I was inspired to write this post while teaching a continuing education course called “Perspectives in Renaissance Art History.” Teaching recreational classes for adult learners is a wonderful experience, and it presents a challenge that is quite different than the kind of teaching I have been trained to carry out in the college classroom. Students in continuing education courses are not enrolled for credit or a degree. Rather, they have chosen a low-cost, low commitment class (usually only meeting from one to eight sessions), which promises to offer intellectual and social fulfillment. Instructors must think carefully about the level of rigor that these classes should achieve. I knew that I would be teaching a highly educated and well-traveled group of adult learners. Almost all of them would have attended college; many of them would have taken a class or two in art history during that time. The majority of them would have seen the canonical works of art I planned to show in class. I therefore chose to supplement a traditional survey of Renaissance art with a variety of theoretical frameworks and critical questions in the field. I assigned theory-heavy readings and spent class time discussing images.
I expected that some of the theoretical frameworks presented in the readings would be new to my participants, but I did not fully imagine the challenges that students who went to college in the 60’s would have in reading contemporary scholarship. One particular reading was peppered with terms like agency and self-identification, which are so assimilated into my cultural milieu that I did not anticipate my participants’ reserved reception of the author’s argument.
The reality, however, is that most highly regarded scholars in the humanities are well steeped in theory. Professor Mark Bauerlein cites early evidence of this professional demand in a letter dated 1978. In this letter Professor Paul de Man advised the Irvine Comparative Literature department to develop
a new kind of skill … the capacity to use and feel at home in a whole series of different critical and theoretical codes and systems, as one would use a particular foreign language, without remaining rigidly locked into any one of them, but rather developing the capacity to translate those findings into different codes, systems, critical positions, as the case may require.
This expectation for a sophisticated and deep understanding of theory has infiltrated the classroom, so that by now, an outstanding student in an upper-level undergraduate course would have much the same competencies as those that de Man advised professional scholars to finesse in ‘78. Moreover, I regularly encounter words like heteronormativity in popular blogs and opinion pieces. I feel capable of unpacking these concepts because I obtained my liberal arts education not too long ago. Even still, I heard an unfamiliar critical term on a radio program just the other day.
It stands to reason that those who have taken a break from reading academic writing will need to catch up on the theoretical developments and scholarly conversations that have taken place in the interim. On some level, I was aware of this reality when assigning readings to my Perspectives in Renaissance Art class, but I worried about offending the highly accomplished individuals enrolled, and therefore did not address the issue. Through my conversations with adult learners, I have since come to realize that acknowledging this gap and arming eager adults with knowledge about theory will enrich their engagement with contemporary culture, and it will probably not bruise their ego if we offer them the tools to get started. There is nothing embarrassing about the fact that being a thoughtful and productive member of society does not necessarily mean keeping up to date with the latest theoretical development in academia.
I encourage learners in community programs to speak up to their instructors and request basic readings on theoretical approaches and examples of theory-rich analyses. For example, at the request of my students, I provided a reading with short essays on postcolonialism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. I warned my participants that the text might be beneath them, but they seemed genuinely happy (and a bit relieved) to have a handy point of reference.
About a year ago Professor Robert Talbert wrote a post for his blog “Casting out Nines: Where math, technology, and education cross,” which is part of the Chronicle of Higher Education blog network. The post addresses the need to constantly update one’s knowledge base in order to be successful in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Talbert suggests using the term “continuous learning” rather than “lifelong education;” the former, he argues, conveys a more appropriate sense of urgency than does the latter. He writes, “Of course lifelong learning is wonderful and desirable. But that phrase suggests (maybe only to me) a relaxed process of dipping in to formal educational setups at various discrete points along one’s lifespan — like taking a class at the college every now and then for enrichment, doing that macrame course at the community center when you retire, or even taking an online computer programming course for fun.” He likes the term continuous learning better because “it suggests an ongoing, unbroken flow of learning…”
When reading Talbert’s post, I couldn’t help but think that the need for continuous knowledge acquisition is a more acceptable point of discussion in the STEM disciplines, particularly in the professional world of science and engineering, than in the humanities. With very little of my own experience in STEM, I imagine that developments are more urgently consumed because they have tangible applications. Think, for example, of the importance of a doctor knowing about new developments in medicine. Developments in the humanities are often more philosophical. Of course, things like new attributions of artwork or investigations of unstudied archives can rock their respective field and may appear in newspaper headlines, but developments in theory happen in a more insular space, and are often subsequently absorbed into mainstream culture.
We must talk about this issue. We must not make adult learners who are eagerly coming back to education after retirement feel that they should be ashamed of what they have “missed.”
I invite readers to post alternative points of view and ideas in the comments.