Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Criticism and the Empirical Attitude: Conversation with Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, UC Berkeley; 8/24/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Lessons Learned

I always try to end these interviews with "lessons learned." If we look back at the twentieth century, we see the power of many bad ideas, and you've demonstrated that with regard to one in particular idea, psychoanalysis. What would you advise students as they face the twenty-first century and the charlatans that will undoubtedly appear?

Well, it's not so much advising students as advising their instructors that the students should be exposed to the practice of reason. Crews and 20-month-old grandson reading newspaper; photo by Elizabeth Crews The students should be given the opportunity to choose between alternative ideas on the basis of evidence and logic. I think there are very few courses that are offered, including in the sciences, that do this. Most introductions to the sciences give the student an acquaintance with the present state of the field, but not with the criteria that make one idea more appealing than another to a given scientist. So I think we, as educators, need to elevate rational and empirical values to a higher place in the curriculum than it generally occupies.

And what discipline will that kind of teaching come out of? Or will it have to be interdisciplinary?

I think it can be done in just about any discipline, but I would also envision interdisciplinary efforts by master teachers. I think of someone like John Searle, who is such a charismatic teacher. He could do a wonderful course in exactly this kind of thinking that would be open to the whole freshman class. It would be given in the Greek Theater.

One final question. The contribution of the humanities to a liberal education is in decline.Is that a cause of concern to you?

Well, it's a cause of tremendous concern to me.

Crews and granddaughter planting bulbs; photo by Elizabeth Crews

I think our whole culture is becoming rapidly more technocratic and more materialistic. I think that money counts for more in the minds of students than it ever has before. Job security counts for a great deal, and you can't blame the students for that, but you can notice that it's the temper of the times. The idea that one's undergraduate years are a time of intellectual exploration is disappearing. Specialization is becoming earlier and earlier. I don't think the replacement of books by television and the Internet is such a hot idea. So yes, I think the decline of the humanities is very, very bad. In my own life I have felt that the free reading that I did, as well as the assigned reading that I did, have stood me in very good stead in all kinds of ways that I couldn't possibly have anticipated at the time. There's a storehouse of history and culture there in the back of your mind which gives you a basis of comparison, a way of distancing yourself from the hurly-burly around you. If I've been able to resist the pressure of conformity to trends, I think it's partly because I did get a pretty darn good exposure to points of view that were not my own and were not those of my time. Somewhere or other, they're part of my mind. I think, in the best of all possible worlds, everybody should have such opportunity.

Professor Crews, thank you very much for joining us today and talking about your intellectual odyssey. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California

See also: Photo gallery of Crews and his grandchildren.

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