Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Arrogance, Education, and Courage - Part 2

Education changes individuals in several ways. This is why, although it is often taken for granted by us Americans today, education was in former times and is today in other places quite controversial. Let's use a simplified model of education to highlight one way in which it changes a person.

When you learn something, say, the history of your country, your understanding of yourself changes as well. For the more I know about the world around me, the more I know of others besides myself who have done things differently than I have. This isn't supposed to be beneficial because "diversity" or some-such is intrinsically valuable to me. The point is just that the history of the world contains a great variety of human lives and events. It is a mere matter of fact that in different places and in different times, people have gone on differently.

When I learn about other people in other times and places, doing things differently, my own way of going on comes to seem less than necessary. By this I mean, how we do things here isn't determined by natural laws, but is a matter of happenstance and chance. If how we did things around here were determined by natural laws, we wouldn't observe all the different ways of going on that we do in fact observe elsewhere.

Incidentally, there are two senses of 'law' that we ought to keep straight. For some will say that there are natural laws governing the behavior of human beings. It's just that some humans, elsewhere in time and space, have broken those laws, either through choice or habit or whatever. This way of looking at natural laws aligns them with the laws composing our political body. This isn't the kind of law I'm talking about above. I mean 'law' in the sense of the term as it is used in natural science. There is no breaking the law of gravity, or the law of inertia, or Newton's Law of Cooling. These are laws in another sense, a sense which implies in particular that it is not possible but for us to abide by them. In this sense, merely observing significant divergences in behavior from a particular standard is enough to establish that there is no law that the standard is followed.

Education, on the simplified model of the acquistion of facts about, e.g., our history, often shows us that how we go on is not a law for human behavior. It shows us this when it adduces examples of sustained divergences from how we go on. Thus how we do things is a matter of some happenstance.

And as I said, this changes how we think of ourselves. If things need not be the way they are here, then the idea that they must be that way begins to lose force. Some will insist that things ought to be as they are here; but in the face of examples of sustained divergence their insistance can begin to seem dogmatic. This is the liberating power of education, and the reason that education has been and still is controversial. The educated person comes to see his ways of doing things not as a necessity, but as one particular way among others. The educated person understands himself as a particular person, in the sense of 'idiosyncratic', not in the sense of an instance of a generalization. If being this way and doing these things are not necessities, then perhaps we shouldn't be this way, or do these things.

This way of thinking about education connects to the charge of arrogance I discussed in Part 1 of this post.

For being educated is challenging. The effect that I identified above, of revealing ones way of doing things as a matter of happenstance, is an implicit challenge to the validity of doing things that way. In particular, when we discuss moral views, the vast differences in moral conclusions to which we humans have come can seem to challenge our moral judgments' legitimacy. It can even seem to challenge the very idea that our moral claims are judgments as opposed to mere opinions. As mere opinions, moral claims aren't even subject to rational dispute.

This feeling-- that moral claims are mere opinions and thus not rationally disputable-- is widespread among today's more educated youth. And although I have no evidence for it, I think it is not too far-fetched to suppose that it is behind the rise in home schooling among Christians. Home-school allows for a parent to control the exposure of the child to the kinds of facts that would implicitly challenge the moral claims in Christianity.

(I did not say that home schooling must have that effect; but that it can, if carried out in a certain way.)

The language of tolerance has further encouraged us to regard our moral beliefs as non-negotiable and outside of the reach of rational challenge. Thus to argue that someone is wrong about abortion, say, can be seen as disrespecting this person.

There are obviously benefits that encouraging a culture of tolerance has for a society. I regard it as one of the twentieth century's finest achievements. But in a strange way it can have precisely the opposite of the intended effect, by inoculating certain views from rational challenge. This exposes that it was implicit in the encouragement of tolerance that only certain views were to be tolerated. In particular, racism, xenophonia, anti-semitism, and misogeny are not to be tolerated. It is safe to say, however, that with the flowering of the religious right's complaint that the government is "discriminating against religion," this second part of the culture of tolerance has been left behind. For many of the religious right's moral views are close relatives of the very sort of intolerance that was supposed to be extirpated.

Because students often have this understanding of moral claims when they come into class, challenging those moral claims can seem an act of unjustifiable arrogance. As these students understand them, moral claims are opinions in the sense that they don't go in for rational foundation at all. In the case of those morals which emerge from religious texts, they are taken at "faith." For you to challenge my moral beliefs, then, is for you to insist that your opinion take the place of mine. This is condesencion and arrogance defined.

As I said above, tolerance is surely a great political achievement. But it is a great acheivement because it protects individuals with different ways of life from harm, pain, and from the frustration of not being able to go on as they see fit. It protects them from being unduly interfered with; for it is a good thing to be able to live one's life as one sees fit. But the effect that the culture of tolerance has had is not just to allow for this; it has been to encourage a certain sort of moral relativism that has actually undercut the achievement of the ends towards which tolerance was pointed.

Moral claims are relative, in some sense; but we certainly can and do engage in moral argument. So that what your morals are depends on some kinds of happenstance does not entail that your morals are rationally non-negotiable. And this is important. For if we expect a democracy structured on the so-called exchange of ideas to produce a moral society, we must assume that exchanging ideas-- engaging in rational debate-- can help us determine what is moral. If it cannot, then democracy is impotent to do the right thing and avoid the wrong.

Facing a challenging professor, then, who impertinently asks for a justification of a moral claim that you had accepted from those around you with the reverence attaching to tradition, requires a certain virtue from you. It requires you not to dismiss the professor as arrogant; or, rather, it requires you to carefully distinguish the arrogant professor from the challenging, educating professor. And it requires you to suspend your commitment to the moral claim under question long enough to manage some kind of rational evaluation of it. Such is the bread and butter of democracy, and the reason why education is essential for a democracy to function.

I think an apt name for this virtue is 'intellectual courage'. For it is scary to suppose that you and your parents might have been wrong about something so central as a moral belief. It is frightening to turn the lens of reason on what you had previously protected from others, and even from yourself. For your commitment to this moral claim may not survive the challenge. It may survive; but it may not, and you can never know before you examine it. So to risk so central a part of yourself surely requires courage of a kind: intellectual courage.

Rational argument is a difficult thing to do and to withstand. It is difficult for all the reasons I have listed; it demands a kind of courage. But if you do not insist on rational argument, particular with regards to morals, you lose much. You lose the very force those morals carry with them. No moral will be reasonable through-and-through. It is impossible to derive moral claims from pure logic. But that is not to say that moral claims are not defendable using reason. And it is not to say that challenging a moral claim is tantamount to arrogance.

This is no doubt a very simplified view of the the relationship charges of arrogance and education have to our political system. But, schematic as it is, I think it exposes part of what is at issue when we encounter charges and countercharges of arrogance in contemporary public conversation.


At November 5, 2005 at 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

endless number of these wonderful finds, what with the Internet being a vast network of constantly evolving ideas and all!


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