History and Critical Theory

One of my most vivid memories of high school was a beloved former teacher of mine saying, citing Thorstein Veblen, that education was a “leisure class activity.”

Whether or nor this is an accurate characterization of Veblen’s views, I remember howling at this statement. Sure, I thought, things like history and philosophy could be idle diversions for some. For others, however, especially (but by no means uniquely) those on the wrong side of a class, racial, gender, religious, sexual, or other divide, they were emancipatory disciplines, to borrow a term from Habermas (whom I didn’t hear about until college).

They weren’t leisure activities, I remember saying back. They were survival strategies. I only remember two other things: my classmates looking at me like I was from another planet, and my dear old teacher smiling at me.

Anyway, tonight I came across a quote that brought back that old memory in a wonderful way. Ostensibly about women, I think the point generalizes nicely across all forms of injustice rooted in inequality, as well as to those choosing the difficult but rewarding path of facing their family or personal history:

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (h/t @sacredflow)

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