Posted by: HAT | August 26, 2009

Recent Observation

Snippet of a screen shot

Snippet of a screen shot

The September issue of Harper’s includes an article by Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school,” that makes a plea for the functional, though not productive or economically rational, character of the humanities. Cultivating the human potential for thought, critical assessment, discerning relevant distinctions and drawing reasoned conclusions has value. Human life (human life) depends on this cultivation, and on its fruits.

Slouka protests the misplaced trend that increasingly stresses “investment” in math and science education, on the grounds of its role in fitting the educated for participation in the economy, at the expense of training in the humanities. The substrate of this trend is the fungibility principle, according to which human beings are so many “specimens,”1 in this context items of labor inventory. These specimens’ highest possible aspiration is represented by the governing institutions as being top of the line, the most desirable model number attainable.

Disagreement would be ludicrous, especially in light of my own current occupation.

Slouka cites as an example of noble resistance the efforts of Marcus Eure, New York State high school teacher, who “labors daily to ‘dislocate the complacent mind'” with a curriculum focused on noticing and interrogating the commonplace in light of critical emblems of the humanities like Stephanie Ericsson’s essay “The Ways We Lie.” Thinking it would be illuminating to read this essay, I Googled the title, hoping for full text online. It was ironically more illuminating than I’d expected. It’s just a bit easier to obtain an essay on the essay than the essay itself.

(I’m supposing Eure is familiar with the substance of Dead Voles’ solid teacherly advice on plagiarism, whether or not Slouka is. Evidently most if not all of the text of Slouka’s article is accessible online, whether by paid subscription to Harper’s, or otherwise.)

1“That in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but a specimen–this is a fact bound to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measure.” Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995) 362.



  1. Lol, HAT, that’s the best ironic case of the syndrome I’ve seen. Re: Slouka’s essay, I wonder if it’s even possible to write jeremiads about the demise of the humanities under the onslaught of barbarous technical rationality with even a shred of originality a hundred years after Weber and a few more since the Pope told Galileo to just shut up. Thanks for the link!

  2. I wanted to understand this blog entry. Paint me stupid, but I didn’t get the point of the entry. Perhaps I’m not erudite enough. Probably because I attended public schools. Read the article in link as well. Good advice. I haven’t been in the classroom in years, but it looks like that’s a good thing. My students had to write in class. No plagiarism possible.

    • There wasn’t much of a point to it, really, except to draw attention to a double or triple irony: Stephanie Ericsson’s essay “The Ways We Lie” is evidently a popular text, because critical or summary essays about that work are readily for sale on the open market. It seems to me that “buying an essay to turn in to one’s humanities teacher for a grade” would count as one of the ways some of us lie. Whether the purchaser and user of one of those essays would be aware of the direct scoffing at Ericsson’s concerns about widespread societal lying implicit in buying and using a ghosted essay on her essay I don’t know. The market for essays like this might be made up of students who think the study of the humanites is a waste of time, but are being required to take it by their schools, so it may be that the purchaser of a ghosted essay on “The Ways We Lie” hasn’t even read “The Ways We Lie.” That situation does seem to imply that the potentially critical-thinking- and character-improving study of the humanities really is up against significant obstacles, not least of which is the perception of students that it is such a waste of time to study this subject, which is supposed to improve their critical thinking and character through the reading of, thinking about, and responding to provocative texts, that they are more willing to trade money for the sign of the result of the study than they are to trade time and effort for the substance thereof. Ironically, this situation may prove the point of Slouka’s essay, which is that our society badly needs the study of the humanites in which it overwhelmingly refuses to participate. But, ironically, the need for the study of the humanities and the consequences of that need contribute to people’s refusal to pursue it. In a further irony, Slouka’s essay itself has already been the subject of internet plagiarism.

  3. […] The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink. [For a droll instance of this syndrome see here.] […]

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