Wesleyan University president and professor Michael S. Roth writes that the knee-jerk critical response of today’s college students to the material they’re presented has become not an aid to learning, but a barrier to it.  His contention is that students approach everything they’re introduced to in a hypercritical spirit, such that they immediately start identifying what’s wrong with it before they adequately engage with the thing on its own terms. Excerpt:

Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.

Wears down our receptive capacities. That’s a great insight.

Roth’s essay reminded me of my time as a professional film critic. Because of my job, I got into the habit of watching every movie critically. That’s not to say I watched every movie trying to tear it down, but rather every film I saw I watched in an analytical frame of mind, because I knew I was going to have to write a short essay saying what the film’s strengths and weaknesses were. Once you get into that habit, it’s hard to turn it off. I couldn’t watch anything just for fun in those days, even if I wanted to. After I moved to another line of writing, it took a couple of years for me to be able to lose myself in the subjective experience of movie-watching — which is how almost everybody else watches movies.

These days, I sometimes watch a movie and ask myself how I would write about it if I were still a professional critic. The task seems almost overwhelming, in large part, I think, because I have lost the habit of critical engagement with a film. It’s not that I watch uncritically, but rather that I go into the film in a far more receptive frame of mind than when I was a critic. Film is such an immersive medium that a professional critic has to work very hard to maintain the kind of critical distance necessary to do his job. It is such a pleasure to be able to watch movies like a normal person that I would be loath to return to my old job. I hadn’t thought about like this, but Roth’s essay makes me suspect that there were aspects of many films I reviewed that I simply could not see because I was looking too hard.

To draw out the philosophical point, this suggests that there are some things that cannot be fully known from a critical distance, that is to say, objectively, but rather must be engaged subjectively if they are to be understood. Then again, to know something subjectively is to cease to be able to see it objectively, and that means closing off a dimension of knowledge. If I only know X., the Oscar-winning actress, from her film performances and what others have written about her, I don’t know her as her father does. But then, a father’s eyes are conditioned to see differently, and he almost certainly cannot judge her performative capabilities with anything approaching objectivity.

UPDATE: One more thing: this blog’s frequent commenter Thursday often says that a problem with modernity is that we have more generally lost our receptive capabilities to things numinous, a receptivity that many peoples outside of Western secular modern cultures retain to some degree. Thursday is speaking specifically in spiritual terms; Roth is talking about liberal arts education. But there is a connection, I think.

UPDATE.2: Great comments from readers:

I’d like to share an experience I had where this critical default position made it impossible for students to enter into a work. I was teaching a group about Quaker interior prayer, using an early 19th century manual as the text. It was very popular among Quakers for over 100 years and is still widely admired. Naturally, since it was published in the early 1800′s, and is based on material that goes back to the 1600′s, it is written in the English style of that time. This proved, to my surprise, to be a huge barrier. The long, complex sentences (which were standard for the time) annoyed those taking the class. They were hypercritical about this, as well as vocabulary usage. For example, a word that is used in the manual is ‘besetments’ (which I think is a terrific word, one that I think could usefully be reintroduced) would prove very annoying to members of the class. They complained about such usages and why didn’t the authors simply use a more common or ‘down-to-earth’ vocabulary. Let me be clear here: the usage wasn’t any more difficult than, say, Jane Austen. Also noteworthy is that the manual was very popular among all sorts of people for several generations. Nevertheless, it took a lot of effort on my part to get past the minor usages that differed from today and into the actual teaching. It was extremely frustrating.

Snarky remarks about the ‘elaborate’ syntax were common; as if the writers were trying to be ‘superior’, when, in fact, the usage was standard for the time. But the assumption is, I think, that our time and usage is the gold standard by which everything should be judged. We should not have to adjust ourselves to any other perspective.

It was, for me, a dramatic example of the hyper-critical and hyper-individualistic mode that seems so pervasive today. Not that there’s anything that can be done about it; it’s just where our culture is at right now. It will take a few decades, I think, to play itself out.

Yes, it’s a form of vanity, don’t you think? The Dante scholars Cook & Herzman say that a common problem they run into with their undergraduates just starting to read Dante is the idea that no person who lived that long ago could have anything to teach them about anything.

I also liked this comment, by my TAC colleague Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria:

As an alum of the school in question, I can tell you that this sort of thing is not just limited to the classroom, but bleeds over into friendships. The kind of music you listen to, the books you read, the ideas you have, can all be scrutinized with the purpose of enlightening you. What actually happens is that you can’t enjoy anything without anxiety and that person you hang out with who makes you listen to his experimental music is driving you crazy. It’s important not to get carried away with critical thinking. It can be very damaging to interpersonal relationships.