Image Credit: Sandra Fauconnier - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en
Every course having returned to in-person learning this academic year, an uncomfortable phenomenon has become evident in seminar rooms across campus – silence. When a question is posed or invited by a tutor, frustratingly often, no one speaks.
Initially, I put this unwillingness to talk down to post-Zoom blues. A hangover from the bystander syndrome encouraged by online learning. Certainly, this feels particular to our generation, so lack of confidence (or not having done the reading) can’t be the only cause. So, there must be a far larger cause.
In one of his early essays, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined a useful concept. He described three ways we can live in relation to history and the third of these was called the critical. Necessary for human development, critical thought examines the past to see if it deserves to continue into the present. Feminism is a fantastic example of critical thought, examining previous social norms and judging if they have a place in modern society.
We live in an exceptionally critical age. Nietzsche wrote that critical thought had overpowered all other modes of historical thinking over a century ago, since then it has only increased in prevalence. As such we should be vigilant in avoiding the pitfalls of this way of thinking, as despite being incredibly useful, it can also cause significant damage.
We have grown up watching and attending BLM and Pride marches, seeing the positive effects these movements have on society. Bringing down the practices of yore in favour of a more inclusive future is our generation’s prerogative. However, this raises the question: how long will this continue to be useful? That is – where do we stop burning?
The answer to this question is thus far unclear, which is precisely the problem facing students today. There is a certain prescribed orthodoxy around issues such as race and sex – the austere, advertiser-friendly stance big name brands operate under. As students – of the humanities especially – this is problematic as it disallows the difficult topics that need to be tackled by simply not mentioning them. Yet deviation from this may lead to being branded a heretic, implicated into the immoral antiquity better burnt than continued.
This has led to an atmosphere where students, unsure where to land on the large issues facing society today, feel they have no forum in which to learn, discuss, and eventually solve these problems, as a misstep could prove disastrous. Therefore: silence. However, it has not always been so. In the past university education presupposed students (and lecturers to a lesser degree) were imperfect yet striving for betterment. Only the vain would believe they had the right answers.
Issues such as these are commonly grouped under ‘the crisis of the humanities’. Yet, from talking to my peers these problems are evidently academy wide. The university needs to be reclaimed as a space for betterment of the imperfect, and for the self-proclaimed infallibility of orthodoxy to catch its cloak in one of its fires.
Critical thought, has been, is, and will continue to be useful to us, it is not in itself the problem. We simply need more of a handle on its limits. In the words of Nietzsche: “Every past … is worthy to be condemned … human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them”. But simply being worthy of condemnation does not mean a past should be condemned. Most importantly, we, modern humanity, are not free of this violence and weakness. We should not be so vain as to think we stand above and apart from history, nor to believe ourselves impartial, omnibenevolent moral arbiters. One day, perhaps, even we will be looked back on and burnt.
I am sympathetic to many of the projects appropriated by this orthodoxy (feminist, gender and race studies for example). The thought that they should grow to be resented as stifling due to misjudged advocates is worrying. These schools of thought have a lot left to say and do in our society and are set to liberate rather than hinder us should they be practised in a considered manner.
Thankfully, students still want to talk, especially on the more controversial topics, and are often supported when they do. In a seminar that has become infamous in my circles a friend defended the use of graphic violence in realist cinema. He referred to a number of brutal, even horrifying scenes in realist movies that despite being purposefully upsetting serve an artistic purpose. What ensued was a passionate debate between several of the attendants. While many didn’t participate at the time, they later voiced their thoughts in private.
Opinions were mixed, sometimes intensely opposed, but the silence had been broken and even if only in their own mind people had engaged with it. This shows us that even topics whose purpose is to upset an audience can still find a successful, productive forum in the University. When the silence is broken debate flows easily. We need only feel more confident taking the first step. People still want to talk.