Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Intellectual and Moral Courage – Part I

Last week I assigned students in one of my classes to examine the findings of the Princeton Review regarding life on the nearly 400 campuses their review covers. In addition to assessing academic standards at given institutions, the Review also provides a consumer guide to schools by having students respond to surveys regarding everything from campus food to dorms to religious and social life. While such surveys are questionable as to their accuracy due to sample size, they provide an interesting lesson in considering ideal types, actual types and stereotypes.

The first part of the assignment was to examine the top 20 colleges on the self-reported gay hostile campus list. The assignment required students to examine all of Princeton’s top 20 listings in which those schools were included and to try to develop an ideal type understanding of those campuses: What other prominent factors are found on those campuses? What elective affinity might be seen here regarding the types of students drawn to those schools as a result? The ideal type emerging from the Review listings suggests that they are largely religious schools in the South and Midwest which also avoid intoxicants and draw largely politically conservative students. Big surprise.

Similarly students were asked to develop an ideal type for the top 20 gay friendly colleges. The Review’s listings suggests these are largely northeastern private colleges with high tuition rates where students tend toward liberal causes such as vegetarianism. Again, big surprise.

Finally, students were asked to look at the top 20 “Studies the Most” and “Studies the Least” schools, the latter of which ranked their own university #2. The ideal type emerging from the “Studies the Most” list were largely Ivy League schools with good libraries and driven students. The ideal type emerging from the latter category included large state universities in the South and Midwest with reputations for being party schools which draw largely middle class students. In other words, mega-universities like their own.

The point of the assignment was to understand how ideal types are formed and used, what their limitations are, and how they differ from actual types (i.e., individuals who might affirm or contradict the ideal type when examined individually). The second point was to examine how ideal types, based in observable qualities held in common by group members, differ from stereotypes, which tend to focus on the negative aspects of some members of a group as a means of dismissing the entire group up front.

Assignments like these are often difficult for college undergraduates, particularly those new to college. In a time of standardized test driven secondary education, critical thinking has not exactly been emphasized prior to their arrival at the university. Moreover, many students are being confronted with the reality that their understandings of politics and religion, almost inevitably inherited from parents, significant others and the circled wagon group of like minded friends without much critical consideration, often prove difficult to support in a diverse mega-university setting.

From my experience of teaching college students over the past 20 years, I know that on the day assignments like these and others I assign (such as the difference between Jesus and the Christ, the problems reconciling equal protection with prohibitions against gay marriage, or the many problems with state killing), a number of students will simply skip class. Their absences are predictable. And the reasons for their absences are apparent. Being absent on the days such assignments are due and the avoidance of critical consideration of the topics that absence signals suggest that intellectual cowardice plays a large role the maintenance of understandings that these students perceive to be otherwise indefensible.

This year, after the sparsely attended class on ideal types, I decided to try to bring to consciousness this practice of intellectual cowardice. In researching intellectual courage for purposes of creating a link for the course website, I found two sites in particular that were very helpful. The first was the site for the Critical Thinking Community, an organization whose website reports its location to be Dillon Beach, CA. Under the link “Fundamentals of Critical Thinking,” the site offers this commentary on intellectual courage: 

  • Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe. (emphasis added)
I often remind my students that what college asks students to do is tantamount to treason. We ask students to actually think about what they have inherited from their families and significant others. They are asked to critically examine whether those understandings are defensible. But often implicit in that process is the question of whether the people they have trusted in simply accepting those former beliefs were credible. It’s very difficult to think that one’s parents could have been wrong, much less prejudiced if not mean spirited. To question - much less reject - their teachings at some level is tantamount to betraying them. And, perhaps more unsettling is the realization that if they were wrong about these ideas, what else might they have been wrong about? The result? Cognitive dissonance.

The example I use in class to illustrate cognitive dissonance is the inevitable deconstruction of belief in Santa Claus that occurs in most children’s lives about the time they hit kindergarten. Consider how you felt when that snot nosed kid from down the street said, “You don’t still believe in Santa Claus?” in a tone that suggested if you said yes you were an idiot. While you probably did the expected thing, succumbed to peer pressure and said, “No, of course not,” a gut check would have revealed something quite different:

Santa Claus isn’t real? You mean my parent lied to me? Man, this is no little white lie. I’ve got a lot invested in this. I behaved all of November and December because “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” If they lied to me about something this big, what else might they have lied about? How can I ever trust them again?

Now fast forward 12 years and multiply this cognitive dissonance about 100 times.

Being confronted with the possibility that one’s parent’s teachings about politics and religion, handed down from Mt. Olympus, could be wrong is a real shock for most undergrads. Most freshmen haven’t yet realized that their parents are actually human and capable of mistakes. And many have not yet learned how to accept their own frailties and limitations making it even more difficult to deal with the possibilities that key portions of their worldview, again, largely inherited from parents and significant others from their pre-college lives, could be challenged if not simply wrong.

Some feel the need to defend their inherited views with arguments that occasionally raise good questions but more often devolve into ad hominems of the Lucifer, the one who has dared to cast light onto areas of their thinking they’d taken for granted. The less courageous simply skip the classes where they perceive they’ll be required to consider the contents of their belief systems critically. And then there is the handful of intellectually courageous students who simply say, “This is something I’ve got to think about.” And then they do, some of them returning for a visit during office hours years later to talk about what they’ve been thinking.

At a very basic level, it is not hard to understand where intellectually cowardly students are coming from. No one wants to deal with cognitive dissonance. It is painful and troubling. It can become an existential crisis – What can I believe? What’s the point of all this? Why bother? – if not dealt with. And yet, it is an important part of the college experience.

That’s where the second website on intellectual courage and cowardice comes in.  Part II.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, reading this brings back memories from HUM 2210. I remember being more eager to attend those classes that seemed to be the most difficult and challenging simply because I realized that I did not fully understand my own belief systems (religious and political) and wanted nothing more than to have a better understand of them. Well, we both know how that turned out... four years later, and still trying to deal with them.

- CJ