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It's What We Know That Hobbles Us

November 21, 1987|DAVID GLIDDEN | David Glidden is a philosophy professor at UC Riverside

It's the inevitable consequence of student-faculty contact: A young woman approached me after class, embarrassed by what she had to tell me, something too personal to discuss on campus. I agreed to meet her at a local coffeehouse. There, she confessed what was on her mind: "You were once a Cheyenne warrior in a previous existence, and I nursed you back to health after you'd been wounded by an arrow through your heart." The only response that I could think of was to thank her.

This was a serious student, quite proficient at deciphering Plato for me and whatever informational tasks her other courses required of her. She was also quite convinced that she'd lived other lives, convinced enough that, despite grinding poverty and two children to support, she drove twice a week from Riverside to Santa Monica for para-seminars on previous existences.

Nothing that she might have learned in biology about how neurons grow and memories work could have persuaded her that it's physically impossible to carry memories over from another life--if even such a continuity of life were credible. That there might be others with our exact same personality, contemporaries even, was not the sort of thing that would satisfy her, especially considering the implication that there might then be many other selves of hers living on the planet Earth.

There might be something specifically Californian about incidents such as this, but I suspect they are not regional; they testify to a certain persistence of irrationality among persons everywhere.

Socrates said that learning was first and foremost a process of discovering what it is we wrongly thought we knew, of first exposing ignorance, before going on to knowledge. Merely adding bits of wisdom to a mass of foolishness will not make people wiser. It will only increase the danger of their ignorance.

Lately, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been worrying about what has gone wrong with Higher Education, worrying enough to put Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and E.D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" on the best-seller lists. Bloom tells a story about what went wrong in the stratosphere of Germanic philosophy and its alleged malign influence on American universities. Hirsch composes a list of things that every American should know. The trouble is, even if Hirsch and Bloom were right, they would be wrong. It's not what we do not yet know that is the problem; it's all the false things that we already believe in ignorance.

The claim that I was once a Cheyenne warrior wounded in the heart would be just as false as the assertions that the Earth is flat, or that the universe was created in six 24-hour days. Covering over such ignorant beliefs with truths taken piecemeal from philosophy, history or technology is as useless an enterprise as covering up a cancer on the skin with makeup; radical surgery is called for.

Socrates' approach to imparting knowledge was to question the beliefs we have, before then adding to them. He devised a method to achieve this and called it dialectic, what we now call conversational reasoning. It was a skill that he taught, how to search for definitions and follow implications. It remains a tried and true technique of looking for inconsistences and detecting ghostly metaphors haunting our vocabularies, of learning how to construct an argument that will withstand criticism and prove persuasive.

Taking such an approach to higher education would be to go in the very opposite direction from that of Bloom and Hirsch, who would rather only teach us what to think. Learning how to think requires a rigorous form of training that should begin long before students reach college age, before it's too late to break through prejudices.

Disposing of our ignorance will itself not bring us wisdom. Just because some assumptions are not questioned today doesn't mean they cannot be or will not be tomorrow, before we finally rest content with them.

Critical thinking is a technique that also requires the active participation of teacher and student one-on-one, where, instead of pronouncements made and memorized, insight is achieved one step at a time, after honest mutual confrontation.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has said that classroom education can just as easily involve large numbers, such as are to be found in Japan. This might be true if our society were so monolithic that our first assumptions were more or less uniform, or if education was just a matter of conveying facts onto an already clean slate. But this cannot be so once minds are already filled with half-truths and prejudices, with so many false beliefs. Otherwise ignorance persists right alongside what it is that we know.

There once was a popular television program called "College Bowl," in which academic teams competed over the facts that each knew, spitting them out just as a well-informed computer might. It gave us the dangerous illusion that this was all that education consisted in: that you go to school to learn things from an encyclopedic list, that you do not first need to purge yourself of false beliefs. That illusion persists, perpetuated by best-sellers and the secretary of education. And destroying that illusion would be a much more costly matter than merely adding to the facts that we all should know, for it would require first learning how to think.

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