How to Think or What to Think?

John Loftus raises an issue that I would like to address:

Should professors teach students how to think or what to think?

 John gives a link to an article by philosopher Peter Boghossian:

Boghossian challenges what John calls the “received” view of pedagogy. The received view can be summed up by the slogan that the instructor’s job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. The motivation behind the received view is the insight that education is something very different from indoctrination. Indoctrination is the inculcation of an ideology or worldview, with the aim of insulating dogmas from doubt and creeds from questioning. Indoctrination aims at making True Believers. Totalitarian states and the Christian Church have been the major practitioners of indoctrination. (“Give us a boy of seven,” the Jesuits used to say, “and he will be ours for life.”) Education, on the other hand, aims to create Free Inquirers rather than True Believers. Hence, the received view has rightly emphasized the nurturing of students’ critical thinking abilities and not the imposition of doctrine.

However, as Boghossian notes, the received view can appear to have paradoxical and perhaps pernicious consequences that promote ignorance rather than oppose it. Boghossian cites an instance in which he had attempted to debunk students’ belief in creationism, and was chagrined to find that his efforts had been in vain. Two of his colleagues chided him and indicated that instead of aiming to debunk students’ beliefs, even one as odious and irrational as creationism, he should have aimed to present students with the necessary data to draw their own conclusions. Explicitly aiming to debunk a student’s creationist beliefs appears to violate the received norm and to constitute an effort to inculcate a specific set of beliefs, i.e. that creationism is false and that the evolutionary account is true. However, I think that Boghossian’s colleagues offered a wrongheaded defense of the received view. You do not necessarily violate the distinction between education and indoctrination by presenting some claims as true, or, indeed, as beyond question.

Yet it is necessary to keep firmly in mind the essential distinction made by John Stuart Mill: There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. I see no problem with presenting Darwinian evolution as correct precisely because, for the past 153 years, opponents have been given abundant opportunity for proving it false and have failed to do so. In presenting the Origin of Species to my class, I present Darwin’s basic conclusions as correct, i.e. that present forms of life originated through a natural process of descent with modification, as Darwin put it, and that, as Darwin claimed, natural selection has been the main driver of evolutionary change. I do not present this conclusion dogmatically or with contemptuous or condescending references to creationism. Rather, the emphasis is on the evidence and arguments. I also present the objections to the theory noted by Darwin and how he successfully addressed those objections. I also indicate how more recent research, such as the remarkable series of Eocene fossils linking mesonychids to cetaceans, adds much support to Darwin’s arguments.

Should we go further and teach, as John reports of Boghossian, that “…faith is a cognitive malaise and should be given no credence in the classroom”? At what point is a professor no longer presenting facts but exploiting his position to browbeat students from a bully pulpit? I really do not think that this is a very hard question. Consider two assertions:

1) Evolution occurred.
2) Faith is a malaise.

(1) is an established scientific fact. (2) is Professor Boghossian’s opinion. It may be an informed opinion, but it is an opinion. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that (2) is true in whatever sense Prof. Boghossian intends. Still, if Prof. Boghossian presents (2) to his classes as an established fact on par with (1), then he is doing a disservice to reason. That one regards an assertion as true, or even its actual truth, is insufficient justification for presenting it to a class as established fact. Here, just off the top of my head are some assertions that I happen to regard as true: 1) Mozart’s music is better than that of [insert name of leading pop idol of the moment]. 2) Much if not most of the animosity of “Tea Party” types to President Obama is motivated by racism. 3) The highest division of college football should quickly move to a playoff system. 4) Excessive use of standardized testing in the public schools has left my students less knowledgeable and with less aptitude for critical thinking. 5) Congress is now a forum for legalized bribery. 6) The war in Afghanistan is a waste of lives and treasure and should be ended immediately.

Now, I regard each of these assertions as a justifiable claim—i.e. supportable by rational argument—and not simply the grousing of a grumpy old liberal academic. However, none of these claims should be presented as established fact. They are my opinions, defensible opinions, but opinions. I fear that Prof. Boghossian, and maybe John, are not sufficiently respecting the very real difference in epistemic credentials between established fact and informed opinion.

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