicly proclaim’ then I don’t see what is so bad about that anyway). I get the problem with idolatry (I am probably more sympathetic with postmodernity than most on this blog!), but I am not ready to jettison the search for truth in the name of an excessively scrupulous desire to avoid ‘idols’. This is one of the many reasons Heidegger is superior to Derrida – Marty is willing to actually say something! (The fact that no one can understand what the hell he is saying is beside the point).
    I don’t know that every ‘lived existence’ proposes something, at least not in the sense that I mean that here (proposing, though not imposing, a coherent set of beliefs which inform our actions and which are taken to be normative). I see what you are saying, but when I press Huenemann he is often happy to grant that his choices are largely arbitrary, and he rarely makes a big effort to defend them – in fact he will often talk himself out of them!

    Regarding raising kids: how anyone can watch a 2 year old grow and mature and still deny teleology is simply beyond me. Having children has made me even more of an Aristotelian. I take great joy in toddlers particularly, they are the greatest evidence for the internal principle of change (nature) moving toward second degree actuality (they are first actuality already human, but that actual form is still in potency with respect to its final cause). I will confess I take less joy in babies (our youngest is 10 months). Give me language and locomotion and I start getting enthusiastic.


  8. To my mind, the healthiest university environment is not one where the profs are all masters of suspicion. Rather, you’d have genuine diversity of thought with each prof willing to really proclaim their view. I had something like this when I went to college. I learned much more by seeing these various ‘world-views’ thrust at me (often times with the profs battling it out through their students) than I would have if everyone just demolished everything all the time.
    If that means profs would sometimes be ‘preachy’, so be it. At least it has a backbone. Why does ‘preaching’ get such a bad rap anyway? Preachers don’t impose anything, they propose. Students don’t have to believe what their profs believe. It is called the ‘marketplace of ideas’ for a reason, students can shop around. But Reno’s worry is that universities don’t have any ideas to sell anymore, all students get is suspicion.

    To retrack the post, this seems to be the question:
    My question, then, is if avoiding commitments becomes THE posture of the well-cultivated intellect, then what of the pursuit of truth? Doesn’t one, then, make ‘the moment of falsehood the summit of the intellectual life’? If we are agreed that this is a bad thing, to what extent are philosophers/professors/the academy in general guilty of this?


  9. What a pleasant surprise to wake up and find all these things being said about me! Minus the unkind Derrida name-calling. My brief reply is we need both “diggers” and “healers”; I take myself to be more of a healer.



  10. On one hand, I agree. On the other, it seems too easy. Even your distinction between digging and healing reveals your skepticism. You say that philosophers should just ‘question everything’ and do not ‘discover truth’. While I would grant that the *whole* truth, in some absolute sense, is beyond our limited capacities, I am more optimistic than you are. (I guess I am a ‘digger’). What you say, in essence, is that ‘diggers think they are digging, but they are really not’. Perhaps that is just the kind of thing healers say.

    But might we say that the most cultivated mind BOTH digs and heals? Isn’t it possible to do both? Aquinas seems like a good model – his objections to himself are so thorough that he has clearly (to my mind) both dug and healed. Aquinas is careful, is simultaneously close and far from the tradition (he has ‘critical fidelity’ with respect to it), and he has a backbone. As a prescription, I am not sure one can do much better than Bernard Lonergan’s transcendental precepts: Be attentive, Be intelligent, Be reasonable, Be responsible.

    To rephrase, then: Reno’s worry seems to be that in the academy students are only exposed to healers (skeptics), there are very few diggers. And there is a tendency on the part of healers to act like healing is the only game in town.

    Regarding the Derrida name-calling: Derrida, and deconstruction generally, are healing par excellence, aren’t they? One might say that Derrida is even a better healer than more analytic skeptics, who invariably let materialism sneak in the back door. As a self-proclaimed healer, Derrida is your model thinker – his whole project is to cure people (like me) of our nasty ‘logocentrism’ (that is, our digging tendencies).


  11. At least two things confuse me about this thread.

    1. I’m not sure ‘the moment of falsehood’ can be clearly distinguished from ‘the moment of truth’ since it seems like as soon as you recognize X is false you have a new truth, namely: X is false.

    2. I’m not sure what is meant by “the pursuit of truth”. I see it as constantly narrowing the available options but never entirely settling on one specific interpretation or theory. Even if you see Christianity as ‘the truth’ it seems like there’d be quite a bit of variability there allowing at least for some slight variations. The realm of permissible interpretations vs. the Highlander (there can be only one) approach.

    There’s also the question ‘how do you hold your beliefs?’ along with the question ‘which beliefs do you in fact hold?’ (which itself is harder to figure out than most people think IMO). There might even be a set of beliefs that people should hold whether they’re true or not (like “all men are created equal”).

    Regarding that last link, how St. John’s College does it sounds like a lot of fun. And maybe we’d be better off if we had separate institutions for research and teaching. I haven’t thought much about how to fix the academy probably just because I find it very unlikely that anyone will listen to me and I’m more focused on looking for non traditional ways to educate people.

    I highly recommend train travel.


  12. This, ‘It is false that we have innate ideas’ is not the same thing as ‘It is true that we acquire our ideas through sense experience culminating in the agent intellect abstracting the intelligible species from the phantasm’.
    Trading off Aquinas, he works through the ‘negative truths’ (what is not the case) first (in his rejection of Platonism, early articles in Q84) and then he presents a positive view of what is the case (latter articles in Q84). The two are clearly different matters, though it is probably the case that one has to do a bit of healing before one can effectively dig again since we late-coming questioners are not the first on the scene.

    Regarding fixing the academy: I am less eager to find non-traditional ways of teaching people, though I am not entirely against the idea. My more immediate concern is that there was substantial good in the traditional liberal arts model, but we are rapidly giving up on it (if we have not at most universities already).


  13. Back to me and Derrida — if that is indeed what Derrida was doing, well then, good. I find the medicine he offers too difficult to swallow. If others get something productive out of it, that’s fine, but I have not seen a lot of improvement in the patients.


  14. Huenemann – I do think Derrida thinks of himself as a healer, and in his defense he personally deplored what some American literary critics did with his work. But I think you are right – if Derrida is offering healing medicine, his patients seem to be getting sicker. Perhaps some of his patients (ie, English depts) are taking the wrong dose or otherwise not properly following the prescription (very possible). Or, perhaps, even those that do follow the prescription (ie, me) get sicker and are not healed. If the latter, then there is something wrong with the medicine. (I went looking for other medicine, in particular Heidegger and Levinas. It cannot be deconstruction wall to wall, as it is with Derrida. Deconstruction is good medicine, but only if there is recovery (new digging), as there is in Heidegger).
    That was the point of my original post (and, I think, Reno’s article) – that since this is the only medicine you can get at universities now, it is making students sick – that was the fight I was originally picking with you (for fun).

    Mike – totally unrelated question for you as a computer guy: I use Macs at home and at work. My home hard drive recently died, I need some new software. I am considering using iWork (Pages, Keynote, Numbers) instead of Microsoft Office. I’ve played around with it for a few days on a free trial and love all 3 programs. Classic Mac, super user friendly. Pages has several features that will make producing course packets in the future much easier. I never used Excel because I could not sort it out, but Numbers is super easy and looks great. Etc etc etc. My question: I have been told by the Mac guy at the Mac store that there are no real compatibility issues since I can easily export to pdf/.doc/.ppt/.exl (he insists they only arise if I use funky fonts that Office might not have), but I am worried he is just being a Mac apologist.
    What do you think? Given the monopoly (tyranny?) of Microsoft Office, should I just pony up the dough for it? Or will I do just fine with iWork? By the way, I hardly ever work on any computer other than my home Mac and my office Mac.


    1. Kleiner,

      It really depends what you’re trying to do. The main reason to stick with M$ is if you plan on submitting to journals and they only accept M$ (which is, unfortunately becoming very common). If you are just wanting to pass a file around or something the pdf support in apple’s products is great (I don’t recommend anyone pass around .doc files). Export/import functionality works well but there will still be a lot of clean up to do if you, for instance had to change to Word and then fix all the formatting before you submit something to a journal. So… if it’s just about sharing files, no worries, stick with iWork. If Word-based journal submissions are the rare exception maybe you can just create those in Word as necessary.

      I mostly use google docs these days (great for collaboration) for what I need to do but I actually recommend LaTeX (Lyx). I also love the apple products (especially Keynote vs PPT) so my advice is stick with iWork unless the journal thing is a big issue.


  15. @Kleiner: As an official Mac apologist, I recommend you use the on-campus computer labs for any necessary evil Windows-based work you have to do.


  16. I’m pretty sure that most English departments do not actually take Derrida’s medicine. From my experience, they lack the knowledge of Derrida’s tradition that makes him understandable. I’m convinced that you have to have Heidegger and Levinas in mind for Derrida to make sense. Most English dept. people I’ve talked to only know Heidegger as impossibly hard to read and a Nazi and don’t know who Levinas was at all.

    I’m not trying to bash on literary critics or rhetoric theory people, because I understand how Derrida (confusing as he is) would be even worse without a basic understanding of Heidegger and the whole of Western metaphysics. It’s just that some of the “Derridean” theory they produce seems incredibly short sighted. (I remember some of the silliness, but only in general. I think I’ll run to the library today and grab some quotes for everyone’s amusement.)

    Now, just because most literary critics and rhetoricians don’t follow Derrida’s prescription doesn’t mean that it works. To really test deconstruction, it seems you should try it out. I haven’t thoroughly done that, though it sounds like you did, Kleiner. Care to share any anecdotes/reflections?

    Of course, if anyone has a killer a priori argument for/against deconstruction, I’d like to hear it. Like I said, I’ve only seen the questionable stuff from critics who misread Derrida so badly it seems intentional.


  17. Mike/Source – I do pretty basic word processing, writing papers that are almost always ‘plain jane’ in terms of formatting: Times New Roman font, double spaced, 1″ margins, basic footnoting, not a lot in the way of fancy headers, etc.
    I was told that, with such basic formatting, there would be NO formatting cleanup necessary when you either export it as Word or Save As to a Word file format.
    Is this untrue?

    Regarding journals: Huenemann has been around the block many more times than I, but I’ve always been able to send PDFs. I assume (someone correct me if I am wrong), that a Pages file exported to PDF appears to PDF readers exactly as it appeared to me in Pages. Is that right?


    1. I’ve done a lot of import/export over the years and I’ve never seen a case where there’s “NO formatting clean up necessary”. That being said I think the changes would be minimal unless you have funky tables/headers or something and import/export functionality has been getting better as people focus more on standardized formats. Also if there’s anything like an equation editor or logical notation those might not translate well.

      PDFs are designed for printers so they’re exactly what your printed Pages document would look like.


  18. As many of my students will attest, I take frequent cheap shots in the direction of English departments. They are probably unfair, and are based almost entirely off anecdotal experiences with lots of English grad students at Purdue (who were always filling up Continental and Postmodern philosophy courses, in large part because Purdue has a combined English/Philosophy PhD and there is a fellow in the English department there that is Levinasian).
    Source is quite right, reading Derrida without reading Heidegger (and to a lesser degree Levinas) is foolish. The problem is deeper than that though. I get put off by people who busy themselves deconstructing the history of western philosophy before they have read any of it. If I had a buck for every Purdue English grad student who derided Plato only to admit they had never actually read Plato, I’d have enough to tie a pretty good one on at the White Owl. ‘Why would I read that logocentric crap’ was usually the response.

    I have read Derrida pretty carefully, most of my research up to this point in my young career has been a critical engagement with Derrida. In particular, I think his ‘ethics’ are a total failure. His fetish with the ‘impossible’ forces him to an absolute paralysis. Heidegger’s much more dynamic ‘aletheia-ology’ is, to my mind, a much more promising course to take – it allows one to listen and make discernments while avoiding the reifying tendencies that deconstruction rightly worries about. Marion, I think, does a better job of ‘completing’ Heidegger’s project than does Derrida.

    It sounds like you’ve read Derrida — of course he thinks there is no such thing as an ‘a priori’ argument since there is no such thing as a purely given. Actually, his claim is not that strong, since he buries it in mumbo jumbo – something like opening up the impossible possibility of the gift.


  19. Mike – Above I clarified the false/truth thing, since it was easier. Clarifying what it means to ‘pursue the truth’ is tougher, so I avoided it. :)
    Speaking of deconstruction, it is easy to fall into a reified form of technological thinking (what Levinas just calls ‘Platonism’ when he says ‘all of western philosophy has been Platonic’) when speaking of ‘pursuing the truth’ (as if the truth is a ‘thing’ that can be apprehended, mastered, absolutely seen). I am sympathetic enough with the postmodern criticism of metaphysics to want to avoid that tendency. But I also don’t want to be overly scrupulous about avoiding reification in such a way that I end up in absolute silence and impossibility (that is, Derrida … and possibly Huenemannianism).
    So what does it mean to pursue the truth? I take it that the issue is related in a close way to the question of Being, in pursuing the truth we pursue ‘what is’. But ‘what is’ is not in a stagnant way (reified Platonism needs to be avoided). And I can walk with Derrida for a while with the claim that there is no a priori, rather we are in a hermeneutic situation. Truth can be said in many ways, this seems to be one of Heidegger’s basic claims (one clearly related to Aristotle’s claim that Being can be said in many ways). Our pursuit must not be flat-footed, our Being-in-the-world is capable of being disclosed in a variety of different ways, and these are not either/ors. (For instance, technological thinking is not itself bad, it is the tyranny of technological thinking that Heidegger is worried about).

    What would this look like, and how does this square with my Thomism? Here is an example: for all of Aquinas’ arguments about the nature of human substance (nature of the soul, soul-body relation, epistemology, etc), he never equates that with the person. I think Aquinas has disclosed something true about humans when he talks about how we acquire knowledge through phantasms. But is that all there is to say about human persons? Of course not! Is it even the most important thing to say? Probably not.
    Here is how Marion puts it: (paraphrase): ‘Of course God exists. [of course the metaphysical arguments disclose something true]. But to say that ‘God exists’ is to say the least interesting thing we could say about God.’ God cannot be tamed, Lewis was right to choose a lion.

    In part this ends up feeling like a failed confession at an AA meeting: ‘Hi, my name is Harrison and I love metaphysical meta-narratives … But don’t worry, I don’t get carried away with them or anything like that. You know, I’ll have one after a tough day arguing with materialists, things like that.’


  20. I’m with the “impossibility and the associated paralysis are dumb” crowd. I find inactivity is as dumb as activity and shares most of its negative characteristics. But silence (not absolute, even if I don’t speak my heart still beats) has a lot of positive characteristics. Especially it promotes thinking, listening.


  21. Agreed, Mike. There is an important distinction to be drawn between ‘silence’ and ‘absolute silence’. This is Heidegger’s whole spiel – we need a break from the clamor of technological thinking, we need to pause, listen, and receive.

    Derrida goes too far in his reflections on hospitality when he suggests that we must be so silent and so absolutely receptive that we cannot ask a person’s name. In fact, he insists that you MUST let the person in your home, without asking who they are or what their intentions are. That isn’t just silly, it is irresponsible.

    Rather I think we must listen in order that we can speak and act. I want to speak the other’s name, but only once the other tells me what her name is. In fact, real ethical action seems to require this — if I push the Other so far away (as does Derrida) by being so scrupulous about not ‘enframing’ the Other, it is impossible to responsibly act. I think there is more human solidarity/community than Derrida, who makes us each as transcendent to each other as God is to us (see Gift of Death). Instead, ‘being-with’ others is a basic part of Dasein. (Here one can see my attraction to John Paul II’s ontology of relations that is expressed in the Theology of the Body). This being-with is not an impossibility – quite often the most loving thing you can do for a person is to sit and say ‘Please, tell me your story.’ Far from the gift being annulled by being reciprocated (Derrida’s claim), a person is most fully a person when he freely gives himself and receives others (see JPII’s Theology of the Body’).
    Aside: that, in summary, was the Recent Continental Philosophy course I just taught.


    1. So we are in agreement on something. I’m not sure about your pursuit of truth spiel (maybe I’ll read it again later) but I liked the digression at the end.


  22. I’ll try to say something really abstract, ‘academic’, and totally unrelated to lived action soon, Mike, so I can start being a thorn in your side again because if we are not careful here I might get upgraded from ‘if I met you in person I might not think you were that bad’ status!! :)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: