Support, Elaborate, Defend

A university education doesn’t teach you any particular set of beliefs. What you come to believe by the time you graduate depends on the university and the program you enroll in. It will also depend on what your teachers happen to believe, what your fellow students believe, and what you believed when you started your studies. Your education will hopefully affect your beliefs, of course; you will acquire new beliefs and discard old ones in line with the knowledge you are exposed to. But no one in their right mind would judge your education against some list of “truths” you ought properly to believe in order to get your degree.

What an education should do, however, is to make you better able to support, elaborate and defend your beliefs. It does not just give you knowledge, we might say, it makes you knowledge-able — able-to-know things. Being “educated” doesn’t mean that you’ve been indoctrinated into a particular set of beliefs but that you have trained yourself to hold your beliefs in a particular way. It has improved your “epistemic posture,” if you will. Faced with skepticism about the truth of your beliefs, you know how to adduce evidence and invoke authority. Faced with incomprehension about what you mean, you know how to define your terms and clarify your concepts. Faced with a contrary opinion, you know how to hold and give ground according to the force of the arguments. Importantly, being taken to task in these ways does not surprise or offend you. It’s a familiar business. You don’t expect people to just trust you. You know that’s not how it works.

It is my view that explicit instruction in the writing of paragraphs, and a modicum of discipline in practicing this craft, goes a long way toward training this posture. It will make you more articulate in your conversations, both with your peers and with yourself. It will make you better able to discuss your ideas in public and make up your mind in private. I know that paragraphs aren’t the be all and end all of academic life, nor even of academic writing. I know that you’ll do a lot of other things and you’ll do them well too. But it’s my sense that the craft of paragraphing is falling into desuetude. It’s my aim, over the next couple of decades, simply to insist on its importance for the life of the mind and the culture. In its conservation — its preservation and transmission — lies much of the value of the university.

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