Friday, January 20, 2012

On Teaching Students to "Think For Themselves"

Here are three questions every university professor must answer:
  1. Should university education be "unbiased"?
  2. Should professors teach students "what to think" or should they teach them "how to think"?
  3. Should a student expect a professor to come to class, lay out a range of conflicting views on a certain topic (eg. economic theories about creating jobs in a recession, whether Aristotle is misogynist, whether the British Empire was a force for good or evil in the world, various views on abortion or euthanasia or war, Milton's view of free speech, or Mill's no harm principle) and then invite the students to choose which one to accept?
I think each of these questions is more difficult to answer than one one might think at first glance.

First, let's take the third question, which asks about what I call the "cafeteria approach to forming one's opinions." Now, I understand that many of my students come to my classes expecting professors to function like the operators of the campus cafeteria. Here are four (or three or five) views on this subject: pick the one you like best.

They think this way for several reasons. For one thing, they have never experienced any form of education that did not avow this as the goal except for the hard sciences, which most of them have not studied at a rigorous level. Even those who understand that the hard sciences do not traffic in personal opinions seem to think that the humanities and social sciences are completely different on this point. So even if they are not relativists about the hard sciences, they usually are about ethics, literature and politics. (This often applies even to students who are committed Christians!)

If there is one lesson most students learn from twelve years of public school it is that they have the personal right to choose - except when they don't. The point is that in matters concerning their own bodies they have the right to be total, postmodern relativists and make up their own morality, but in matters of government, taxes, money, language and politics they must conform to group think. This is what contemporary educational theory is designed to teach and does teach very effectively.

All reality is divided into the realms of the "private" and the "public." They are convinced that it is perfectly fine to hold any view you choose on "private" issues and utterly heinous to depart from group think on "public" issues. On private issues you can have any opinion you like; on public issues you must think like the herd. However, they never get around to thinking about why various issues get assigned to each category. It never seems to intrigue them that sexual behavior used to be private and sexual morality public and now it has been reversed so that sexual behavior is public and sexual morality is private. Why is that? "Dunno, just is" many would say.

Thus, they are essentially confused about the foundations of truth, goodness and beauty. But they think their mixed-up views are sane and logical simply because they derive their opinions from the majority of authority figures in the culture.

When they encounter me, however, they are often quite shocked to realize that I do not think they have the right to choose their own truth in private matters and I actually encourage rebellion against the group think known as "political correctness" on public matters. I'm authoritarian where they have been taught to glorify the romantic rebel against authority and rebellious where they have been taught to be meekly submissive!

Unlike secular, public educational theory, I believe that there is a vast difference between the right to choose for yourself and the right to think for yourself. I believe that everyone has the right to think for himself, but also that, having thought carefully about an issue, one must bow to the objective truth on that issue instead of choosing the view that is most congenial or comfortable to oneself.

It is "pedagogical prostitution" simply to teach what the "customer" wants to hear and it is irresponsible in the extreme to present a range of true, partly true, partly false and false opinions as if they were equal in status. In fact, to teach this way is to teach epistemological relativism in practice no matter what one says in theory.

Does this mean one only teaches the "one, true view" of every issue? No, of course not. It simply means that, even when presenting views one does not hold, one recognizes and admits openly that one is coming from a particular perspective. I notice that this makes some students uncomfortable and, when that happens, the most common response is to accuse me of "bias" as if I wasn't supposed to have any - or more realistically - was not supposed to admit openly that I have any. It is as if the mere assertion that one is unbiased does the trick. But of course it doesn't in actual practice. To avoid accusations of bias, it has to be followed up by a relativistic listing of options and an invitation to the student to choose according to his own, personal, irrational preferences. As soon as it becomes clear you won't do that, the accusation of bias comes back like a shot.

As for the second question, it should be clear by now that it presents a false dilemma because the only way to teach students how to think is to challenge the late modern and false idea that discovering truth is an act of the will - a choice - and advocating the traditional and true idea that discovering truth is an act of submission of the will to reality itself. It is not submission of the will to the professor any more than it is a submission of the will to "political correctness," "leftist media elites" or "the authority figures of pop culture." We teach students to think by getting them to think instead of lazily just choosing. Our goal is to teach them to think, not to merely to let the exercise of the will lazily substitute for rational deliberation. The more they actually think the more they will come to see the poverty and nihilism of just choosing.

As for the first question, it would seem that we have a paradox: the university can only be truly unbiased by being biased. How so? A professor must be biased toward the truth as he honestly and sincerely sees it, but he he must make it clear that his opinion is not the standard of truth in itself. How can this be done?

Most importantly, a professor must, (like the preacher), point away from himself to something that stands higher than any individual opinion and try to get the student to see it for himself. Now, the fact that the student does not, at any given moment, see the truth in the same way is not as important as that the student understands that the truth itself is different from both the professor's opinion and the student's preference. The student must learn that this is so even when the professor's opinion happens to be true, just as much as it is when the professor's opinion happens to be false. Helping students develop a reverence for, and submissive spirit before, the truth is the greatest challenge of pedagogy. It is a delicate high wire act and extremely easy to mess up. For this reason, many professors lack the courage to teach well.

But if the professor seeks to exhibit no bias whatsoever, he must therefore treat truth and falsehood equally and to do this is to be a practicing relativist. And that is an ignoble betrayal of the teaching profession, for which love of wisdom and truth is the highest value.

So there must be academic freedom for both professor and student. Academic freedom for the professor will allow him to dissent from political correctness, majority opinion and cultural values that are false and in conflict with Christian truth. It thus frees the professor to stand for the truth as he sees it. Academic freedom for the student allows him to dissent from the professor's view without losing marks as long as the student has reasonable and fact-based arguments for doing so.

The grey area in adjudicating this delicate balance will arise from a clash of worldviews: the commitment to absolute truth that one hopes the Christian professor professes and the commitment to personal choice as higher than truth on private matters and the necessity of conforming to political correctness on public matters that the student has imbibed from secular education and the contemporary culture at large.

The result is a paradoxical situation: teaching students to think for themselves will necessitate a vigorous defense of truth and a refusal to allow students to say that it doesn't matter what a person chooses to believe because it is a personal choice. Some students will have to be drug through this door kicking and screaming and it won't feel to them like being made more broad-minded. It will feel like being indoctrinated - a curious paradox! But until they realize that the truth is not personal opinion - either their own or their professor's - they have not even learned that they need to think for themselves, let alone how to do so with excellence.

I tell my students that a real university education involves learning to detect, and allow for, biases because biases are everywhere - in the textbooks they read, in blog posts, in their professors, in their peers, in pop culture, in contemporary, public education etc. To expect a professor to be a safe island of objectivity in a seas of bias is unrealistic. I also tell them that open, professed, argued-for, biased beliefs are much less dangerous to them than unacknowledged, denied, presumed, biased beliefs. It is the latter for which they should especially be on the lookout.

When someone tells you that he is just "trying to help you learn to think for yourself," rather than "telling you what to think" your BS antennae should go up and a little red light should start flashing in your mind. For what comes next is likely to be either (1) a bid to get you to accept the idea that truth is a function of your personal choosing (inculcation in moral relativism) or (2) an attempt to persuade you that you have to accept the dicta of the politically correct police because that is what all right-thinking people do (inculcation in secularism).

Life is full of paradoxes.

1 comment:

Marc said...

Insightful and helpful. Thanks