Why we’re not getting smarter

Image via Thinkstock
Image via Thinkstock

Listen, repeat, believe

By Colten Kamlade, Contributor

When my brother went to college I was still quite young. Before that, my interest in post-secondary education had been nonexistent. Soon, however, my imagination was ignited by the language that my brother came home with. He spoke of truth, knowledge, the clashing of ideas, and the numerous ideologies that had swept across nations to change history. I became excited for when I could join in the fray. I had a voice and I wanted to be heard.

My first term at Douglas did not disappoint. The variety of ideas overwhelmed me. From a Marxist geographer to a philosophy teacher whom I disagreed with on almost every point, I felt I was finally involved in the battle for truth. In fact, my experience at Douglas has been quite good, overall. It is in a growing minority of my professors that I have noticed something amiss.

What I allude to is perhaps best explained with an anecdote. During a class discussion, one of my fellow students was arguing from a fairly racist position. Halfway through, the teacher cut her off with “that’s bullshit.” I was familiar with the argument and knew its flaws and inconsistencies, but my classmate obviously did not. By the end of class, she still did not know why the argument she had made was indefensible, and quite possibly neither did the class.

I am not rallying in support of the racist. What I desire is that all ideas, whether offensive or not, are allowed to be expressed. Professors never outright say they don’t want you to take certain sides of an argument, but in their irritated or shocked reactions we learn to keep silent when particular issues come up. This is not an environment in which rigorous discourse—which I believe to be an essential aspect of the college experience—can be fostered.

It is fair to ask what the benefit is behind allowing this kind of discourse. Why bother giving racists any platform at all if we know their opinions to be unfounded? In the words of John Stuart Mill, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is [that] if the opinion is right, [society is] deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Essentially, if we neglect to engage in argument with those we believe to be wrong, we will forget our reasons for believing what we know to be true.

I have rarely seen controversial ideas presented in post-secondary. When contentious issues are brought up, we are taught to believe what is socially acceptable. There is very little room for students to come to their own conclusions. I can remember several classes in which students and professors ridiculed political or philosophical stances without ever offering counterarguments. The danger of this is that if the students in these classes are ever challenged on the subject, they will not be prepared to engage in a serious discussion. In one instance, I bungled an answer to a question, then admitted I did not understand the concept. The professor, surely trying to be comforting, responded with “It’s alright, you said the right words.”

So what exactly am I suggesting? I want my peers and I to engage in rigorous discourse. I want us to argue against ideas espoused by professors, whether we agree with them or not. When you think the class consensus is wrong, speak up. You might be right. If you don’t think the socially acceptable answer is the right answer, say so. College should be a place where ideas clash and the unquestioned is questioned. We should not simply have our existing beliefs reaffirmed, nor should we bend to the authority of our professors when their beliefs are unjustified. Similarly, I encourage professors to push back against the positions of their students. It is only through this process of argumentation that we can hope to come nearer to the truth.