This series on the formation of an academic habit of mind will probably end up being in five parts. I’ve written about primary and secondary education. I’m now going to write about “higher” or “post-secondary” education, then graduate school, and then a career in research. In all cases, I’m trying to focus attention on how we know things, rather than what we know. Indeed, I’m worried that in our eagerness to get students, and, later, citizens, to believe particular things we are undermining their ability to make reasoned judgments about what is true or false. Sometimes, I want to suggest, you have to let someone arrive, for the moment, at what you think is the wrong conclusion, on pain of undermining their ability to think.
I’m generally in sympathy with those who think that today’s undergraduates are being subjected to an outrageous demand for “political correctness”. These students are being told that there is nothing wrong with being gay, but there is something very wrong with thinking that there is something wrong with being gay. They are told to be acutely conscious of the history of oppression of women and minority groups, and yet that their suspicion that gender or race or disability is a marker of inexorable differences between people is simply a continuation of that history of oppression. They are told that a whole series of “questions” that they might have aren’t really questions at all, but refusals to listen to what other people say. They are being told not to ask those questions. They are being told the answers to them.
Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about students who are usually between 17 and 23 years of age. My own ideas about the culture I lived in were undergoing radical changes during this time. If I had not learned to empathise with my younger self, I would be continuously cringing at the thoughts and feelings I cultivated at that age. Many of them were just wrong and silly, but some of them were seriously “incorrect”. Some of them were racist and some were sexist. Some of them were attempts to justify my privilege and some of them were the false problems that such privilege suggests. I don’t claim to have corrected all my views, but I do think I remain corrigible.
Though I was not aware of it very explicitly, I think I enjoyed, in my undergraduate days, (the early 1990s) what Steve Fuller has since taught me to call “the right to be wrong”. That is, I was allowed to express my beliefs, no matter how erroneous, albeit always at the risk of being corrected by my peers about how wrong I was. I had the right to be wrong, we might say, but not the right to remain blissfully ignorant about what is right. I was entitled to hold my beliefs, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, but not to remain in the dark about that evidence.
Perhaps this was the privilege of being a philosophy major. But I think it applied quite generally at the university I attended. The “right to be wrong” is in effect wherever it is possible to succeed as long as your arguments are sound and reasonable, regardless of the conclusions you reach. In an important sense, you could be a homophobe in those days as long as you weren’t a bigot about it. It wasn’t about the beliefs you held, but the way you held those beliefs. It was not about your conclusions but about your comportment.
Today, words are considered acts, and sometimes even acts of violence; underlying sentiments are deemed right or wrong, and to even look at another person in a certain frame of mind is deemed inappropriate, oppressive, hurtful. So I worry about today’s students. It must be impossible to think under those conditions, acutely aware of a whole list of “thoughts” that, no matter what your basis might be for thinking them, reveal that you are already a contemptible person. We have these absurd cases now of students being expelled for the “micro-aggression” of reading a book that is merely about the incorrect view in public.
In our eagerness to make universities “safe places” for people of all races, genders, creeds, backgrounds and orientations, we have forgotten how fundamentally “safe” a college education simply is by nature. There are few if any sticks and stones wielded on campus (certainly not in the course of their daily studies by students against students, though sometimes, let’s grant, they’ll be involved in clashes between demonstrators and police.) There are just lots of words. And, while there is a certain competitiveness and lots of social intrigue, it is subtended by a great deal of freedom, to change courses, majors, and even universities, to leave a party or to stay home in the first place. Most importantly, there is the certainty that it will soon end–at the end of the semester and, ultimately, with the granting of the degree.
As I’ve said before, school is a leisure activity. It lacks the seriousness of “real life” and should therefore be a place where a broader range of experimentation is allowed, where a greater freedom of expression can be afforded. We should not be so keen to identify and denounce particular beliefs that people hold. Instead, we should seize upon those beliefs as occasions to form a properly “intellectual” way of holding them. Though it may feel odd, we have to make people better at holding beliefs we don’t agree with. After all, being good at holding a belief means being able to change your mind about it in the light of evidence.