Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Seeing Connections

David Brooks has an op-ed in the Times today, which concludes:

Why aren't there more scholars, like Hill, Gaddis and Kennedy, who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections? Instead, the academy encourages squirrel-like specialization.

Too many universities have become professionalized information-transmission systems, when teaching should instead be this sort of relationship between the experienced Hill and the young Worthen, on whom little now is lost.

This strikes me as very true. I had a class on Modern Critical Theories as an undergraduate that seems very like Grand Strategy in many ways. I was lost in a morass of seemingly-incomprehensible critical theory, like Derrida, Foucault, Adorno, Hockheimer, and Wittgenstein, among others. I was hopelessly lost, and if I were the quitting sort, I probably would have dropped the class.

Then, one fine spring day, I was walking down Bascom Hill after class, and SNAP! A whole framework of criticism snapped into place for me, allowing me to see connections between all the works we had studied. Suddenly, I was in a wonderland of ideas, able to discuss in an erudite fashion the way that the Kurtz's fateful utterance in Heart of Darkness could be related to a breakdown between signifier and signified, or the revelation that Mailer's Armies of the Night, a subjective historical account of an anti-war event, was no more subjective than any historical narrative.

This kind of learning experience, I think, is necessary if we want students to be able to apply their learning once they get out of the class. I had probably read Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" half a dozen times before my critical theory class, but I wasn't able to concretely apply it to new things I read until I had that framework in place in my mind.

Here's to the Big Picture!


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