Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Teaching Plato to Plumbers

My brother is a plumber.  I don't think he has ever read Plato but I think he might find Plato's ideas interesting if they were translated into twenty-first century vernacular.  

I thought of Chris as I read Scott Samuelson's piece at The Atlantic: "Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers."  Part of my interest in public history and public scholarship comes from my upbringing in a working class family.  I have two brothers.  Chris is a plumber.  Mike is a general contractor.  My father is a retired general contractor.  My mother is a retired housewife who just went back to work with a telemarketing firm at the age of 70.  (She loves it!).  My sister (the only other college graduate in the family) is a former social-worker who is currently at home raising three kids.  

My parents loved The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but they thought the first couple of chapters were a bit dry and they wished I would have just stuck with a narrative of Philip Vickers Fithian's life rather than taking so many detours into foreign concepts like moral philosophy and the "rural Enlightenment."  They started reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? because they were interested in the topic and found my approach accessible, but I think the book proved to be too didactic for them.  They wanted a good story.

I doubt anyone in my family has ever uttered the word "humanities."  But they do enjoy history and politics, they read newspapers and news magazines (Time and Newsweek), they read this blog, they study and teach the Bible, and they listen to talk radio, the watch shows like American Pickers.  They are regularly engaged with humanities-related topics but probably would have little patience for the kind of language that characterizes humanities-based discourse in the academy today.

Yet, as I have argued several times at this blog, most of what the academy describes as the work of a "public intellectual" or a "public scholar" is tied to publishing essays in The New Yorker or reviewing a book in the New York Review of Books.  I don't think anyone in my family has ever read these periodicals.  What else can the academy do to reach thoughtful working class people?

I am glad that Samuelson, a community college professor, is in the trenches trying to make the humanities relevant to the kinds of working people who show up in his classes.  This, in many ways, is the cutting edge of public humanities.

Here is a taste of Samuelson's piece:

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way.

As usual, there’s plenty to be worried about: the steady evaporation of full-time teaching positions, the overuse and abuse of adjunct professors, the slashing of public funding, the shrinkage of course offerings and majors in humanities disciplines, the increase of student debt, the peddling of technologies as magic bullets, the ubiquitous description of students as consumers. Moreover, I fear in my bones that the supremacy of a certain kind of economic-bureaucratic logic—one of “outcomes,” “assessment,” and “the bottom-line”—is eroding the values that undergird not just our society’s commitment to the humanities, but to democracy itself.