Rigor and Liberation

On first glance, it may sound absurd to reference the question of ‘rigor’ in the context of liberatory educational efforts. Is not ‘rigor,’ especially in positivist and scientist traditions, a means of preserving arbitrary standards and standardizations, excluding less intelligible, more contextual, or simply more preliminary arguments from a discussion?

Therefore, it may perhaps come more natural, given the topic of this week’s readings, to talk about liberation through education. Liberation, when talking about this, can be taken in the broadest possible sense: it seems to me that it can be doubted whether Steele and Freire are even talking about the same kind of liberation. Their contexts and approaches (a socialist scholar in Latin America, a positivist social psychologist in English America) suggest otherwise. So do their topics: while Steele contributes to the discussion of inclusivity and diversity through conceptual means of identity contingencies and their more specific subgroup, stereotype threats, Freire approaches the concept of education in a context of praxis that involves thinking a (social, political, economic, or perhaps worldly) totality.

Both have in common, however, that they attach crucial importance to education alone. They do certainly not neglect the broader horizon of it – in Freire’s case, such an insinuation would be obviously absurd – but one is nevertheless tempted to add critical questions to their elaborations. Is autonomy of thought, which seems to be Freire’s goal, indeed indistinguishable from real or material autonomy, such that a liberatory education can result not just in free spirits, as a famous European philosopher once called for (that is, in students, scholars, scientists whose horizons are emancipatory), but in social individuals whose behavior is emancipatory, and has liberating effects on their surroundings? In other words: it is doubtless a necessary condition, but is it a sufficient condition for sustaining a free community to educate individuals qua individuals to live free, and to live free together? Furthermore, what about the institutional setting a teacher finds herself in? Is it even possible to make students, whose education is a constant rat race of grades, scores, stipends, awards, classes, and, alas, more or less strictly segregated campus events, crammed into a maximum of four years, and often less; is it possible to make such students aware of the insensitivities, awkwardnesses, shameful implicit expectations, and unfounded assumptions they are embedded in? (As a corollary to that: what about teachers themselves? Is the average Graduate Student, whose days are evenly distributed between reading three books a week, teaching one, two, three recitations, attending three classes, weekly assignments, midterm assignments and final assignments, really equipped to constantly question, doubt, second-guess herself?) Finally, and perhaps most troubling to me: what about the balance between teaching topics and contents and teaching awareness and approach? Does not the notion of an education whose primary goal is fostering awareness and overcoming social obstacles lead – not in all cases and under all circumstances, but conceivably and in some circumstances – to a sloppiness in either of the two: content or awareness? (This pertains perhaps more to the natural sciences, whose topics coincide less with questions of awareness and inequality than those of the social sciences.)

In other words: what is it that one has to teach in addition to, but deeply intertwined with emancipatory approaches and perspectives? What is it about curiosity, encouragement, playfulness that must nevertheless be taught and cannot simply be demonstrated, exercised, picked up?

This is where I think the much-maligned concept of rigor comes back in. The substance of, i.e., the principle and dynamic underlying the problem of identity, identity contingency, stereotype and stereotype threat, as well as thought insensitive to the totality of circumstances, is that concepts are not well-defined, static referential markers of reality that can, through a social practice, simply be replaced, expanded or contracted. The concept is, rather, a living entity, an endless labor of subsuming everything that is non-identical to its denotation, such that all non-conceptual haloes surrounding and exceeding concepts can finally be preserved – which is to say: sterilized – in the monumental self-identity of a concept.

The mechanism is simple: gender is reified, not as such, i.e., not as a simple referential observation, but as a difference, which is to say: a hierarchy. I am not simply heterosexual – I am heterosexual against and above homosexuality, against and above lesbians, gays, queers, transgendered persons, or those that do not want to be persons at all. Furthermore, their resistance to my hierarchy (which, on top of it, is not even my hierarchy) must be an assertion according to the same hierarchical difference – otherwise, it is not recognizeable as resistance. Asserting one ‘s status as a human being when resisting heterosexuality’s claim to normative superiority is only meaningful of “human being” includes “gendered being.” Otherwise, the assertion is simply meaningless: it does not hit its target.

In other words: language is not something one uses. It always exceeds immediate usage. (As Judith Butler has famously shown, this goes both ways: a racial slur can be appropriated by a community and turned against its oppressors.) What surrounds a concept is given by the concept: it is a determinate negation of the concept. Resisting gendered oppression remains within the means of the concept of gender. Attempts to simply leave behind the question of gender altogether therefore reinforce it even more strongly: liberal colorblindness does not erase racism, it only covers it up and pretends nothing is happening. Likewise, assertions of post-gendered societies only cover up the real remaining inequalities between the genders.

What needs to be given to students in their education, then, is not a simple horizon of emancipatory thought. What must be given is the ability to follow the concept as it unfolds its reign by forcing resistance to be articulated within its own horizon. We need to pay attention to how hierarchy is implied even in seemingly innocent concepts. This can be trained: all that is needed is attention to rigorous elaborations of the haloes surrounding concepts. Rigorous explanations of concepts as they are used in everyday language give the tools for concrete circumstantial resistance to the endless labor of concepts.

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