A Rhetorical Question

A tip of the hat to Dennis Dutton’s Arts and Letters Daily where this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education appeared. Incidentally, since the Chronicle bought out A&LD, there have been a lot more links to Chronicle stories, which inevitably means some weaker stories get linked.

Like this one by Russell Jacoby entitled “Gone, and Being Forgotten: Why are some of the greatest thinkers being expelled from their disciplines?” He starts

How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German.

Jacoby seems to think that these three were “leading historical thinkers” and he laments their absence from college syllabi. He sneers, “Psychology without Freud, economics without Marx, philosophy without Hegel: For disciplinary cheerleaders, this confirms intellectual progress. The cloudy old thinkers have made way for new scientific researchers.”

Well, yes.

No psychologist, after reading Frederick Crews’s devastating critiques can take Freud seriously, no economist who has at least a passing knowledge of history can but laugh at Marx, and no philosopher familiar with David Stove’s quip that Hegel was a philosopher “of the kind who would quickly starve to death if [his] food supply depended on [his] ability to argue” would spend much time with our German friend.

The reason, then, that these gentlemen are not taught in their respective fields is because of the simple fact that their theories have been discredited and so should not be taught—except as they are historically interesting. For example, it is a fascinating sociological question to ask why people were so eager to believe in Freud’s manufactured experimental “evidence”, or why so many who thought that communal “ownership” of property were so willing to slaughter their fellows in the name of utopia. These three “thinkers” were “leaders” in the sense that they won many converts based upon faulty, “cloudy” reasoning, but not because their ideas were any good.

In, for example, the field of physics, Newton is still taught in mechanics, even though his ideas have been superseded by quantum mechanics, because Newtonian mechanics are more than reasonable approximations to everyday phenomena. Too, physics texts do not spend much time with failed, obvious false theories because the purpose of these books is to teach what is true and useful. Physics books are not meant to be works of history. There is no analogy for Jacoby’s crew. Freud’s etc. theories are not approximately true or even useful, but just plain false or intentionally misleading. Their names can, of course, show up in the relevant psychology, economic, and philosophy courses, but as examples of “what not to do”, but that’s about it.

Jacoby’s question, then, is rhetorical. They are not taught because they should not be taught.

That this is recognized means that there is some hope in academia. But it is significant that Jacoby found Freud being taught in literature courses, Mark in “film studies” programs, and Hegel in German language classes. Obviously, the people who teach these subjects will, on average, know less about psychology, economics, and philosophy than their peers in those fields. Meaning, naturally, that they will be less well equipped to know which ideas are bad and which good. They will more likely act on what they hope or wish to be true. They will have a better chance of being seduced by easy theories.

Bad ideas never die. They just shift departments.


  1. Luis Dias

    I agree with you, but I would focus in the thought that Freud and Marx and Hegel should be taught, nevertheless, to discuss what were their ideas, why they were so popular, what was the contextual mindset and why they were wrong, not only historically, but also theoretically.

    The problem of not teaching this in their respective fields is that, at least with Freud and Marx, their ideas are so popular even today that if they aren’t taught with the utmost rigor in schools, then they will be spread as myths in popular “knowledge”, as some sort of counter-culture. And that’s bad.

    Even if they aren’t taught in full, at least they should be mentioned as “big mistakes” and a summary of those. To teach critical thinking is the cornerstone of education today, and one should learn that every science has its history of flaws and misconceptions, that without the perception of this, and how wrong can people really be, then we are surely teaching people that science can never go wrong, and I don’t know, perhaps confuse great statistical graphics and models of really nasty and complex chaotic stuff as something “settled”.

  2. Wade

    I agree totally with Luis that any subject taught should have cautionary tales and success stories. After all, we wouldn’t have Faraday if we didn’t have condescending nobelists decrying those not qualified.

    People need to know the difference between good and bad science (and thought).

  3. D Johnson

    Perhaps the Marx that is discussed in film studies is Groucho along with his brothers.

  4. Joe Triscari

    I agree with Luis and would only add that it should be a major specific course required in the senior year of an undergraduate education. That way they have a chance to learn the topic before seeing where it came from. I do think that introducing lots of wrong or incomplete ideas just as you’re learning an area can be more confusing than helpful. In addition, sometimes the historical road to a particular conclusion is so convoluted that you can lose the path to what is really quite a simple notion.

    D Johnson: That’s some Marx I can get behind!

  5. anon

    Russell remarked of Hegel’s dialectic that it was the art of drawing a conclusion that did not follow, from two false and mutually contradictory premisses.

    Quite so.

  6. K

    If Freud, Marx, and Hegel are no long taught in their disciplines it does not mean they are not relevant somewhere else.

    Much of literary and film studies involves interpreting material produced long ago. Thus, what filmmaker and authors believed long ago is important. And for over half of the last century many believed Marx and Freud were right or at least made sense.

    I refer anyone interested to the movies Spellbound and The Snakepit. Both were made in the 1940s and are still highly regarded. Yet today they make no sense w/o some knowledge of how Freud affected psychiatry.

    For a glimpse of what Marx thought he was talking about read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

    About Hegel. I offer no ideas. Perhaps his German is clear and well suited to language students.

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