The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them." ....Peter Ustinov.
Commentary of the Day - June 22, 2012: A Brief Essay on Beliefs in the Classroom. Guest commentary by John Brugaletta.
If I had the ability to turn back the clock both on my age and on my teaching career, one of the things that I would be anxious to change would be my attitude toward my beliefs. That is, I would soften my obstinate certainty about my own views on any subject under discussion in the classroom.
Certainly some conclusions in the teaching of literature are obvious: Shakespeare's greatness as a playwright and Shelley's florid romanticism; Herbert's engaging piety and Donne's tension between the spiritual and the erotic. But other matters are open for discussion: Are the language arts -- or any of the arts -- truly necessary for the good life? Does the Greek tragic playwrights' view of human life enrich or impoverish our own? Does Tolkien's one major opus place him on a par with T.S. Eliot?
The question of certainty versus uncertainty, which we once might have phrased as truth versus possibility, brings to mind politics in bed with religion. It has been said, and rightly I think, that religion infuses politics with too much certainty; if a health-care system is designed with certain religious tenets in mind as truths, the religious views will imbue political differences with the urgency of pure goodness versus a contaminating evil. No human opinion (and beliefs are, in the end, opinions), be it based upon however ancient and venerable a text or tradition, merits such worship.
It may also be said, and with parallel justice, that politics taint spirituality. If religious beliefs are just that, beliefs, then the pushing and shoving inherent in politics are like the 280-pound bouncer brought to a discussion on the problem of bullying in the schools. Force can only produce hypocrisy in such an otherwise open discussion.
I will not say, because I do not know, that our political entanglement was brought about by teaching methods, but it is at least possible that teaching ways to think reasonably might have improved the situation.
It would not be easier for the teacher. The ideal student should have the courage to learn enough about his ideological opponent's beliefs to defend them capably in debate. But he should also use his newly gained knowledge to reevaluate his own position and either inform it further or personally abandon it in favor of a belief that he can conscientiously accept as his own . And there is no reason to mix personal relationships, even family relationships, with the acceptance or rejection of ideas. There nearly always will be a substitutionary community that already believes as he has chosen to believe and will accept him as a member. For most people are afraid to think for themselves, afraid they will be ostracized by their current friends, who of course coalesced as a group because they believed similarly. But tribalism has seldom been helpful as a solution to polarization.
Still, the effort would probably produce a few better politicians, and they might influence to some extent their colleagues. Need I say that this could produce more moderates in congress? Would to God that it did, despite its making the nightly news less entertaining. As things stand, some so-called moderates can only mime the views of the opinion polls, shifting their stand with every wavering breeze, becoming finally as dizzy as the unshakable believer is stone headed. The genuine moderate would respect other opinions without necessarily adopting them all as his or her own. How is this to be achieved? That depends so much upon the individual situation as to be almost unanswerable as a principle, but education along those lines would almost surely not make matters any worse and could improve them.
© 2012, John J. Brugaletta.
John Brugaletta is an emeritus English professor, who taught at Cal State Fullerton for many years. He is well-known for his poetry.
The Irascible Professor comments: The issue of beliefs in the college classroom is a thorny one, particularly for those who teach in the humanities where just about every topic is subject to interpretation. Politicians and political pundits frequently get their dander up if they feel that their points-of-view on a particular issue are being given short shrift in the classroom.
This is less of a problem in the hard sciences, but even here the politicians and pundits often try to force instructors to give "equal time" to ideas and theories that are not particularly persuasive when compared to well-tested theories in areas that have been settled for a long time, such as evolution in biology and the big-bang theory in cosmology. There is more room for argument in recently developed areas such as climate change, but even here the data is becoming more persuasive and the models more predictive as each day passes. But, in the humanities, as John notes, there almost always is room for more than one opinion on an issue or a work. The idea of coming to grips with one's own beliefs and opinions, and of encouraging students to attempt to present arguments that may be contrary to their own beliefs is a good one. It's one that can work not only in the humanities, but in other areas where there may be open questions.
As an example, for many years the IP taught a course on energy and the environment. This is an area where the underlying science is well-settled for the most part. However, the effects of technological applications of the ideas often require practical trade-offs, and there may not be a single "best" answer to certain questions. In this situation, found it quite an appropriate and effective teaching tool to ask students to present a side of the argument that they might not personally agree with.
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