Since my last blog, I have continued to think about the value of teaching “the canon”—fundamental texts that have shaped the discipline. In psychology, what we think about as “the canon” certainly includes the work of Freud. We spent a few class sessions delving into his theories and what he fundamentally thought about human nature and behavior. We also spent one session deconstructing some of the gendered assumptions inherent in his theories. Like many of his peers at the time, Freud’s theories were embedded in patriarchal ideas about the superiority of men. In class, we looked at the concept of “penis envy”, a stage theorized by Freud regarding female psychosexual development in which he theorized that young girls experience a conflict upon realizing that they do not have a penis. This theory, among others, constructs womanhood through the absence of a penis, and reduces gender to anatomy. Feminist, queer, and trans perspectives on gender have long critiqued the patriarchal and colonial origins of our disciplines, which have reinforced systems of oppression and marginalized those who identify outside of the gender binary.
During our discussion of this theory and the ways in which Freud became more and more pessimistic about human nature as he grew older, students theorized together about the value of Freud’s theories today. I witnessed uncertainty from students about how to make a feminist critique without a fundamental understanding of how to identify when the knowledge they are exposed to is rooted in patriarchal values. Patriarchy is able to sustain itself for this very reason—it is invisible, until made visible. This moment reminded me of the work that we need to continue to do to equip students with a critical lens, and how difficult it is to balance teaching “the canon” and critiquing it. In another class, students talked about whether they thought that humans inherently would destroy one another without laws and systems in place to instill fear in people of the consequences of acting based on their “human instincts”. One student remarked that if there were no concrete consequences to our actions, humans would kill each other. I realized in that moment that for so many students, it is difficult to imagine a world where people would choose community over the individual because of all of the ways we are pitted against each other every day. I wanted to ask about how living under capitalism plays into their understandings about human nature, whether they could imagine a different world. I was reminded of why I want to teach—to help students imagine a different world.