On Critical Engagement

It is difficult to teach the proper route to approach a text to a group of young people who are not used to textual interpretation. From what I have been able to discern, the primary difficulty is explaining what it means to engage a text. In my case, when I begin with simple questions, I notice a pattern of responses that assert the student’s own opinion in agreement or contra a text based on their own opinion. If you want an easy day, let them pontificate for as long as they want on how everyone sets their own standards, on how a God who would punish a man to extremes is not a fair God. These are fair responses, to be honest, and I remind them of that. However, they don’t get to the heart of what a “great books” class or any class grounded in interpretation ask for.

Shift the question to, “So this is puzzling. What does it mean when the author makes this statement on page z?” The trick, in this case, is to shift the discussion to segments of the text that are commonly overlooked in the course of reading it as a narrative. They’ve been trained to read from a 3rd person omniscient perspective. By this logic, to understand a text is to view it, apply your standard of judgment, and either come to some objective knowledge about the person/people you are discussing. This point of objectivity is important. They treat texts, especially narratives, as though they are pure narratives. Meaning, in these cases, arises from how they interpret the action and judge the scenario based upon their own moral standards.

The trick, in this case is to find a way to promote textual engagement. Plato is good for this as the dialog form lends itself to being experienced as though one were a character in the situation. He’s also effective since, in most cases, Plato’s reasoning anticipates the arguments they are going to make. For example, the discussion of virtue and its transmission centered on the fact that, most people base their understanding of virtue on different ideals transmitted to them from authorities or given their particular experience. This is true, of course. In this case, I conceded that this may be true and shifted the question to the existence of commonalities in interpretation. Even if we concede everyone’s opinions, there seem to be features present that will allow us to read a FORMal definition of what virtue, justice, etc is. This lead directly to: “Well even if that’s true, there’s so many definitions with so many standards, how do we even possibly come to such an agreement?” Also, a good question.

From this position, it was helpful to switch to the discussion of puzzlement prior to and after the discussion of recollection. I ask, “Why are these little asides and the places where Plato chastises Meno for his attitude important?” *puzzlement* The question can be answered with Plato’s explanation of the benefit of befuddling the slave in the recollection example (that he is no longer confident enough to pretend to have knowledge, but has become someone interested in seeking knowledge) and his remark at the end of the scene that men would be better and more virtuous if they sought the truth.

This move sets the springboard to try and have them understand what it really means to engage with a text. The diversity of belief that they site throughout the opening of the discussion conceded by Plato as the plurality of opinions he is seeking to investigate. It is all well and good that we have said opinions, however, reliance on opinions which are not sufficient or knowledge leaves us in an awkward position. If we consider knowledge to be a belief held about some entity justified by an experience (engagement with that thing), we see that the difference between opinions/beliefs and knowledge are, on an ethical grounds, representative of two different dispositions towards reality. One which takes its experience for granted and is content to let the diversity be as it is. The other which sees the diversity, but seeks to understand what unifies it, bringing it together, and bringing us in closer contact with the beliefs held and the people who held them.

The lesson is that it’s not what we believe. What we think we know is just as important as how we come to know the things we think we know. The path to knowledge that Plato urges us towards in the Meno requires self examination and a commitment to understanding. Rather than a third person view, we are meant to participate as characters in the dialog, bringing out own presuppositions into question and attempting to train ourselves in a new method of understanding.

Thus, rather than applying an outside view, the trick is to have the students recognize that engagement with the text is not a one way street. The assumption they are under is that they an subjects are to examine a textual object to determine what it is and how they feel about it. Genuine engagement, however, escapes this sort of one way subjectivity. It is a matter of recognizing that the encounter with the demonstrates the text’s own ability to affect the reader and serve as an entry point to a different experience of one’s self in light of it. Experience, on this model is a two way transmission between ourselves and what we encounter that leads to shift in the perception of what’s at stake.


~ by Michael L. Thomas on September 24, 2010.

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