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Thursday, January 27, 2011

A philosopher and a psychoanalyst walk into a classroom...

The other night, I attended a dinner party where most of the guests were fellow law professors. The conversation turned to the best way to handle offensive ideas in the classroom. What role should one's own views play in the response to homophobic, sexist, or racist sentiments, expressed either by students or in the class material itself? It quickly became clear that the guests had several differing views on the matter. The main divide seemed to be between those who felt a professor should never reveal her own personal views on contentious social or political issues, and those who thought it was not only acceptable to do so, but that not doing so would be dishonest and might even jeopardize the pedagogical project. Those who held the former view seemed to believe that a professor's personal views had no place in the classroom, as they would only serve to distract students from the substance of the material and unhelpfully focus them on the individual character of the professor instead.  Those who held the latter view indicated that they believed law professors have unique opportunities - and obligations -  to model ethical behavior.

The first view made me think of the way Freud described the approach of the detached analyst: "The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him." The analyst should never judge what is presented to him by the analysand, nor allow his individual personality to influence the direction or assessment of the analysand's speech. Rather, the analyst should limit himself to evoking and reflecting the analysand's memories, desires, and dreams. To do otherwise would be to inhibit the free flow of the analysand's thoughts, and thus undermine the psychoanalytic project of self-confrontation.

By contrast, the second view put me in mind of Sartre's endorsement of the engaged author: "The 'engaged' writer knows that words are action [,] ... that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change. He has given up the impossible dream of giving an impartial picture of Society and the human condition. ... the writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the the object that has thus been laid bare." Sartre decried the conception of l'art pour l'art; for him, to write was to intervene in the conflicts of politics and society -  to take sides, unapologetically. 

So when it comes to controversial ideas, which should law professors be, the detached analyst or the engaged author? Obviously our students are neither our patients nor our readers, but they are our audience in a conversation demanding constant analysis and interpretation. Should we let hateful sentiments simply play out without personal comment, in the hope that the revelations themselves will bring about enlightenment? Or should we reveal our own personal commitments as a way of signifying and respecting the values at stake?

Posted by Mary Anne Franks on January 27, 2011 at 06:39 PM | Permalink


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A professor should only enter the arena, so to speak, if he is prepared to let the student respond. It's an abuse of power to criticize a student for some remark that the professor thinks is hateful, or racist, or homophobic, or whatever, without engaging the student fully. Since this often wold require a substantial detour for the whole class, it's often wiser to focus on the class material and not inject one's personal views into the class discussion.

Posted by: DBL2 | Jan 29, 2011 7:44:18 PM

As for the other, Sartrian side of the equation, I think we might profit from the model of intellectual responsibility Sartre sketched in a series of lectures delivered at Tokyo and Kyoto in 1965, published as “A Plea for Intellectuals.” Sartre thought the “work” of intellectuals should be defined as motivated by the following goals and values, expressed in imperative form (hence the modal verbs):

1. He must struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes. In other words, he should attack externally and internally every ideological representation that they entertain of themselves or their power (the ‘positive hero,’ the ‘personality cult,’ the ‘glorification of the proletariat.’ for example…). [Amélie Oksenberg Rorty proffers a more-than-plausible psychological explanation for such ideological representations: ‘The structures of power have an astonishing stability. In the large range of constructive imaginings of options we turn again and again to archetypal patterns, to the Charismatic Leader, to the Band of the Brotherhood Committee, to the Pure Young Hero, to the Good-Bad Earth Mother. Why are our imaginations of power structures so fixed? It is because we learn from experience; and our most formative experiences of power, and of power relations, are those we have during our prolonged and wholly dependent infancy. While this prolonged infancy makes empathy and psychological complexity possible, it exacts a cost. We are formed not only by what we have learned from experience, but by the ways we learn. As long as we are in complex and often highly benign compliance to those who nurtured and sustained us as infants, we associate security and well-being with dependence on power figures. It is to these beginnings that our imaginations return when we are discomforted, depleted, in need.’]

2. He must make use of the capital of knowledge he has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture.

3. Whenever necessary and particularly in the present conjuncture, he should help form technicians of practical knowledge within the under-privileged classes, since these classes cannot themselves produce them, in the hope that they will become the organic intellectuals of the working class….

4. He must recover his own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) by rediscovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle—that is, as the future of man.

5. He should try to radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims, in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class.

6. He must act as a guardian of the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power—including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself.

Now much could be said, for and against, any of these intellectual and moral imperatives, and several are prone to abuse or misinterpretation (e.g., a couple of them might be wrongly construed as an endorsement Leninist vanguardism). Moreover, they contain presuppositions and assumptions tied to the European Enlightenment and the (especially Gramscian) Marxist tradition that no doubt rub many (e.g., those of Libertarian or post-modernist suasion) the wrong way (although Left intellectuals, found largely in the academy, are often—and rightly—described as ‘quietistic’ or ‘ineffectual,’ mired in an academic discourse Edward Said defined as marked by its ‘generally hermetic, jargon-ridden, unthreatening combativeness’). All the same, I find much here that is helpful in thinking about what it means for a law professor, as a member of a species belonging to the genus “academic” (the ‘writer’ belonging to another but related genus, although Said argued for their assimilation and thus spoke of the ‘writer-intellectual’) and the (yet larger taxon) family, “intellectual,” to possess opportunities and obligations for modeling ethical (and moral) behavior. In placing law professors within the class of intellectuals, one need not ignore or dismiss opportunities and obligations that are specific to law professors (or lawyers for that matter: pro bono work, ‘cause lawyering’ and so forth) but I suspect the danger usually runs in the other direction: focus on professional tasks and duties leads to a neglect of or crowds out the attention due deeper and wider obligations and responsibilities, for the temptations and liabilities endemic to specialization (e.g., myopia) and professionalism (e.g., ‘careerism,’ or even ‘celebrity’) invariably and relentlessly work against the emergence of cosmopolitan intellectuals in the best sense. Instead, we are all too adept at filling the ranks of conformist technocratic and careerist intelligentsia.

Part of what it means in our time and place to be (normatively speaking) an intellectual, or writer, is to speak truth to power, to be a witness to persecution and suffering, to supply a voice of dissent in conflicts with legal and political authorities prone to abusing their (democratically) entrusted powers; to imagine alternative, that is, more just, socio-economic and political possibilities in the light of conceptions of the Good; to universalize the opportunities for realization of our basic or “central” human capabilities (Martha Nussbaum) and capacities that make for individual and collective human flourishing (or ‘eudamonia’). On this account, the personal views of one committed to a carefully considered conception of intellectual responsibility will find the classroom one of several possible fora for expression and exemplification of those views.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 28, 2011 3:13:32 AM

The picture of the “detached” Freudian analyst is only partly true, and applies to a specific process or moment in time, as it were, in the therapeutic endeavor. But if we place the analyst both within the larger frame of “the” scientific worldview (at least as understood by Freud), as well as within the greater psychoanalytic context of basic therapeutic values and norms, clinical detachment and “mirroring” are subsumed within and motivated by the moral goals “that govern psychotherapy: the relief of suffering and improvement of the patient's capacity for enjoyment and freedom of action.” The mirroring moment therefore, is not on par with that of the impersonally detached natural scientist. As Ernest Wallwork explains, Freud

“did not believe that therapy could occur in the absence of ‘sympathy and respect.’ To the contrary, he urged analysts to meet their patients with ‘the most sympathetic spirit of inquiry’ and cautioned against too austere a therapeutic style lest the patient suffer more deprivation than any sick person can be expected to tolerate. What Freud appears to have had in mind in recommending neutrality in the context of helping the patient is what is now called ‘benevolent’ or ‘compassionate’ neutrality—that is, a warmly tolerant understanding that communicates concern for the patient’s well-being in a nonthreatening way that enables the patient to bear the frustrations of the analytic situation and to bring forward the unconscious beliefs, feelings, and motivations that are a primary cause of his or her suffering. In this benignly supportive environment, the analyst refrains from expressing moral approval or disapproval and from moral instruction, not because he or she is neutral about values but precisely because the therapist’s commitment to the intrinsic value of beneficence dictates that in this setting the best therapeutic method is to concentrate on clarifying and interpreting nonjudgmental. The analyst inhibits the wish to heal now, adopting a stance of temporary goallessness, for the sake of the long-range goal of analysis—namely, to heal as effectively as possible.” (Ernest Wallwork, Psychoanalysis and Ethics, 1991: 211-212)

Freud spoke eloquently about the social responsibility of psychoanalysis, the central role of government in reducing inequality through universal access to social services, including the right of poor people to mental health services and the influence of environmental factors on the individual. He hoped the “conscience of society” would eventually awaken to

“remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has for the life-saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis and can be left as little as the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community. Then institutions and out-patient clinics will be started, to which analytically-trained physicians will be appointed so that men who would otherwise give way to drink, women who have nearly succumbed under the burden of their privations, children for whom there is no choice but running wild or neurosis, may be made capable, by analysis, of resistance and efficient work.”*

I mention this simply to lessen the starkness of the contrast and suggest we need not make a choice between Freud and Sartre. In other words, and sans any argument, law professors will find moments of “detached analysis” as well as “engagement” (I think Orin’s question insinuates this) if only because objectivity is a realistic and important desideratum (while descriptions and facts are never wholly value-free), and teaching is an art or craft performed by individuals who should not avoid questions of intellectual and moral responsibility that connect their pedagogical practices to the wider world they share with their students.

*Quoted in Elizabeth Ann Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (2005): 17.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 27, 2011 9:31:05 PM

If I may offer an undergraduate perspective on the question, in my opinion professors should either make their views clear up front but then refrain from inserting those views into lectures, or else they should acknowledge their personal views only in a context that allows for full, open discussion. The two vices seem to be professors who pretend to be neutral when they're clearly not, and professors who slip their opinions in, but not in a way that makes their students feel comfortable openly disagreeing.

As a general rule, professors should probably lean more towards "analyst" in larger lectures, and "writer" in more engaged seminars.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jan 27, 2011 8:37:44 PM

Doesn't it depend on the contentious issue? What kinds of issues were you discussing?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 27, 2011 7:13:47 PM

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