Thursday, September 1, 2016

Harry Berger on Multiple Interpretations

This week before Labor Day, news about economics tends to be scarce, while academics and teachers are looking ahead to the next term. In that spirit, I'm going to pass along some thoughts about teaching this week.

It sometimes seems to me that too much of education is about asking students whether they understand or don't understand, or whether they agree or disagree, both of which can be useful steps, but neither of which pushes a student to interrogate their own understanding more closely. Here's a comment from Harry Berger, a professor of literature and art history, that captures some of my concern on this point:
“The first and most important move every young citizen of the interpretive community should make is to perform the pledge of allegiance to interpretation, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea for students to learn a little piety with the move. So I urge all teachers everywhere to insist that their students begin every day by murmuring in unison, and with expression, dutifully and even prayerfully, the two parts of the primal invocation that will prepare all American children to question both church and state:
Let there be at least one unacceptable interpretation of any text.
Let there be at least two acceptable interpretations of any text.
This little pair of exhortations seems innocuous, but taken together and perused more closely they open up a space between dogmatism and indeterminacy; they establish textual boundaries that can be policed.”
The quotation is from from Berger's 2005 book Situated utterances: texts, bodies, and cultural representations (Fordham University Press, p. 494).