What is “learning” anyway?

October 10, 2009 at 11:28 am (education, philosophy, Writing)

I love my NKU (Northern Kentucky University) grad program. I really do. I’ve told everyone who will listen how great it is and how much benefit I’m getting from it.

I preface my post with that because I’m about to bring up a complaint, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m just grumpy about homework and research papers (I’m not – I actually LIKE doing the homework!). My concern has to do with the critical theories we’re learning about in my Intro. to Graduate Studies class. The class itself is a great overview and I’m thoroughly satisfied; it’s the theories themselves – and by extension English Studies in general – that seems flawed.

There are many ways in which literature is analyzed and interpreted: New Critical Theory, Feminist Theory, Structuralist Theory, Queer Theory, New Historical Theory, etc. Each one looks at literature in a different way and comes up with their own – sometimes widely separated – interpretation. Their own “take” or “point” you might say. Some theories don’t even care what the author had in mind when he wrote. Some care very much. Some theories look very carefully at the text (this is called “close reading”) and other put more value on the reader’s response to the text. And so on.

While there are plenty of problems with individual theories (I’ll save that for another day), an equally large problem is with the bigger picture: Most of these theories (and their theorists) do not claim to be correct. We’re not taught to search for the exclusively “right” way to interpret. Nor to look for what a text really means. The value in these approaches is the diversity of perspective that they bring. Such diversity is touted as beneficial for the variety of viewpoints it opens us up to, but after several weeks of this I get the impression¬†that much of theory (and I’m not condemning theory, by the way, just how it’s carried out) is just an academic exercise or a way to push a certain agenda.

So what are we “learning?” If there is supposedly no “right” or “correct” way of reading a text, but just the benefit of a diverse perspective, then what truth or knowledge are we actually gaining. Diversity for the sake of diversity, variety for the sake of variety, and perspective for the sake of perspective seem empty if there is not hard truth to be found at some point.


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