Friday, August 24, 2012

Professor Says Students Showed 'Religious Arrogance And Bigotry' In A Letter

From the Huffington Post, courtesy, once again, of a facebook friend:

Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.

Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life's most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.

More here.

If you click through and read the letter in its entirety, you'll see why this professor felt the need to defend what is essentially the purpose of university education in the first place, but here's the short version: classroom discussion about various religions was disrupted, on two consecutive days, by what are apparently militant Christian students, people who are so into their beliefs that they couldn't even entertain the notion that others see the universe differently. This, in itself, is a bit shocking, but not terribly surprising when you look at the sorry state of civic discourse in the US these days.

Five or six decades ago, such learning was noncontroversial, and most students graduating from colleges and universities came out well equipped to critically analyze the world in which they were operating. And it showed. The United States was a thinking nation, one that was not afraid to examine itself and its trajectory through history. Our leaders were people who read literature, and weren't afraid that they would seem too elitist for doing so--indeed, Robert Kennedy changed his mind on capital punishment simply because he had been reading Camus. There was such a thing as the "public intellectual," academics who stayed out of the ivory tower and mingled with regular ordinary people, engaging them in intellectual conversation, delighted that work-a-day Joes were completely capable of keeping up with them. No, we weren't perfect, but everything was in place for movement toward perfection, or, at least, a better America.

But something happened between then and now. It's hard to say exactly what, but there are a few obvious factors. Universities, following Henry Ford's industrial model, became so insanely specialized that public intellectuals, who understood a little bit about a whole lot, all but disappeared from the national discourse. Meanwhile, the American public began to see university education as job training, an economic investment in an individual's future, rather than an end in itself, which meant the incremental downsizing of humanities programs, the fields dealing with exactly the topics mentioned in the excerpt above, such that liberal arts majors, who once comprised about half or more of all undergraduate enrollment, are now below ten percent. Around the same time, conservative think tanks began to pump out their own brand of "public intellectual" to fill the vacuum created by the disappearance of actual public intellectuals: needless to say, these kinds of right-wing demagogues represent the polar opposite of honest critical analysis. And television began to numb our minds and perceptions.

The net result is that America, as a nation, is now as mind-addled as if we had been hitting the bong, morning, noon, and night, for decades. Facts and fiction have merged. Shouting wins arguments. It is impolite to rock one's world by explaining with evidence and facts that their views are wrong. It may not be as extreme as Mike Judge's Idiocracy, but it's probably about as close as we can get in the real world.

And it seems like there's no way out.