Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Certainty and Uncertainty

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald

I had an interesting discussion in my English 100 class this morning. We were discussing an essay called "The High Cost of Manliness," which basically argued that current cultural ideas about masculinity are toxic and destructive. The author, Robert Jensen (a different Robert Jensen than the one who works at Fullerton College) describes the current idea of masculinity like this: "men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest, and domination." He goes on to argue that this idea of masculinity leads to sexism, rape, war, and lots of the problems that beset society.

I thought it was an interesting article, and was expecting a lively discussion. What I got instead were students being pretty defensive about their ideas of masculinity. Even some of the women in the class disagreed with the author, arguing that masculinity is generally a good and natural thing. It surprised me a little. I played devil's advocate, arguing on the author's behalf, trying to drum up some good discussion, but instead I felt like I was offending people and even hurting their feelings. Who was I to question their ideas of masculinity, or femininity for that matter?

As I walked home from class, I thought: Did I do something wrong? Isn't my job to challenge students, to help them consider alternative points of view, and to think critically? I thought back to my early college days. How did I feel when professors challenged my strongly-held beliefs? If I am honest, I remember getting pretty defensive. I don't remember talking about masculinity, but I do remember talking about religion and faith. I remember arguing with professors, and sometimes getting angry when they challenged my beliefs. When I finally began to question my beliefs, it was a long and painful process. It is disorienting to re-consider long-held beliefs.

I believe one of the chief benefits of college is that it teaches you to re-evaluate long-held beliefs. But today I remembered something I had forgotten--this process can be difficult and painful. As an academic now, I relish arguing with people about religion, politics, culture. But for your average college freshman, such arguments can be new and, in fact, scary. They were for me.

I remember, somewhere in the middle of my college career, being introduced to William Perry's model of intellectual and ethical development, and totally relating to it. Perry's scheme suggests that students' intellectual development, generally speaking, follows four stages:

1.) Dualistic Thinking: Students generally believe knowledge is certain and unambiguous: black/white, right/wrong, questions have immutable, objective answers, and authorities possess valuable wisdom that contains eternal truths.

2.) Multiplicity: Students come to believe that where uncertainty exists, knowledge and truth are essentially subjective and personal.

3.) Contextual-Relativism: Students come to believe that even where uncertainty exists, people must make choices about premises, frameworks, hypotheses, and theories to apply; conclusions are not self-evident.

4.) Context-Appropriate Decisions: Students may come to acknowledge that choices require analysis and values. Knowledge, theories, and methods are imperfect and uncertain, thus personal choices require acknowledging personal responsibility that follows from personal values.

Socrates suggested that the beginning of education is admitting that you do not know something. Higher education is about seeking to understand, but also being okay with uncertainty. After college, you can no longer believe something "just because." All beliefs must be evaluated, thought about, carefully considered. I understand, from personal experience, that this process is hard and disorienting.

People who approach college with the idea that they will simply be memorizing lots of information miss the point, I think. As a teacher, I see my chief function as teaching students not WHAT to think, but HOW to think--how to analyze, compare, research, discuss, dissect, and decide for themselves.

Let's transition now to post-college. It's one thing to talk about this stuff in the classroom, but what is even more interesting is how these ideas play out in real life, in the real world. I ask myself: Is this critical method the way that most adults come to their strongly-held beliefs and conclusions, about religion, culture, masculinity, politics? I'm not so sure. I would suggest that most adults adopt beliefs that are convenient to their lives and leave it at that.

I am no exception. Let's use political beliefs as an example. Growing up, I would have identified myself as a conservative Republican. This wasn't because I had carefully studied the works of conservative political philosophers like Edmund Burke. I knew very little about the Republican party. I was a conservative Republican because that's what my family and my church community seemed to suggest was the "right" position.

As I got along in my college career, I noticed that most academics seemed to be the opposite of what my family and church was. Most academics were liberal Democrats. I learned a little about what "liberal" and "Democrat" meant, and soon found myself adopting those beliefs, partly, I suppose, to fit in.

When I got out of college, I broadened my political horizons, read a little about communism, socialism, anarachism. At various times, I would have defined myself as a socialist, a communist, even possibly some form of anarchist (for a while I called myself an "anarcho-syndicalist"). Now, I have difficulty identifying with any political party or belief system. I take things issue-by-issue.

So what's my point? Critical thinking about long-held beliefs is not just something for college. It ought to be a life-long process. I am always a little startled when I see adults aligning themselves so strongly, so full of certainty, with a particular political party, or religion, or belief, which is how a lot of adults are. Some people are so passionately libertarian or republican or democrat. My exhortation to these people is the same exhortation I give to my students: think critically. Yes, uncertainty can be scary...but certainty can be even scarier.

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