On changing student beliefs

Larry Sanger

I came across a very irritating post in the Coffee Theory blog by Greg Linster, and felt inspired to respond.  This began as a comment on his blog, but after a while it became too long for that, so I figured I’d just put it on my own blog.

Greg, you actually seem like a nice guy to me, so try not to take this personally.  I am surprised that you apparently did not notice that you were assuming that it is even permissible to indoctrinate your students; I’m surprised that you thought that the only serious question was whether you have a responsibility to do so.

I think it’s wrong–possibly morally wrong, but ill-advised, certainly–for college professors, and most other instructors, to presume to correct any of their students’ earnestly-held and not merely mistaken beliefs.  I have felt this way since I was a high school student.  The force of the neutral presentation of information and argumentation is usually enough to work its magic on an adequately receptive mind.  What about the inadequately receptive minds?  Indeed there might be some religious types who are so dogmatic that they might not be benefited by a college education (although I really doubt that); there are some who become so disgusted that they quit college and become thoroughly anti-intellectual.  But such people won’t be helped by the likes of Boghossian.  They’ll be helped by methods that are more neutral and respectful toward the views of the student.

The role of the teacher is to guide the student’s minds, not to force them–to point them in the right direction, or better, to lay out a pristinely clear map of the land–and leave it up to them to come to sincerely held beliefs that are, one hopes, truer and more nuanced than they were before.

As a college student, I always found the tendency of some college professors to teach their own pet views to be extremely annoying.  What I believe is my own business.  I have no desire to be part of your project to transform the world in your image; as a student, I regard myself as a free agent and merely want the tools to shape my own beliefs.  Indeed, a lot of college students (and for that matter, high school students) are especially irritated by the tendency of some professors (and teachers) to “indoctrinate” them.  Some students make decisions about where to go to college based on how much they can expect to be indoctrinated, or not.  Of course, the fact that a student finds a practice extremely irritating does not mean that it is a poor idea in itself; but the extremeness of the irritation is certainly suggestive.

My basic argument is that the aim of a liberal education is to train the mind to think independently and critically.  But berating students and indoctrinating them has the opposite effect, and for that reason is ruled out.  It leads them to understand that in the so-called “life of the mind,” we may lord it over others once we gain the authority to do so.  We do not persuade, we (at best) cajole, and if necessary pressure and even force, the minds in our care.  A mind that is in the habit of viewing intellectual disputes between professor and student as best settled not as a matter of rational disputation but instead by authority handing down the law, such as you and Boghossian (i.e., Peter Boghossian, not to be confused with a more distinguished philosopher, Paul Boghossian) maintain, is a mind that is not liberated to think critically.  (Boghossian’s article was, frankly, awful.  I’m embarrassed that it was written by a philosopher.)

Student beliefs in creationism merely require an application of the general rule here.  By all means, state the facts as scientists have uncovered them.  Sure, present the arguments for and against creationism; have the confidence that the latter will appear more plausible on their own merits; but do not berate or belittle students for disagreeing with you, do not mark down essays because they express objectively false theories (there might be exceptions to this rule, of course), and certainly do not require them to repudiate Creationism.  The best way to persuade them to give up cherished, but ill-supported and irrational beliefs, is to train them better in the habits of rational thought. And if you can’t do that, and have to resort to “repudiating” and “challenging” student opinions, you have no business teaching at an institution of liberal education.  I certainly wouldn’t want my sons taking classes from you, even if I share a scientific, nonbelieving attitude toward Creationism (as I do).  I would much rather have my sons taking classes from someone who will present the liveliest versions of all arguments and then challenge them to come to the most carefully-argued, nuanced view of the situation.

Boghossian’s problem isn’t precisely “intellectual arrogance.”  He is not wrong merely because he arrogantly assumes that he is correct in repudiating Creationism.  If this is the main argument against him, people are arguing against him for the entirely wrong reason.  He is wrong, instead, for attempting to bully his student into changing his beliefs.  This–not the professor’s confidence, but his bullying–does harm to the student’s mind and even character.

Greg, you cite a couple of examples of beliefs that, you say, one should certainly try to change in students.  First is the “belief” that 2+2=5; but this doesn’t even make any sense as an example for you to cite.  A person who says such a thing has a weird personality quirk that makes him say things the falseness of which is obvious, even to himself.  He might be a poet, or a jokester.  Why assume that a person who merely says that 2+2=5 actually holds an obviously false belief?  As Wittgenstein would say, we can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, with a grasp of math, to deny that 2+2=4.  (Of course, a person who had never learned enough math to grasp that 2+2=4 wouldn’t be in college.)  As to the believer in weird mythologies, it really depends on the case.  Some such people might need psychologists, not college professors.  A philosopher should not attempt such therapy.  Others might have accepted a weird pagan religion (such as “Odinism,” which I’ve come across online).  Are you seriously saying that it’s the job of college professors to disabuse people of their religious beliefs, if they are especially bizarre?  Aside from being well-nigh impossible, you’d be undermining the student’s respect for you as a teacher, and you’d be inculcating the view that it’s OK for him to push his weird views onto others if he ever gets into the position of teaching others.

So let’s set aside those two examples of beliefs-that-students-should-be-disabused-of.  Clearly, more common, real-world examples are more apt to resemble Creationism and thus be open to the objection I’ve raised above.

By the way, I think one of the reasons that so many academics today act like such pompous asses, confidently expounding from “on high” about things well outside their areas and de facto requiring their students to endorse their own worldview, is that their own professors got them into the habit.  They, too, were taught that the way to deal with students is not to liberate their minds, but to indoctrinate them.  Boghossian merely reports and defends the habits of some of his peers–and to that extent, he has that honesty that I quite frankly admire when I find it among philosophers.  If Boghossian is taking his own advice, he no doubt behaves like an ass toward his students, and his arguments on this point are crap.  But he has the admirable honesty to own up to an assumption lying behind his and so many of his colleagues’ practices of indoctrination.

In short, I find you and Boghossian embracing indoctrination as a pedagogical method.  Now, it might sound strange to call the inculcation of belief in the conclusions of science “indoctrination,” but it is not the quality of the belief that makes for indoctrination, it is the method whereby it is taught.  If you’re saying that you want to repudiate student belief, to label student beliefs as “mythology,” you’re not in favor of persuading recalcitrant students with argument; you want to shame them.

Of course, it should not be lost on anyone that there are several great ironies here.  The defenders of indoctrination are, of all things, philosophers. They are attempting to teach the values of science, which include, first and foremost, skepticism and the repudiation of dogmatism.  In so doing, they are seeking to replace dogmatically-held religious views–but with dogmatically-held scientific views, taught not by gentle persuasion and neutral presentation of fact and argument, but by “repudiation” and “labelling” of student views.

Sorry to be so pointed, but I really feel strongly about this, and have, as I said, since high school.

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