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COLUMBIA FORUM

Listen To Learn

PHOTOS: MIKE LOVETT

Eugene Goodheart '53 received his Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from GSAS in 1961. He taught at Bard College, the University of Chicago, Mount Holyoke, MIT, Boston University (where he chaired the English department) and Brandeis University until his retirement in 2001 as Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis. Goodheart also served as a visiting professor for Columbia's English and comparative literature graduate program as well as at Wesleyan University and Wellesley College.

Eugene Goodheart
Goodheart believes that listening to others' views helps to strengthen your own.

He has authored 10 books of literary and cultural criticism as well as a memoir, Confessions of a Secular Jew (2001, The Overlook Press). Among his other books are Desire and Its Discontents (1991, Columbia University Press), The Reign of Ideology (1996, Columbia University Press) and Does Literary Studies Have a Future? (1999, University of Wisconsin Press). Goodheart's many fellowships include a Fulbright and a Guggenheim, as well as ones from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. He also was awarded a fellowship to the National Humanities Center. Goodheart's daughter, Jessica, graduated from the College in 1989. Here is his address to the Class of 2003 at Brandeis' commencement ceremony on May 18.

This is what I remember of my college days. Compare them with your own. It was a time when I was first taken seriously as an adult. For the first time in my life, I was addressed as Mr. Goodheart. The difference today is that everybody is called by his or her first name, in many cases even professors. But still, I suspect that you began to think of yourselves as adults at Brandeis. I was an English concentrator. (One of my teachers, Lionel Trilling [’25], wrote a short story about an instructor in English literature who was visited in his office by a student complaining about his grade. The student mentioned the fact that he was an English major, to which the unsympathetic instructor replied, “In what regiment?” The effect of the story was to turn me into an English concentrator.)

Like Brandeis, Columbia didn’t let you confine yourself to a concentration; it was committed to providing its students with a broad liberal education. So I took courses in history, music, the fine arts, philosophy, French, science and math in addition to general courses in the humanities and Contemporary Civilization. I remember debates about different interpretations of the classic texts we read. Certain works of literature became permanent possessions: Aeschylus’s Oresteia, King Lear, John Donne’s poems, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Joyce’s The Dead — a very partial list. I remember teachers, their style, their crotchets, their idiosyncrasies. Some were charismatic, some profound, some shallow, others amusing, still others boring. And then, of course, there were the friendships. My closest friend was someone who could have been a model for Holden Caulfield. Catcher in the Rye was the cult book of my generation, not in our curriculum. My friend had Holden’s passion for genuineness and contempt for phoniness. He even dared to call his teachers by their first names. He was a forerunner of the rebels of the 1960s.

There’s much that I’ve forgotten of the content of the courses, though I suspect that a good deal of it is still in my mental blood, and parts of it get aroused by events. Certain class events come back to me in all their vividness. In a moment, I’ll tell you about one of them. I also remember that in my best classes, I was challenged to think hard and critically about a subject or a book. Like everyone else, I had to cram information, especially to perform well on objective tests. But much of the information has disappeared down a memory hole. What finally mattered was not the information I have retained or forgotten, but the habit of thinking critically. We are told nowadays that we live in an information age, that if we want to learn about the world, all we have to do is to go to a computer for whatever data we need. What we sometimes forget is that no amount of information (valuable as it may be) will teach us how to think and to think critically. What my experience, and I believe everyone’s experience, tells us is that information is a temporary possession, but the habit of thinking critically, once acquired, is permanent.

Here is an example of a classroom experience that still resonates with me. I took a course called Contemporary Civilization with a distinguished American historian, Richard Hofstadter. The assignment for that morning was Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. At the time — it was in the prehistoric year 1950 — I thought of myself as a Marxist. Professor Hofstadter entered the classroom, and, without saying a word, he turned to the blackboard and wrote the following sentence: “The history of all societies present and previously existing is a history of class cooperation.” I was a great admirer of Professor Hofstadter (he was a terrific teacher, and because of his class, I almost decided to change my concentration from English to history), but I couldn’t believe the mistake he made. The sentence of the Manifesto, as anyone who has ever read it knows, reads: “The history of all societies present and previously existing is a history of class struggle.” So I raised my hand to correct him. Professor Hofstadter smiled and said: “I know that, but,” addressing the class, he continued, “I want you to tell me what’s wrong with saying that it is a history of class cooperation. Classes may be in conflict, but they also cooperate. One could write a history of the world from the perspective of cooperation as well as of conflict.”

I had been taught by my Marxist mentors to believe that conflict was the whole truth of class relations, and my first impulse was to resist what Professor Hofstadter was saying, but he was such an intelligent and persuasive person. I knew that it was to my intellectual advantage to listen and take seriously what he had to say, even if it rattled my confidence that I possessed the truth. Not because he was the teacher, but because of what he said and the persuasive way he said it. What he taught me was that there are different ways of seeing and understanding the world. It was a lasting antidote to my dogmatism, a decisive and liberalizing moment in my liberal education.

Listening seriously and carefully to the views and arguments of people who disagree with you may unsettle your own views, but they also may strengthen them by forcing you to revise your arguments to make them more persuasive. The early ’50s of the 20th century was the period of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union (you remember the Soviet Union). I’m sure that Professor Hofstadter’s little lesson about class warfare and class cooperation had something to do with the side that he took in the war. The American side stood for class cooperation, the Soviet side for class warfare. Still, whatever side you were on, you had to take seriously his argument on intellectual grounds. The dialectic of discussion and argument inside and outside the classroom is what I remember best about my college experience. It was the nutrition of my mental life, and it continues to sustain me. Thinking hard about difficult matters (personal, political and social), even thinking against myself, prevents me from relaxing into complacency about what I believe, about what I think is right and true.

I graduated from college, but unlike many or most of my classmates, I did not leave the academy. Along with professional colleagues, I have been a witness to and a participant in the changes that have taken place in the academy as well as in the larger culture during the past five decades: the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the counter culture of the ’60s, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the radicalization of the academy, the Gulf War, terrorism. I’m sure I have left out other major events. What I would like to focus on is a preoccupation of colleges and universities during the past couple of decades. You’re all familiar with it. The preoccupation goes by the phrase “political correctness,” and it is relevant to what I’ve been saying about critical thinking and, indeed, the mission of higher education. It’s a waning preoccupation, but it’s worth reflecting upon.

What is political correctness? I may be mistaken, but I believe it had its origins in the Communist party many years ago. If you were in the party, you were required to follow the party line in all its twists and turns. Nowadays, the phrase is generally applied by political conservatives and some liberals to those who embrace what they view as the pieties of the Left: identity politics, multiculturalism, affirmative action, feminism, gay liberation, a fixation on the devastations of colonialism, canon bashing, speech codes — you know the whole megillah. What are we to make of all this? Are the conservatives right in their view that political correctness of the Left has taken over the academy? There has been a strong tendency in the academy to embrace certain causes normally associated with left-wing or liberal politics. And that embrace has too often been knee-jerk and uncritical. The worst of it is the feeling of intimidation, the feeling that you have to follow the fashion and go along with the herd. But the conservative critics too often make it seem as if liberal politics per se necessarily entails political correctness and that liberal thought does not deserve respect.

Eugene Goodheart

What needs to be distinguished is the content of a political or cultural view from the attitude taken toward it or from the way it is held. Some of the causes I have mentioned (not all of them), if thoughtfully and intelligently embraced, have nothing to do with political correctness. It is the thoughtless adherence to a cause, the refusal to listen to and the impulse to repress those who have a different view who deserve the label. The conservative critics are not in good faith when they assume that there is no political correctness on the right. How often do we hear politicians and heads of corporations talk up the virtues of the free market without reflection about how free it is or about its casualties? How often do we hear conservative politicians speak about the disinterested intention of our government in spreading democracy around the world without considering the historical practices of America’s foreign policy? There are thoughtful conservatives and thoughtful liberals as well as mindless ones. Our literature contains well-thought-out and powerful expressions of views on both sides of the political spectrum. Truth and falsity are not the exclusive possession of one side of the spectrum.

What is anathema to the intellectual life, to our politics, indeed, to our humane relations with one another, is an intolerance that disables us from listening to one another and from thinking freely and boldly. If in a university, one is not free to take one’s ideas in the direction of wherever logic and evidence dictate, if one is not free to disagree with prevailing views and ideas, what is the rationale for the university? Politician and philosopher Edmund Burke was a conservative critic of the French Revolution. Late in life, reflecting upon his opposition, he changed his mind. Nineteenth-century critic Matthew Arnold called it “Burke’s return upon himself,” and he went on to characterize and praise Burke’s thinking in a way that superbly captures the spirit of what I am trying to say. “That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when you hear around you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam engine, still to be carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the other side of the question, and like Balaam to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth.”

We are reminded daily by politicians and the media that we live in a democracy, and that, unlike the benighted dictatorships in the world, we are free to express our views without fear of government retribution. This is true, certainly relatively true, and we should value this freedom. But the laws that allow our freedom (what British philosopher Isaiah Berlin calls our “negative liberty”) do not guarantee it. If we listen and submit to a strident language, whether on the left or the right, our thoughts and actions are in a sense no longer ours: They have been chosen for us. We are then not thinking for ourselves, but rather following the leader. Our citizenship becomes a form of obedience. The name for this is indoctrination, and it can occur in a democracy as well as in a dictatorship.

Dictatorships specialize in indoctrination, their educational systems are based on it. But as I say, it can occur in democracies. In varying degrees, it is a feature of all societies. What makes our educational system so necessary and precious is that, at its best, it is the place where the citizens of a democracy become aware of many languages and perspectives and where the powers of critical discrimination are cultivated — where, in other words, we acquire the freedom to choose and act intelligently. I hardly need to spell out the relevance of such an education to our present time. Our political air is supercharged with angry, often mindless, rhetoric from all sides, urging us to speak and to act in behalf of one cause or another. I would like to think that the habits of listening and reflection acquired in the university might reduce the pollution. But here’s a caution: Listening and reflection as ends in themselves can become self-impoverishing. There are times when you have to suspend reflection and take a stand. What you want to avoid is the fate of the Hasidic rabbi, who when asked to adjudicate a quarrel between two neighbors said that they were both right. When an observer pointed out that the stories told by the neighbors contradicted each other and they couldn’t both be right, the rabbi responded: “You’re also right.” The poet William Butler Yeats knew the risks on both sides. Of the Easter 1916 Irish rebellion, he wrote: “the best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Better than Yeats’s “best” would be a person of conviction not overwhelmed by mindless passionate intensity.

Commencement speeches are characteristically filled with warning and hope. They tell you that the real world can be a dangerous and scary place, and they also speak of opportunities to be seized and occasions for fulfillment, and they remind you of the resources that your education has provided. But they tend to be misleading when they say that one’s liberal education is a preparation for real life. I would suggest that if your education has been of a genuinely liberal kind that you may well experience a discontinuity between that education and “real life.” Which is not to say that it may not give you certain advantages in your pursuit of professional success. Those advantages, however, are incidental to the aim of a liberal education. That aim is to cultivate within you powers of self-awareness and critical understanding without which a civilized and truthful life is impossible. End of sermon. I wish you all success, fulfillment and happiness.

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