Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thought Police and Post-Secondary Education

The argument I have been trying to make so far is that the equation of "political correctness" with thought policing is misplaced. This can be qualified. There are people on every point on the political spectrum who are not particularly interested in open mindedness. But, that can be taken for granted. What I am interested in is demonstrating that the idea that asking people to think again about something is not wrong. I tried to argue that most of do this all the time. It is a normal part of conversation because we often talk to others about things about which we disagree. There is nothing wrong with saying to someone, you know, I thought X and here is why. Far from being thought policing, it is a normal part of discourse. It is the way we carry on conversations. Likewise with politics. Democracy requires people changing their mind. No mind changing ... no democracy.  Suggesting to someone, then, that they can and should look at an issue (the economy, health care, the environment, it does not matter what) in a different way is hardly thought policing. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with suggestion to someone that bigotry or insulting someone is wrong.

Post-secondary education is one ares where people are often accused of being PC. If you follow the logic of my argument, this will not come as a surprise because post-secondary education is about thinking differently. If it was not ... would it be education? I periodically hear this from critics of PC: "Professor So-and-So said that something I fundamentally believe was wrong and wants me to change my mind. That is so PC." If you are one of those people who has said that, can I ask: what were you paying for when you paid your tuition? Imagine a situation where you paid your tuition and spent the entire year being told only things you already knew. How would you feel. At the end of the year, you knew precisely and exactly and only the things you already knew at the start of the year. No one had challenged your thinking. No one presented data that refocused your attention. No one suggested a different methodology that might yield different results. Would you believe that your tuition was money well spent?

Education can and should be about many things. It should be about skill acquisition. It should be about some measure of cultural literacy. It should be about empirical knowledge. There is, in other words, not a single thing that higher education -- or any form of education -- is about. In my view, for instance, it should be about something we've called in the past "habits of mind": how you look at and think about how you will think about issue and interact with others and knowledge. But, if you completed your university degree and your views on anything that is important were never challenged, regardless of your political perspective, would you say that your education was complete?

Post-secondary education places a premium on critical thinking. To be sure, that can be -- and is -- defined in different ways. To be sure, what that means is approached through different research methods. And, to be sure, faculty hold different political perspectives. On my floor (which houses three different academic units), at Mount A, for instance, just about every perspective on the political spectrum (with the exception of the extreme ends) is represented.  [BTW: It might surprise people to know what we professors, in fact, spend shockingly little time talking about politics. We talk about it, perhaps more than other people in other jobs (I've never held a job where politics was not a subject of discussion at some point in the working day), but we spend the vast majority of our time talking about other things ... like our jobs (teaching strategies that worked or did not work, attendance issues, students who are struggling, departmental budgets, professional development, research) or .... ordinary life things like kids and household repairs and movies we like.] This is my point: despite these differences, we all get along. No one accuses someone else of being the thought police because we share a commitment to an ideal of post-secondary education that does many things: builds knowledge, conveys facts, promotes skills, and sustains different perspectives on the events or issues in question.

I want to be clear on this point: different faculty take different approaches to challenging student thinking. I had a colleague years ago who played devil's advocate, intentionally adopting the opposite perspective of his students. Most of us don't do that and can't really do that, say if you are lecturing to 100 students. What you can do is explain certain perspectives and challenge conventional thinking as a way to spur thought. In my classes, for instance, I ask students to think about what the mistreatment of First Peoples tells us about Canada or what we should think of contradictory tendencies in foreign policy or why we take wilderness icons for emblems of nationhood but produce so much pollution. Sometimes, I will confess, I don't have answers to these problems. I have my own views -- and this blog is a place where I articulate them -- but I don't have the answer to every issue or every problem that perplexes national public life.

But ... what if I did have answers? Well, it turns out that there are some things on which I do have some things that I think I can contribute to the general discussion. Most faculty are this way.  There are issues about which I have been teaching, or which I have been researching, for some time. I'm getting close to twenty years at Mount Allison, which means that some of my current students were not alive when I started here. I've done more reading on some subjects than my students and, in some cases, a great deal more reading. Where one of my students might have spent, say, hours reading about a subject they find interesting, I might now have spent 100 times that. I'm not bragging, just doing math. I've seen the evolution of scholarship over time (where students are often coming in half way through a story; not their fault, this is simply a product of age). I've see policies that have begun with much promise but resulted in failure. In other words, it is possible that I know more about something than one of my students and I might have ways of thinking about some matters that can help them. I do lecture in some of my courses and I lecture because I can use that forum to get students "up to speed" on an issue quicker than sending them away to read the dozen or several dozen books (let alone scholarly papers) that I have read on the same subject.

So, knowing that, what should be my approach as an instructor? As a faculty member, I am paid for many reasons. I am paid to teach classes, to administer an academic program, to provide effective collegial governance, to research, to edit, to advise. But, surely one of the reasons students pay to sit in my class is that they have something that they think they can learn from everything I've just wrote in the previous paragraph.

This is not arrogance. To be sure: some faculty are arrogant but arrogance has no single political home. It is not the sole provenance of the politically correct. And, in my view, the issue is not arrogance. We all agree that it is not a good mix with teaching. There is, though, a difference between arrogance and knowing something or having certain skills. My plumber knows a lot more about plumbing than I do. Is that arrogance on his part? My mechanic knows a great deal more about car engines than I do ... is he arrogant when he fixes my car? You see the point and the oddity of some of the accusations of thought policing or PC. When a faculty member corrects a mistake a student makes ... are they arrogant? Some people -- particularly but not exclusively, I suspect -- those in the anti-PC camp come very close to arguing that this is the case. But, imagine a different situation. What if I spotted a mistake and did not correct it? Would I be doing my job?

These are something more than rhetorical questions. What I am saying is that a reasonable conception of education involves thinking, changing your mind, learning new things and we expect instructors to guide us in that process. We don't expect them to sit on the sidelines while errors are made and ignore those so as to avoid becoming "thought police." The fact that someone who knows more about a subject than I do corrects me is not a horrible thing. It is not an insult to me, or a challenge to my moral worth or identity, as a human being. It is simple that: a correction.

Let me conclude: if you wondered why so much politically correct discourse (pro and con) is on campus, at universities, it is not an accident. It is not some sort of left wing academia. It is a product of the nature of the higher educational enterprise. Challenging people's thinking, correcting mistakes, asking people to look again at an issue, and recognizing that there are people who know more because that is their job, is not horrible. Yet, in hoopla that surrounds PC on campus, I think we have lost sight of those simple facts. The goal of education is *not* to remain the same. That is why we go to school: to develop, to change, to become better. If we assume that anyone who seeks to change us is involved in some sort of nefarious conspiracy or is some agent of the thought police, we are, in fact, condemning the very idea and purpose of education.
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