By Upper School English teacher Matthew Laufer
My students make fun of my interest in ambiguity. As if it were a fetish. A fixation on, say, collar bones.
But today I feel vindicated, like I’m justified in doubling down on doubtfulness and uncertainty, un-clarity and indefiniteness, equivocation and interpretive plurality. Thank you, President Roth.
It wasn’t until the Q & A part of historian and Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth’s March 7 talk on the importance of a liberal arts education that Roth got to ambiguity, but I sat up when he did. We’ve got to give our students “a taste for working through ambiguity,” he said, adding, “Practice with ambiguity is key.”
Vagueness, I tell my students, is bad. Accidental ambiguity in writing? Also bad. But intentional ambiguity in a poem, tolerating and respecting ambiguity in a political issue, enjoying ambiguity in a work of art or conversation…these are intellectual—and social—goods. Secret ingredients to a life more fully and freely lived.
To be sure, I also appreciated what came before the Q & A. With the ubiquity of STEM initiatives (here at Parker and everywhere), the death or near-death of university philosophy departments and the trend toward “applied” or career-oriented writing courses (Legal Writing, Business Writing rather than, say, Comp or, LOL, Creative Writing), I’m with Roth—convinced that we’re in a fragile time for liberal arts education.
It didn’t hurt that Roth is something of a showman: uncannily notes-free, unpretentiously erudite and funny. Up and down the aisles he went Thursday night, cracking jokes and locking eyes like a Borscht Belt Phil Donohue.
The message I’ve taken away from his talk? If we care about the humanities, it’s on us to make sure they survive.
Years ago I heard an English professor argue that humanities profs are responsible for selling the humanities. Nobody else will, she said. Roth went a step further with his “Why Liberal Arts Education Matters More than Ever,” making the case for higher education itself—and especially a liberal arts education, which he calls “the opposite of elitist,” as well as “pragmatic and democratic” and “broad, integrative.”
The basis of his liberal arts education faith—its capacity for Liberation, Animation, Cooperation and Instigation—struck me, that night and since, as terrifically exciting.
Those of us who likewise believe can take comfort from a shared heritage that includes such liberators as Frederick Douglass (“education makes you unfit for slavery”!) and Immanuel Kant (“freedom from self-imposed immaturity”!), such animators as Ralph Waldo Emerson (“education should set hearts aflame”!), such cooperators as Jane Addams (“sympathetic imagination”!) and such instigators as Richard Rorty.
My heart, for one, is aflame, and I hope to bring enough of Addams’s sympathetic imagination to my classroom to move forward with my students. As a teacher who believes in the value of young people coming together to consider the world in various and expansive ways, I found the talk invigorating, both in its reach backward to his last book and its tease of his forthcoming one about campus speech (Safe Enough Spaces). That one’ll for sure stir things up in this town.
And maybe ambiguity isn’t just a Q & A after-thought, in the end, but a key piece of the education puzzle.
If, as President Roth said the other night, people tend to “retreat to their prejudices,” and our current sociopolitical outrage isn’t helping us move forward since “outrage is not conducive to learning,” then we need to find a way beyond prejudgment and indignation.
I recommend a healthy respect for ambiguity and the nuance with which it comes.