Throughout his diaries in 1984, Winston raises the question of how it is possible to awaken the Proles. Around these parts, we engage in nuanced analyses of ideology and raise questions of how it might be possible for subjects to depart from dominant forms of social organization. However, grading my students quizzes and critical thinking assignments, I wonder if these forms of ideological critique are not already too optimistic. In my introductory philosophy courses, I give my students very simple quizzes, designed to foster their reading skills and their ability to identify arguments. Thus, for example, I might quote a passage from their text and ask them to answer a series of questions:

In The Way Things Are, Lucretius writes:

Do listen– I don’t want you to suppose
White atoms form those white things that you see
Before your eyes, or that black objects come
From particles of black. Never believe
That any visible color is derived
From motes of that color. Basic elements
Simply do not have color, none at all,
In that respect being neither like nor unlike
The larger forms they fashion. You’d be wrong
To think imagination can’t be conceived
Of objects lacking color. Those born blind,
Who never have seen the sunlight, learn by touch
The sense of bodies, though ideas of color
Mean nothing to them, and color-concept
Is by no means absolute…

All right, then: first-beginnings have no color,
But they do differ in shape, and from this cause
Arise effects of color variation.
It makes a world of difference in what order
They form their combinations, how they are held,
How give, take, interact. For example,
Things black a little while ago turn white,
All shining white, as dark sea can change
From sullen black to the shine of dancing marble
When the great winds go sweeping over the waves. (pgs. 72 – 73)

1. What claim is Lucretius attempting to disprove or refute in this passage?

2. What observational evidence does Lucretius give to support his thesis that this claim is false?

3. According to Lucretius, if color (and other qualities) does not emerge from colored atoms, then what does produce these qualities? (You will find his theory in the passage).

Nothing could be more simple than such an assignment. I give the passage. I have chosen a text that minimizes Lucretius’ poetry. And I ask very simple, straightforward questions. Yet the results are astonishing and truly depressing. Many students claim that Lucretius is trying to prove that qualities like color are a product of the imagination or mind, despite the fact that the passage says nothing of the sort. In response to the second question, a number of students refer to the blind man to support the thesis that atoms do not have color– saying the blind man can “imagine” colors –despite the fact that the blind man is evoked to make a very different point. Few point to the discussion of waves, or use their knowledge of atomism developed over weeks as observational evidence. Finally, a number of students respond to question three by appealing, once again, to imagination rather than combinations.

Matters are even more depressing in my critical thinking course. When confronted with an argument like “Of course Chines green tea is good for your health. If it weren’t, how could it be so beneficial”, a large number of students claim that the writer is misplacing the burden of proof rather than making a circular argument or begging the question… This after spending weeks studying all sorts of fallacies and numerous examples of these fallacies. Admittedly, circular arguments can be extremely difficult to identify (and are disturbingly common). However, matters go further than this. When confronted with an argument such as “Perhaps Julia has a ‘university’ degree, but she just isn’t qualified for the job”, many students claim that the speaker or writer is saying something positive about Julia, failing to recognize that the square quotes denote sarcasm. When confronted with the statement “Socialized Health Care– All the compassion of the IRS with the efficiency of the U.S. Post Office”, a number of students thought the writer was speaking positively about Socialized Health Care, rather than engaging in sarcasm and ridicule… That is, there is a fundamental inability to read tone. Admittedly, the issue here might be a lack of background knowledge regarding the IRS. Yet still, the use of “efficiency” in relation to the Post Office should clue the student off.

Perhaps I am a horrible teacher, though I’m not so sure. The fact that these reading difficulties occur in both the critical thinking course and my various philosophy courses suggests something else is going on. It seems that we have a fundamentally passive relationship to language, such that language works on us rather than us reflecting on how language is seeking to affect us and mold our thought in a particular way. Reading words on a page, sounding them out, is not yet reading. Rather, to read one must pause, distance himself from what is read, and reflect on what the text is doing to ones thought. Yet this, apparently, is an incredibly difficult skill to develop. When people have very poor reading and listening skills, it is difficult to have much faith in the efficacy of nuanced ideological analyses. The most rudimentary critical thinking, reading, and listening skills aren’t even there. It terrifies me to think that we are so passive with respect to language. We become marionettes of words and speakers, without any skills to resist. Prior to being a critical thinker one must first develop critical consciousness. Such a consciousness requires a minimal distance from language. Yet how is such a distance produced? I do not know. Such things do, however, fill me with despair.