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Monday, February 7, 2011

Avoiding Controversy: a survival necessity?

What’s the connection?
1. Students, particularly (shockingly,) college students, do not learn, or learn well, critical thinking skills; (NYT)
2. High school teachers do not teach, or teach well, Evolution; (NYT)
3. College students are seldom invited to examine the assumptions on which their professor’s course material is based; particularly, not graduate students.
Exceptions are more likely found in religious colleges than in public ones. Why is this?

Here are some possible answers:
a. the teachers or professors don’t know their subject matter.
b. Students, who don’t know how to handle controversy, evaluate their professors for promotion and tenure.
c. Professors have not studied formal logic.
d. Neither students nor professors know how to reason well on their feet.
Let’s dismiss a and c as unlikely. This is not a matter of knowing something, but of being able to teach it, especially, if it provokes debate. Merely studying formal logic does not help here.

Option b is close to the matter. Evolution and other controversial items are perceived by students to threaten their “sacred values.” They strongly dislike the apparent threat. They get their revenge by giving their instructors low ratings. (I have noticed during my 17+ years as a college professor that the same person, teaching a basically “technical” course would get higher ratings from his or her students than in a course where controversial material was dealt with.)

Option d is crucial. Teaching, if it is a face-to-face encounter requires either suppressing questioning, or having argumentative (or debate) skills to use. Except in religious environments where boundaries are clear – you still risk skating on thin ice --, secular, pluralistic schools and universities have disregarded argumentative and debate skills so long that few now command them to the degree they can be used for teaching purposes.

More than once have I heard professors at professional conferences declare that “There are, without exception, no absolute truths.” When asked about the truth of that very statement, which if true, is false, they shrugged it off with the retort, “You’re just playing word games.”

To examine these issues further, and avoid intellectual lobotomy, see An Introduction to Models of Reasoning

--- EGR