Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why it's okay to call people stupid...sometimes...sort of...

It's never been particularly polite to insult people in public. But often people say dumb or questionable things. Challenging such foolishness was once the duty of a reasoned citizenry, but now practically consider such behavior rude. What went wrong?

It seems to me that we've mistakenly sacrificed our ability to "call bullshit" on the altar of pluralism. And I say mistakenly because I believe we fundamentally misunderstand what it means to live in a pluralist society. Opinions are not meritorious simply by virtue of the fact that you hold and express them. Opinions deserve a voice in the marketplace of ideas, but the very notion of a marketplace assumes the existence of competition; therefore, all thoughts and ideas must be subject to ridicule if we ever hope to achieve any semblance of consensus on which ideas hold water.

In an effort to avoid giving offense, we shy away from applying much needed ridicule. This is costing us dearly, and perhaps because I work as a professor, nowhere is it more evident to me than in the classroom.

Generally, I shy away from bashing millennials (probably because I am one), but I found myself agreeing with many of Caitlan Flanagan's arguments about the decline of college education -- though I find her thoughts on "farm to table dining" and "idiot politically correct humanities curriculum" to be either misinformed or non sequiturs. Still, I agree that universities should offer a means through which students might "be relieved of [a] great burden of ignorance."

Constructive criticism is the educator's greatest friend. I can remember very vividly my first semester of college. I was fortunate enough to take Communication 201 with William Thompson, who not only had no qualms challenging your ignorance, he rather enjoyed it -- almost sadistically, in point of fact. He saw it as his duty to expand the way in which his students viewed particular issues, and not just those related to the communication subject matter.

I also had the great fortune of studying English 105 with Dr. Dennis Hall. Regularly -- by which I mean weekly -- he made it his mission to put my ignorance on display. He often read aloud to the class passages of my meager attempts at writing, opening the floor to waves of public critique. I was offended and embarrassed, but I never spoke out for a very simple reason: his criticisms were completely valid. In speaking with him privately at the close of the semester, he confessed that he actually thought my writing was a bit better than what my peers were producing, but he feared I would become complacent and fail to improve if I weren't challenged. Right again! Hall motivated me, and my writing -- such that it is -- would be much worse without his instruction.

I went on to take three more electives with Thompson and two more with Hall over the next four years, and both men served on my honors thesis committee. The challenges, ridicule, and occasional outright scorn they applied were never meant as personal affronts. They encouraged me to think more broadly, to act with clearer purpose, and to become a more well-rounded, functioning individual.

Now, as I transition into my position as an assistant professor, I inherit these responsibilities. Problematically, the waters are much more treacherous than they were even a decade ago -- or perhaps just as treacherous and I simply didn't recognize the struggle from the vantage of my comfortable lounge chair, rooted firmly in the sandy shore.

Perhaps my critiques must be subtler. Every semester I teach writing, and I always enforce this rule: it's better to show it than to tell it. My point here is twofold. One, if you can back up your claim with evidence, people take it more seriously. Two, if you have a hard time finding evidence for your claim, perhaps it holds no merit. Admittedly, this is a rather meager challenge, but it's a start.

It's rather easy for me to critique assignment, but it's immensely more difficult to critique ideas. Tenure and promotion for junior and adjunct faculty are to some degree determined by a flawed student evaluation system. The easiest ways to boost evaluation scores are to dole out mostly As and Bs -- which leads to grade inflation, a concern among some -- or to get students to just plain like you. Higher grades help in this regard, as do minimizing assignments and dodging confrontations. But having beliefs and ideas confronted and challenged defines education, and it's downright necessary when someone makes a stupid or unfounded claim.

Generally, I've been fortunate to teach many bright students, but I have heard some express a variety of what I and the scientific majority consider stupid or ill-informed opinions. When a student remarks that evolution is "just a theory," should I point out that overwhelming evidence for the process of evolution suggests otherwise? When a student suggests that the universe is only  a few thousand years old, should I direct him or her to the eloquent remarks of Lawrence Krauss, who explains quite clearly how cosmologists determine the age of the universe to be around 13.72 billion years? When a student argues that vaccines cause autism, should I explain the difference between causation and correlation -- and should I also point out that this fallacious notion arose from erroneous studies and that even organizations like Autism Speaks agree that no scientific evidence exists to support such a claim? When a student argues that global warming is a hoax, should I point out that there is virtually undeniable evidence that the planet is indeed getting hotter, that human beings are contributing to this warming, that we are currently experiencing the early effects of climate change, that there is vast consensus among climatologists on all these points, and that the inability among lay persons to distinguish between climate and weather is a chief contributor to unwarranted skepticism? When a student claims Donald Trump would make a good president, should I abruptly kill him or her for the betterment of our species?

All tough questions.

Most days I feel trapped in a Catch 22, where doing my job effectively puts my job security at risk. That dilemma, perhaps as much as any other single factor, is a major reason for the declining quality of American education -- at all levels. As a scholar of ethics, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that I have a moral obligation to make students uncomfortable if it helps them learn. William Thompson, Dennis Hall, and Leon Festinger will at least be proud.