Learning for Meaning's Sake
reviewed by David Coulter - October 13, 2009
What is the university for? Good questionand one seldom explicitly posed, yet implicitly answered every day by every university. Based on my experience in primary, secondary and post-secondary schooling, people in universities seem no better at asking questions of purpose than others. Like schoolteachers, professors are often too busy getting on with their jobs to ask whether they should actually be getting on with these particular jobs. Few scholarsand even fewer scholar-leadersask such questions. However, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, raises just this question in a recent article in The New York Times Book Review (2009, September 6). She describes the multiple conflicting purposes that universitieslike all educational institutionsconfront, and wonders about the current answers that skew toward the immediate and worldly and away from the questions about what is worthwhile and meaningful. She concludes: As a nation, we need to ask more from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs (p. 19). A good place for Faustand othersto start their search for how the university can better foster understanding, meaning, and perspective is Stephanie Macklers Learning for Meanings Sake: Toward the Hermeneutic University.
Like Faust, Mackler is concerned about the university neglecting its responsibility to help people find meaning in their lives. Her diagnosis of the problem links the shrinking university mandate to a general crisis of meaning in Western societies; that is, the confusion within universities reflects the loss of unifying societal narratives over the last few centuries coupled more recently with such developments as postmodern critiques of truth claims. Indeed, she explains, we have become much better at saying what we are against than stating what we are for (p. 12), and she contends that knowledge and meaning have been artificially separated in the modern university so that those who make knowledge consider this endeavour to be value-free, while those who deal with meaning are forever on the defensive (p. 6). Mackler argues for a return to liberal learning, albeit with a new rationale, one linked to hermeneutics. She explains that the university should shift from a positivist model, that is, one that emphasizes knowledge, to a hermeneutic model that attends to meaning and interpretation. She clarifies:
I do not mean to say that we should throw knowledge out the window. To do so would be to impose a false dichotomy between knowledge and meaning. Rather my aim is to shift our emphasis toward noting the way worldviews play a role in constructing knowledge and to enable us to be better at thinking about the meaning that is always inherent in our claims to knowledge. (p. 23)
Mackler develops her arguments using a wide range of resources, but principally the hermeneutics of Hannah Arendt and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer, for instance, tightly links meaning-making with understanding in general and argues that efforts to understand require the anticipation of meaning in fore-projections, or prejudices, which are biases of our openness to the world. They are quite simply conditions whereby we experience something (Gadamer, 1976, p. 9). Following Gadamer, we understand by using, testing, revising, and rejecting our prejudices in the back and forth of the general (our prejudices) and the particular (our experiences) that comprises the hermeneutic circle. In Learning for Meanings Sake, however, Mackler shifts the concern of the hermeneutic circle from part and whole to the old and the new, that is, she creates a hermeneutics of meaning for higher education with an original appropriation of Arendts ideas of banality and natality.
A key idea for Mackler is Gadamers contention that experience is initially always experience of negation: something is not what we supposed it to be (1996, p. 354), that is, a new experience always negates or thwarts a previously formed idea or prejudice. She describes such old, assumed meanings as banal, adapting Arendts expression from Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she described Eichmanns failure to realize what he was doing, that is, his thoughtlessness, as banal (1964, pp. 287-288). Mackler explains that when we adhere to pre-given interpretations, we do not think about meaning, but rather we take meaning for granted (p. 27), and subsequently categorizes banality as either dangerous or rich. Dangerous banality occurs when abstractions are too far removed from particulars and rich banality is possible when understanding is less fixed and capable of being informed by experience and is created through relations with natality (p. 41). Indeed, for Mackler, the key remedy for dangerous banalityand the critical resource for a hermeneutics of meaningis natality.
Natality is used in new ways and for new contexts, however. For Arendt, natality or birth is the miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, natural ruin (1958, p. 247) by providing the ontological basis for the three forms of activity that comprise the vita activa or active life that Arendt describes in The Human Condition (labor, work, and especially action). Natality or newness offers each person the opportunity to define her identity in the midst of others. Indeed action, or appearing in public, is a kind of second birth to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative (1958, p. 177).
Mackler transfers Arendts idea of natality from acting in the world to thinking about the world, explaining that she expands Arendts strict use of the word natality to refer to the human capacity to think about and potentially make new meaning (p. 31). Mackler contends that the quest for meaning is a quest to order seemingly disparate entities into a unified whole (p. 33), too often, unfortunately, by using inappropriate and inadequate pre-existingthat is, banalstructures. Natality, however, is the disposition to think about meaning, (p. 35) respecting each persons capacity to bring something unexpected and unexpectable to the world (p. 35). For Mackler, banality and natality are in dialectical relationship and the educational task becomes the provision of appropriate frameworks that support rich banality, largely by fostering natality or the capacity to make new meaning.
Much of the balance of Learning for Meanings Sake involves sketching how higher education might help people learn to challenge the accepted, the banal, by attending to the work of philosophers of hermeneutic education (e.g., Oakeshott, MacIntyre, Kronman, and Arcilla), by exposing the young to appropriate mentor-models (e.g., Hadot, Nehamas and Shusterman) and by learning to make new, better meanings through writing rich and powerful stories.
Mackler is brief in explaining how her proposals would affect the contemporary university (indeed, her title includes the ubiquitous word Toward and the book has only 112 pages of text); the task she sets herself is daunting if not overwhelming. I struggled to understand her answers to two questions that her proposals provoked for me (both of which she does begin to address): What role do the various scholarly disciplines that are so important in universities play in making meaning? And how would the university surface and confront (resolve is the wrong word) the dialectic of the natal and the banal?
In response to the first question about how meaning is made, Mackler emphasizes that to learn to make meaning is to learn to craft language (p. 82) and the manner of presentation itself matters (p. 76), hence the need for cultivating the ability to judge and tell stories (p. 96). What Mackler means by stories, however, is not always clear. At times, stories are simply stories, at other times they seem to refer to speech and action in general (e.g., p. 90, n. 274)) and at other times to how each discipline makes meaning (p. 109). While this vagueness is partly an artefact of the briefness of Macklers account, given her argument that the manner of presentation matters, I was hoping for some elaboration of the thesis about the shaping of understanding through the distinct features of presentation. Indeed, I anticipated that Mackler might build on Bernsteins (1983) influential work on the role hermeneutics plays in the natural and social sciences. Bernstein, using Kuhn, Feyerbend, Lakatos, Geertz and Winch, shows how scientists employ hermeneutic ideas in making meaning within their disciplines. Geertzs anthropological version of the hermeneutic circle, for example, involves a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way to bring both into view simultaneously (in Bernstein, 1983, p. 95).
My second question concerns the testing of attempts to make meaning. At times, Mackler presents the dialectic of natality-banality in ways that seem to privilege the new over the old. The key to deciding between dangerous and rich banality, for example, is Macklers original interpretation of natality, which is the disposition to think about meaning (p. 35), respecting each persons capacity to bring something unexpected and unexpectable to the world (p. 35). For Arendt, however, natality involves people choosing to appear in public, a kind of second birth that originates from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative (Arendt, 1958, p. 177). Mackler modifies natality from beginning something in public to thinking in private and aims to explore how private thinking about meaning can become part of public discourse (p. 81). She explains that although thinking is inherently private, the products of thinkingwhat Arendt calls thought-thingscan be shared (p. 82) in public.
Few ideas are more crucial to understanding education, democracy, and the role of the university in democratic societies than the public, and few scholars have thought as carefully about the role of the public in democratic societies as Hannah Arendt. Arendts ideas about the public, however, are complex and confusing. Benhabib, for example, points out that Arendts public is both a space of appearance where people can see and be seen and a common world where they determine how to live together; further, people relate to one another in public spaces either by competing for attention and glory or by sharing their stories (Benhabib, 1996, pp. 125-127). Mackler chooses to emphasize Arendts common world version of the public where people share their stories and learn to visit others, that is, to see the world from different perspectives. Indeed, Mackler explains that we can think of each academic discipline and each author as a friend whose opinion we solicit as we seek the meaning of a new situation (p. 84), presumably in conversation (Oakeshott), or in dialogue (Gadamer) with one another.
While I have had some experience with the kind of dialogue that Mackler recommends in universities, such exchanges have been rare. Indeed, the 21st century university probably better exemplifies Arendts social-bureaucratic space with fleeting eruptions of the public as an agonal arena where professors compete for promotions and grants and students for grades and scholarships. Given, as Mackler writes, that in universities we lack a common means of communication (p. 9), getting from where we are to the kind of public that Mackler advocates (and why we should attempt the journey) might be clearer. Like Mackler, I believe that Arendt provides some important resources for such a journey, including her insistence that the public and private are not dichotomous, but interdependent. Following Arendt, getting from where we are to the hermeneutic university involves thinking about preparing people in private for a public world (and creating a public world which allows the private to be a sanctuary).
Indeed, the journey from the myopic present to a future where we recover the wisdom we have lost in knowledge (Eliott, 1934) will require returning to a debate about why we have universities anyway. Learning for Meanings Sake: Toward the Hermeneutic University is an erudite, useful, and provocative stimulus for such a dialogue. In the 20th century, universities became centers for an explosion of knowledge; perhaps, if we pay more attention to Stephanie Mackler, in the 21st century universities may become the centers of an accompanying explosion of understanding.
Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Books.
Benhabib, S. (1996). The reluctant modernism of Hannah Arendt. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Bernstein, R. J. (1983). Beyond objectivism and relativism: Science, hermeneutics and praxis. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Eliot, T. S. (1934). The rock. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Faust, D. H. (2009, September 6). The universitys crisis of purpose. The New York Times Book Review, p. 19.
Gadamer, H.-G. (1976). Philosophical hermeneutics (D.E. Linge, Trans. & Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Gadamer, H.-G. (1996). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D.G. Marshall, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1960.)