What I Mean When I Call Your Work "Good"

What follows are some thoughts for a discussion in a Texas Government class tonight.

What I Mean When I Call Your Work "Good"

What follows are some thoughts for a discussion in a Texas Government class tonight. I know, I know. When you subscribed to this blog that was the first thing on your mind: "I really need to hear about the Texas plural executive before the holiday season is over."

You don't need a detailed discussion about that, but a little bit of thinking on how classes in general work can be useful. I'm worried that my students want my class to be useful but aren't sure how to follow up. For that matter, I didn't know how to make the most of the classroom when I was in graduate school, let alone undergrad or high school. What could I have told myself to pay more attention to? How did what I want, at that point in my life, blind me to what was actually happening?

Let me turn to my students for a moment. At some point this semester, I've remarked your work is "good." What can you do with that compliment? I remember when I was in high school and college, I had an unfortunate habit of sorting classes and teachers into two categories exactly, "good" and "bad." If they were "bad" I did the work but didn't take anything they had to say seriously. If they were "good," I might have taken their opinions or approach to heart. Or not.

I hope you can see that a strict "good"/"bad" division is a terrible way to see life. A number of the teachers I thought were "bad" had seen more than those who ran an efficient classroom and gave easy tests. They were trying to communicate exceedingly difficult truths to me, at times trying to tell me about racism, unrealistic expectations, life beyond school. I hope you can see that the character of the word "good"–the feedback "good"–is relative.

What I mean when I say your work is "good:" this is a great start. It can be turned into something more. You'll rightly ask "What more? Just give me the grade." And for myself, while I would love for you to take your discussion posts and expand them into full length essays and then get them published in The New Yorker, there's something more essential to be had first. Are you seeing more when you do "good" work? Do you have something else you want to talk about than you had before?

That's one thing I mean by "good." It should impel you to consider different things. What you talk about should change by means of school. It doesn't have to strictly follow our class discussion, but it shouldn't be dismissed. To be clear, I had people close to me who told me all the talk happening at school was a waste. In a way I didn't take them seriously, because I still had the discussions I wanted and was eager to have more. In a deeper way they convinced me I was nothing but talk though they had nothing but insults.

Alright, everyone needs to listen carefully at this point. There seems to be a connection between doing your work, doing what a previous age might have termed intellectual labor, and self-esteem. It's a connection we don't want to think about. We don't want to put down people who work hard but aren't trying to outsmart the system. We don't want to put down physical labor. We do want to believe someone quiet, who sticks to their values and exhibits tremendous discipline, is a moral exemplar.

To make matters worse, we don't want to talk about self-esteem. I remember when the concept was a bigger deal in the 80's. It was mercilessly mocked. The stories about every kid getting a participation trophy were legion. Why were we talking about self-esteem when we should have been talking about educational excellence? We're slipping behind in STEM subjects, national security is at risk, and you want to talk about whether kids feel good?

In retrospect, I can attest that I was watching society go crazy and have no idea what it was doing, much less what to tell kids. And I don't want to commit to the notion that self-esteem has to be guarded in all circumstances. There are some who have to be told no, or to shape up, or face some sort of discipline because they're acting out and more gentle reminders aren't working.

But I do know that we went too far in making self-esteem a joke. Every radio host who couldn't get any other job and has a mind full of the dumbest garbage targets self-esteem while plenty of people suffer from debilitating anxiety. The truth is, and this is going to sound insane, you want to take class seriously so you can be proud of what you're doing. You want to be able to talk about the more basic things (e.g. a legislature that meets once every two years) so you can talk about the higher things (e.g. does the legislature actually work?) and introduce good questions to those who value what you value (e.g. what can representation accomplish or not accomplish?). And if you are doing those things--if those conversations are happening--you need to be exceptionally proud. You need to be pretentious, even. You may not formally be a leader, but you're in a position to hold leadership accountable. Any elected official, including POTUS, should be scared of what you might ask.

It is so clear to me that this country is scared of making future leaders. It wants a workforce. It wants you to be content with money. But it does not want you to actually take over. So we should talk a bit about what being pretentious means. Here's Alexander Chee with a statement on how being pretentious and intellectual formation go together:

“Pretentious people,” I said[...] “are just intellectuals who haven’t yet met their convictions in sincerity. But they want to.”

Think about all the talking points we hear others repeat from cable news. How people want disasters to happen so they can say they were right. Is being angry all the time and wanting everyone to suffer meeting "convictions in sincerity?" It's like there are different planes of existence which are operative. On the one hand you've got reasoning that thinks winning the Presidency is like having a team win the Super Bowl. You make predictions, you might gamble, there's only the question of who-beats-who, and the losers are not worth talking about. On the other hand you've got someone asking how the Presidency works. Whether an institution forged in the 18th century has been reforged by the Progressive Era and American hegemony. Whether it is representing all of us or is a product of especially narrow interests.

I'm big on having my classes develop empathy. When I was at the Northeastern Political Science Conference, I really appreciated Mark Warren's talk about democratic innovations. I do believe things like participatory budgeting and ranked-choice voting are helpful. I also believe that we have to be very clear that the work of democracy is ever-expanding empathy, especially in the face of a selfishness contemptuous of other lives.

But I think a little bit of pretentiousness is important. Too often we are asked to empathize with people who brutally put others down. We've got to use empathy to stop cycles of harm and promote what is good for all. That entails people making intellectual claims and trying to theorize. This isn't to say a theorist is necessarily empathetic--lord knows I have plenty of experience with the opposite!--but that we've thrown intellectual virtues and self-esteem away and then wonder why so many people are angry and loud.