intellectual empathy

A dispiriting essay from Alan Charles Kors at the New Criterion
The academic world I so loved revealed itself best in an undergraduate course I’d taken on the history of Europe in the twentieth century. When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the Left, returned the midterms to the hundred plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we’d saddened and embarrassed him. “I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions,” he explained, “but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear.” He informed us that he would add a major section to the final exam: “I’m going to assign the book I disagree with most about the twentieth century. I’m not going to ask you to criticize it, but, instead, to re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which he understands and analyzes the world.” I was moved by that. The work was Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and it changed the course of my intellectual and moral life. It also showed me immediately how I wanted to teach as an intellectual historian. Each year, I teach thinkers as diverse as Pascal and Spinoza, Hobbes and Butler, Wesley and Diderot. I offer courses on intellectual history, and the goal of my teaching is to make certain that my students understand the perspectives and rich debates that have shaped the dialogue of the West. I don’t want disciples of my worldview. I want students who know how to read deeply, how to analyze, how to locate the essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers, and, indeed, how to understand, with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought. I know that I am not alone, but I also know, alas, that I am in a distinct minority in my pedagogical goals in the humanities and the so-called social sciences.
Imagine a professor doing that today? Intellectual empathy! What a great concept.

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