Thursday, March 4, 2010

How Political Correctness Stifles Intellectual Correctness: An Ivy League Experiment

By Barry Rubin

A friend just told me about an experience he had teaching at an Ivy League university that sums up a lot of the problem with American education nowadays.

One day he went into his history class and began lecturing with a long and spirited defense of slavery. The students were amazed and appalled, asking “How can you say such things?”

Let me interrupt here to make two points. First, none of the students apparently seemed to think he might not mean what he was saying, which tells how much they have become used to hearing only what has already become pre-digested "truth." Second, the professor is an African-American. Of course, if he wasn’t his talk would probably have ended his academic career right there.

He explained to the students that it was not enough to oppose something—like slavery—by merely assuming it was wrong. You must make a good coherent case on the other side. And this requires taking very seriously arguments you may find repugnant but which in some cases—even if not this specific one—could even persuade you that you don’t already possess the full truth.

The professor added, “I won’t accept your merely saying that it is immoral. You have to give me social, economic, political, and other arguments against it.”

In other words, the test for any idea is not whether it meets some pre-existing political standard of what is socially acceptable nowadays (Political Correctness, multiculturalism, and non-hate speech) outside of which everythig is automatically an evil lie. The test is whether it corresponds to reality in some way (that is based on evidence), has consistent arguments (that is, based on logic), and all the other tools of rational thought (for example, handling exceptional cases, having some predictive capability, employing reliable sources, to strive for the closest possible approximation of objective truth even if they could never achieve that perfectly, etc).

I asked him what happened next. He said that about two students understood what was going on and did a good job of meeting his challenge. The rest had no idea of how to respond.

This reminds me of a story I heard from another professor who proposed that a broad reading list should be established for a course which gave a range of views. The professor teaching the course replied that such an idea was old-fashioned and boring. "What I do in my course is explain in the first class that the world's problems are caused by the United States and I spend the rest of the course proving it."

The point is that a short history of American education (and that in some other places in the West) over the last few decades might go like this:

Stage 1: What we are now told were the “bad old days” in which students were indoctrinated to be patriotic and think America was a good society with few if any faults; the cowboy were always the good guys, and the focus was on only some groupings.

Stage 2: The transition, during which students were given a balanced story, with both America’s virtues and its shortcomings presented. (At best, that included an explanation about how the system was free enough to allow for advocacy of change and good enough to make reforms without massive conflict or collapse.)
Of particular importance, during this period students were encouraged to think for themselves, be critical but rational, to question what they were being taught.

Stage 3: The current era. Things have come full circle and even more so. Students in many cases are indoctrinated to be anti-patriotic and think America was a bad society with few if any virtues. They are encourged not to question authority and might be ridiculed or punished for doing so.

But the shortcoming now isn’t just the indoctrinating content of many courses, in humanities and social science at least, it is the failure to teach good methodology. How bizarre that we’ve come full circle to an era where students are not encouraged to think for themselves, given one “correct” view point to the exclusion of others, and thus cannot develop coherent, logic-based arguments.

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