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When BS Is a Virtue

In my classroom, we talk in an unstructured way about big themes—love, justice, beauty, the meaning of life—mostly without citing any evidence in support of our claims (certainly not scientific evidence), and almost always without coming to any conclusions. We usually do have a text in front of us, but I am hoping that it will lead us to a lively, freewheeling discussion about things we all care about—not unlike “a conversation at a bar,” as a student recently said to me, describing the class.

It wasn’t intended as a compliment, and I can understand why. What she really wanted to say is “You let students BS,” and in fact some of my best classes resemble what Harry Frankfurt, in On Bullshit, calls a “bull session.” In a bull session, he writes, participants “try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say.”

I hope that my students will BS in this exploratory sense rather than the empty sense. Empty BS is the kind we all know all too well. Like a poor man’s pragmatism, its typically desultory aim is to find something that works, with the meaning of “works” confined to getting around the obstacles that the world throws in one’s path, or getting away with something. Empty BS is padding out a paper from five pages to seven pages in order to meet a requirement.

BS-as-exploration is different—and, as a transitional stage, virtuous. Confronted with comprehensive worldviews such as objectivism, existentialism, or even Goth-ism, young people may adopt an -ism without being committed fully and sincerely. Still, they are not lying, joking, or BSing in an empty way by doing so. When a young person adopts one of these -isms, this is a larger-scale version of something that happens in countless smaller ways in my classroom when things are going well. The students are exploring, and what they are trying to find by BSing in this way is a mode of relation to the world. Becoming a person who has a mode of relation to the world (especially a mode of relation involving the mind) is a serious task of college—one in which the humanities can play a special role.

Following this logic, the humanities should let go of its current favorite justification: critical thinking. Critical thinking has a prestigious philosophical pedigree, from Descartes’s method of doubt back to Socratic elenchus, dialectical cross-examination. But Descartes understood his method to be in the service of securing belief, and Socrates constantly evinced his hope to do better than to end discussions in aporia: being stuck in ignorance and knowing it. No longer animated by this hope, critical thinking is today regarded as an intellectual virtue in its own right. Unlike Descartes or Socrates, who aimed at beliefs that did not yet exist, the goal of critical thinking now is limited to undermining the ones that do.

You might think that the best remedy for empty BS is critical thinking. That is not so. Critical thinking actually fosters a space for offering ideas without becoming attached to them. “Take a critical distance” is the common exhortation. It is a dissociative practice, encouraging students to put space between themselves and their potential beliefs. To recommend exploratory, transitional BS in the humanities classroom is to acknowledge that for college students, that space exists. The crucial question for the humanities is whether we should cultivate and reinforce that space in students or help them begin to close it.

In my view, what is needed is less critical space, not more. When Socrates asked the poets, politicians, and artisans for their wisdom, he found a lot of people willing to give him answers. But our culture is different. In my experience, most students don’t believe that they (or anyone else) have answers. When they do “critical thinking,” students doubt settled beliefs not as a way of exploring what it would be like to be a person with other thoughts and attitudes. Rather, they doubt in order to confirm their own essentially settled belief that no one really knows the answers to important questions, and therefore that they are just fine as is. This is practically a creed among a majority of the students I encounter. But no serious idea of liberal education could possibly endorse it.

It is disappointing, then, that “critical thinking” is so pervasively used for the purpose of advertising the liberal-arts college and the humanities, with the claim that such an education makes for groundbreaking intellectuals, engaged democratic citizens, and successful employees, all at once. In fact, this claim is a good example of empty BS because of the way it is made—as something neither true nor false, but thrown out there in the hope that it will stick (with parents, administrators, the electorate, and perhaps many humanities instructors who worry about the meaningfulness of their work). As empty- rather than exploratory-BS, the claim stands in the place of what could be a developed belief concerning the relationship between a liberal (or humanistic) education and intellectuality, democratic citizenship, and employment.

Humanistic, liberal education—commonly recognized to be in a fight for its life—should stop aiming at critical thinking and start aiming at belief, or, if that sounds too religious, at the cultivation of the sympathetic, imaginative intelligence, a capacity for attachment rather than dissociation. Of course, not everything deserves attachment. But critical thinking isn’t the only instrument for finding what does. In a culture as full of empty BS as our own, critical thinking is mostly an instrument for not finding what does.

Some people worry most about the dangers of belief, especially intolerance for the beliefs of others. But the students I encounter have a deeper problem: a vague belief that no beliefs can be true. Real tolerance is a belief, not a byproduct of skepticism. Vague skeptics may appear to tolerate, but that is only because they don’t really care.

If we teachers of the humanities want students who care, we should start focusing in the classroom on questions such as “What is this author truly saying, and how is it plausible?” Our syllabi should stop consisting of so many texts, forcing them to be read quickly or, worse, in excerpts. These breakneck or disjointed syllabi make it nearly impossible for students to develop a mode of relation to books and other works of art, or to try to inhabit the author’s or artist’s point of view, or to try out how certain thoughts feel, or to develop their capacities for belief, sympathetic intelligence, and attachment. Those things just take time.

They also take an exploratory, virtuous kind of BS, which is transitional to students’ becoming the sorts of persons who neither need nor want to turn to the empty kind. That task is probably not on anyone’s list of learning outcomes. But those lists are pretty much BS—in the empty sense. Right?

David Hayes teaches Greek philosophy and literature at Bard College Berlin.

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