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Demagogues and Prophets

Last week a few of my creative-writing students visited me during office hours to ask what they should write. It wasn’t that they needed an assignment clarified, but rather that with a major project looming they wanted me to direct them in some way that would guarantee success. Though we have studied various models in class, they recognize the risks inherent in their choices and some would prefer I select for them. Like most teachers in the humanities I am met with versions of this request fairly regularly. A week from now my sophomores will realize their first significant essay is approaching and I’ll be fielding similar (if slightly more desperate) questions from them.

Of course, what these students don’t realize is that the pleasure and responsibility of choosing is, in and of itself, one key measure of intellectual success. I tell them this, and then I ask questions about their interests and affinities. I may suggest another poem, story, or essay they could look to for ideas. So long as we’re discussing their writing in these terms, it is relatively easy to maintain objectivity.

Lately though, I’ve been meditating on Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation,” and I have become more mindful of the ways my students look to me for other kinds of direction—the ethical, social, even sometimes spiritual questions implicit in the classroom.

Weber’s essay was first delivered as a speech at the University of Munich in 1918, and on one level it responds to students who, in the aftermath of World War I, looked to their professors for moral and political leadership. In Weber’s terms, they wanted not demagogues but prophets, not scholars but football coaches, not facts but meaning. Rejecting the notion that formal research can produce anything like “meaning” in the first place, Weber argues that whenever an academic “introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases.” As a result it is irresponsible for a teacher to imprint her personal views on students. Despite what some universities claim in their mission statements, character formation isn’t and shouldn’t be part of the job.

I see the attraction of Weber’s position, though I suspect far more of us espouse than practice it. In any case, it’s clear one can’t avoid introducing all “personal value judgments.” By the time we place our book orders we have already brought some values to bear on next semester’s students. Often, perhaps unconsciously, I think we adopt a stance closer to that of Richard Hugo, who warned his students of his unavoidable bias at the outset of each semester: “At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. … As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.” Our students are adults and can distinguish between the facts and our personal judgments.

But of course it’s not so simple for one to tune a professor out, and Weber suggests that only a bully states moral or political opinions to a captive audience. Reading “Science as a Vocation,” I remember an English professor in my first year of grad school who began many of her lectures by taking potshots at the Bush administration. Whether one agreed with her or not, those opening remarks could be stifling. I think they embarrassed all of us with their venom, and it would take significant time each class for the room to recover and move on.

Despite those abuses of power, it has been my experience that when academics talk about what drew them to their field, they tend to cite mentors before subject matter and critical methods. I know I began thinking seriously about becoming a professor as a result of meeting a poetry teacher who “meant” something beyond the material we studied. Those meanings were conveyed subtly, but anyone paying attention could see the moral implications of his carefulness with language and his admonitions that we read better, wider, deeper. He went beyond presenting the range of choices; he modeled how a poet might choose. To put it rather crudely, I think he formed certain aspects of my character both in the class and increasingly (as he became a mentor) outside the confines of his courses. I’m profoundly grateful to have met him when I did.

Still, I wrestle with how I might give a similarly full experience to my own students, or if I should attempt to. The professor’s lectern certainly makes a poor soapbox during election season, but what about outside the classroom? Are there times and settings when students need a professor’s value judgments, not forced on them but embodied in personality? How do you balance the teacher’s responsibility to objectivity with the impulse to respond frankly when a student wants to know what it all means?

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