Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism

Steve Volk, May 9, 2016

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Writing in the New York Times in late 1951, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed what he called a “new Decalogue” for teachers – intended to supplement, not replace the “old one” – as his response to the gathering fanaticism he perceived. As we have most certainly entered our own age of zealotry, it seems fitting to reproduce his words here:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition…endeavor to overcome it by argument any not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for it you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. [New York Times, December 16, 1951]

While some bright spots remain in the global political landscape – the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor, the first Muslim mayor in a western capital, stands out – the primary campaign season in the United States has seen intolerance and fanaticism take center stage. The campaign has produced a wholesale slide from (at least) modest regard for the truth to “spin,” “untruths,” and, finally, outright fabrications. According to one study, about three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are either “mostly false,” false, or “Pants-on-Fire” false. His statement that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed was only one of a string of invented “facts” and illusory assertions. It hasn’t helped that Trump pushed the boundaries of what one can say so far that almost any statement could be made, and believed, by trusting followers. Certainly the calumnies leveled against President Obama paved the way.

When asked to define the difference between politics and business, Carly Fiorina, a one time presidential candidate and Ted Cruz’s running-mate-for-a-week, replied, “Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know; about half of her statements were classified as “mostly untrue” or worse.

truthinessStephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to people who will claim something is true because they just know it since it feels right in their gut. Presidential candidates are not alone as they trek through abundant fact-free deserts. And it is not a stretch to argue that the candidates are only following the evidence that many of their supporters have grown accustomed to hearing only what they want to hear, and believing only what they want to believe.

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” majorities in 97% of U.S. counties disagreed. We’re not even talking about whether global warming is happening, just what scientists believe. In fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Jenny McCarthy, a model and television host, was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular program where she (McCarthy) once again affirmed that vaccines and mercury cause autism. When asked where her information came from, she replied, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.” (I’ll leave to others a discussion of the rise of the internet as the single most important factor in the democratization of information…as well as its almost inevitable replacement of rational argument with emotional name calling and narcissism.)

Teaching and Facts

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

While the tumble into truthiness and the rise of the internet expert should be of concern to all citizens, it is a particularly consequential development for those of us whose work it is to train students to value evidence, question sources, and approach broad claims with a degree of skepticism. We would do well to ponder precisely the value of our work as  teachers in higher education in light of the fact that the absence of a college degree is probably the single most important characteristic of a Trump voter.

And yet to maintain the democratizing work of higher education and not see colleges and universities return to their characteristic state as a sanctuary of privileged access is becoming more and more difficult. If the cost of attending private colleges and universities has been spiraling up, the real surge in tuition costs in the 21st century has been in the public sector. Sticker-price tuitions at private colleges and universities have increased by 45% between 2000-2001 and 2015-16 (17% in terms of net tuition increases); they have almost doubled at public institutions, and the reason isn’t hard to find. Legislators have removed their support of higher education as a public good.

ChartAfter all, why pay for expertise when Google can tell you what you need to know for nothing? Why should the public pay for anthropologists and philosophers and art historians when we need plumbers and welders? Indeed, why should the public pay for plumbers and welders when private enterprise should be giving them the training they need? Or, perhaps even more pertinent for those legislators slashing state education budgets: why use taxes to pay for a skeptical public who will then question their legislative priorities?

But we should not rush to congratulate ourselves for having created an insulated “bubble” where rational discourse and capacious skepticism naturally thrive and guide our interactions. We are hardly immune from the larger trends outside the liberal arts enclave. Social media whips us about every bit as much as it does those beyond our gates, if not more so for being an inward-facing community. Ironically – tragically? – discussions among colleagues who share many perspectives can seem to pose even greater challenges than conversations with strangers.

And yet we are not powerless at this time and in the face of such trials. But the question remains, how do we advance our work, and build our community, so that it is instructed more by Russell’s “decalogue” than by Trump’s demonology? How do we maintain oases of critical thinking in this terrain of truthiness? How do we establish not just the basis on which we can contest and evaluate ideas, but indicate to our students the value of what we are doing?

One way is simply to reaffirm the goals we champion for our students, and to assert them to ourselves as well. What we want for our students is no less than what we hope for ourselves.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

At Oberlin we have recently completed a process of specifying learning outcomes for students in the College of Arts & Sciences, not as a list of bullet points to satisfy some external reviewers, but as a part of a much deeper discussion of what it is we hope our students will take with them when they graduate. There are many ways in which our learning outcomes will resemble those at other liberal arts colleges, as indeed they should. Prominent among these is the importance we see in cultivating in our students the ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence. As an educational and intellectual community, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties that entails, and we maintain the significance of fact-based evidence in any analysis. We will surely disagree on many points and in many contexts, but we are committed to engaging in a process whose procedures are clear and which have lent meaning to intellectual disputes for centuries and in many cultural contexts.

So perhaps, as we come to the end of what has been a challenging school year, we can reflect on those goals we share for our students, the values we hope our graduating seniors will build upon for many years to come. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, that “Without anxiety there is no courage.” We have anxiety in excess. It remains for us to find the courage to recognize a way forward, a process that can begin by reaffirming those aspects of our students’ learning that we most value.

The statement of learning outcomes, which is excerpted and rephrased below for purposes of brevity, was passed by the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty in December 2015 and can be read in full here. One short of a decalogue, it can still guide our work.

As a faculty, we value:

  1. The ability to become deeply immersed in a single field of study. Concentrating profoundly in a field allows students to understand the logic and epistemology, assumptions and methodologies of a particular approach. Such engagement generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches and the production of original work.
  2. The importance of being open to a wide breadth of knowledge, the scope of which spans scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. We want our students to be acquainted with the wide variety of ways that humans have asked and answered questions in the past and the present, within the traditions of western culture as well as within other cultural frameworks and ways of knowing so they can better appreciate that deep understanding draws on a variety of approaches and traditions.
  3. The ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence, and to understand the context in which evidence is produced. To become engaged participants in their own education, students must learn how to learn. The central tools in this process are those of critical analysis: an understanding that assumptions, approaches and conclusions must be tested, and that claims are to be examined in light of evidence. To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in the face of its limits. To become skilled at critical analysis, one must develop a number of different capacities, specifically the ability to conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.
  4. Our students’ participation in, and appreciation of, the creative process as an important aspect of what it means to be human. We widely recognize creativity as a central component in the arts, and have long valued the expressive talents of our students. Creativity is also a cognitive process that underlies the work of our students across many fields and endeavors. Creativity implies the capacity to generate new ideas, approaches, or hypotheses, the skills involved in planning, and the determination and resources needed to bring an idea to life: in the concert hall and the classroom, on stage, the athletic fields, and in the laboratory, in the community and with the community.
  5. The ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. As the world is increasingly drawn together, we understand that our students will need to develop the skills and cultural competencies needed to interact effectively in languages other than English and through a variety of means, including visual, quantitative, and digital.
  6. The ability of our students to develop a critical understanding of the historical and cultural factors that underlie difference and inequality in U.S. and global societies. It is our responsibility not only to bring together a diverse community of students, but also to place our students in the epistemological, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks where they can learn to interact across the differences they encounter. Truly engaged learning requires the presence of diverse learning communities and the reduction of barriers to inclusion at every level.
  7. The ability to engage effectively with others as they work to understand and address complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Developing the practice of successful collaboration also entails a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of the relationship between individual initiative and the potential of working with others.  Collaborative efforts should increase one’s openness to working not just across disciplinary approaches, but also alongside those with whom one may disagree.
  8. The ability of our students to develop an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future. Oberlin’s long history of challenging some of this country’s gravest inequities underlines the responsibility our graduates feel to acting beyond narrow self-interest, of working together to create local and global communities that are more just, equitable, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable. These are lifelong ethical commitments that can be pursued via a wide range of careers pathways and social commitments.
  9. The ability to cultivate those habits that support healthy and sustainable living, responsible and empathetic interactions with others, and a capacity for self-reflection and contemplation. Our students should carry with them a strong ethical and moral grounding, a capacious curiosity, a broad capacity for empathetic engagement, an awareness of their own physical and mental well-being, and an understanding of the importance of being responsible in the world, along with the humility to recognize their own limitations.

Father Daniel Berrigan died this past week at the age of 94. The Jesuit priest, committed over his long life to peace and social justice, composed his own Decalogue in a 1981 book titled, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. One seems particular apt for today: “About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

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