Formation, Part 2

Schools, of course, produce an “academic” frame of mind. As Pierre Bourdieu was fond of pointing out, the root meaning of “school” is leisure; the learning we engage in there is detached from the day-to-day labor that social life requires. In school, we learn to justify our beliefs, not in terms of our experiences, but in terms of the evidence that can be adduced for them. We learn to construct arguments for our claims rather than appealing merely to our own authority or that of others.  That does not, of course, deny that authority exists. In real life, we do sometimes just have to do as we are told. But in the relative leisure of school we learn another kind of legitimacy, the authority of “right reason”. We are taught a rational procedure for forming beliefs.

In my last post I talked mainly about primary education. In my next post I will talk about higher education: universities, or what is also called “post-secondary” education. In between, then, there is something called “secondary” education: high schools and “prep schools” in North America,  the lycée in France, gymnasium here in Denmark. It is here that the academic habit of mind is really supposed to form, to “prepare” the student for a university education, or demonstrate very clearly that the student is not suited, either by ability or interest, for such an education. Interestingly, this happens during the student’s adolescence, which is a formative period in many other ways as well.

During their secondary education, students not only continue to develop distinct academic competences, they also develop their sexual interests, orientations, and competences, their political views, their sense of style, their athletic ability, their artistic talent, and so forth. Much of this is integrated into their school experience, some as part of the curriculum, some as extra-curricular activity, and some as part of ambient social life. Although middle-aged adults often don’t much recognize their teenage selves in their current beliefs and attitudes, much of our personality is no doubt grounded in our experiences in these years. And with this personality there is also what may be called an intellectual style.

Since my focus is on the formation of the academic habit of mind, I would like to identify distinctly scientific attitudes by first distinguishing and then connecting them to distinctly political attitudes. Both sets of sentiments, if you will, are explicitly educated in school–in the science classroom and the civics (or social studies) classroom. As I pointed out in my last post, we are trying both get them to think in a certain way and to get them to think particular things. In the science classroom we want to develop a general “empirical” frame of mind in students, and also get them to understand a specific set of truths. In the civics classroom we want them to develop a healthy “deliberative” approach to politics, but also a belief in the virtues of democracy and the rule of law. If schools produced a lot of climate-change-denying fascists, for example, we’d consider them a failure.

But should we also be worried if our schools produced a few climate skeptics and a few fascists? Should we make students who don’t arrive at the orthodox scientific and political conclusions before they reach the age of eighteen feel “wrong”, or “stupid”, or even “evil”? Is it really so bad for a high school student to be unconcerned about global warming or sanguine about the prospect of dictatorship? What of the student that simply doesn’t believe the climate is changing? Or believes the change is natural, like the coming and going of ice ages in the past? What of the student who isn’t convinced that our democracy is working or, having listened a bit too much to George Carlin, that the country is run “by the owners for the owners”? What do you do with students who are just a bit too skeptical, or a bit too cynical, to “buy in” to what normal, “decent” people believe about our world and our history? What sense of their place should they have as they graduate from high school?

My sense is that educators are a bit too worried about what the students believe when they are eighteen. And they are not worried enough about what the students are able to do at the same age. In fact, it almost seems like they are worried that the students think too much and believe too little. The students themselves internalize this anxiety and, depending on their natural degree of conformity, look for beliefs they can either subscribe to or rebel against. Their teachers differ, of course. Some inspire them to conform, others inspire them to rebel, but the effect is the same. They become oriented around the doctrine, not the inquiry. The students want to be told what to think, not how to think. Or that, in any case, is what I worry is too often the case.

Perhaps, in high school, it is too soon to talk about climate change and democratic process. Perhaps, as in the case of biology and evolution in primary school, there are simpler processes, smaller machines, to think about and understand before the students should be asked to apply them to understanding global weather patterns and national election results. Perhaps students could be taught about relatively familiar institutions, like money and family in the civics classroom. Perhaps they could be taught about ocean circulation and cloud formation in the science classroom. Learning to understand these things will also teach them how to gain an understanding of the larger issues when, as adults, they will need to engage with them directly, as members of the citizenry.

They will then be able form a qualified opinion about carbon taxes and campaign funding. They will understand how the basic components work and what proposed changes might accomplish. As they learned these basic components, they will have been treated as serious thinkers with open minds that don’t have to be “made up” in a hurry. They will come out of high school, perhaps with a wide variety of provisional beliefs about the world in which they live, but also with an understanding that those beliefs are likely to change over the next eighteen years of their lives as they get confronted with new evidence.

They will not see their current beliefs, but their ability to think,  not how they now experience the world but how they evaluate evidence, as the foundation for the next phase of their education, whether that be in college or the school of hard knocks. No matter how “dangerous” their ideas are at this point, they will not have gotten the sense that their teachers (and therefore their culture) found them threatening. Their minds will have been kept open for further participation in the “ongoing conversation of mankind,” at their leisure.

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