Formation, Part 4

One of the things we learn about ourselves as undergraduates is whether we have a natural disposition for “academic” work. While a university education is increasingly necessary to success in professional life, it isn’t something that everyone finds equally enjoyable or interesting. Some people just “get through it”, even with very good grades, and look forward to earning their degree and starting their careers. Others, however, are saddened by the prospect of leaving school and getting “real jobs”. For some of them, there is grad school.

Graduate studies, of course, require a certain aptitude for intellectual labor.  But they also require a set of (for lack of a better word) “moral” competences to engage with others in a common project of maintaining and extending our cultural heritage. Graduate students have the double task of demonstrating that they are able to study an issue carefully to arrive at qualified conclusions and showing that they are able to participate in a community of inquirers who will both agree and disagree with them. In some disciplines there is plenty of room for cantankerousness or independence of mind (as you choose), whereas other disciplines are less tolerant of aggressively critical personalities. Indeed, some disciplines outright require a certain assertiveness, while others, conversely, require deference, often no less explicitly. Finding the right field, for you, involves being sensitive to the tone of discourse and gauging your own reaction to it. Is this the sort of relationship you’d like to develop to your peers?

These posts on academic “formation” have been concerned with the place where our moral and intellectual competences meet–particularly as they meet in statements of what can be called “doctrine”, i.e., orthodox truths. I have been trying to argue that being too eager to indoctrinate our students with what we believe is true (and sometimes good) might interfere with their ability to form the habits of mind that are needed, later in life, to form their own beliefs in a scholarly or scientific way. Sometimes (indeed, most times) we have to let them hold false beliefs for good reasons, on pain of getting them to hold (or just profess) true beliefs on our authority. I’ve shown how this might work in primary, secondary and post-secondary education. But can this tolerance for falsehood be sustained at all levels of education? Does it apply, for example, to grad school as well?

One of the most important things I learned from Steve Fuller many years ago was to treat “theories” as “presumptions”. This, he suggested (in Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge), might help me to feel less oppressed by the intellectual orthodoxies that one constantly encounters on university campuses. Instead of imagining that I have to believe an orthodox opinion, I can treat it as a presumption that governs how I am allowed to discuss it. It guides the process of conversation, the “procedure” by which the truth may be challenged and defended. In this sense, it works much like the presumption of innocence in a trial. I don’t have to believe that the accused is innocent, but I do have to treat the accused as though she’s innocent until such time as my challenge succeeds.

How can this inform the development of the graduate student’s mind? Well, instead of forcing our graduate students, whether at the MA or PhD level, to adopt as gospel the currently fashionable theory of the phenomena they are interested in, we can ask them merely to presume that their elders are right about it until the preponderance of the evidence they gather persuades the community to change its mind. That is, we can allow them to earnestly pursue and expose our errors, so long as they grant us that those errors are the result of our own earnest and sincere attempts to discover the truth. We can require them to acknowledge the orthodoxy, that is, without demanding that they genuflect to it.

The traditional symbol of such genuflection is, of course, Galileo’s renunciation of his belief that the Earth moves, at the demand of the Catholic Church. I won’t get into the details in this blog post, nor presume to settle the issue in such a place, but it is important to note that the conventional caricature of Galileo as a victim of orthodoxy has been plausibly challenged (by Paul Feyerabend, among others). The truth, some argue, is that the Church was perfectly willing to let Galileo continue his inquiries into the hypothesis that the Earth moves, so long as he did not publicly denounce the current orthodoxy until a sufficiently robust and elaborate alternative could be constructed. If they did not proceed more cautiously (than the fiery Galileo would have preferred), the Church feared, it would only cause confusion and draw the general authority of the Church into question. The result would be chaos, both moral and intellectual. On the face of it, there is some wisdom in that attitude.

Today, the University plays the role of the Church. It demands that scholars be careful in their public pronouncements (about the climate, vaccines, evolution, gender, etc.), always acknowledging the dominant view (as that held by “97% of all scientists”, etc.), while at the same time promoting and defending their right to pursue their inquiries wherever their curiosity leads. It’s freedom with responsibility, to use a favorite conservative slogan. And it is sometimes forgotten that a university is much better thought of as a knowledge-conserving institution than a knowledge-innovating one.

The existential question that graduate students should be trying to answer, and should be helped by their supervisors to answer, is whether they have the personal disposition to work in an environment that presumes the truth of a number of statements that they, personally, know to be false. We must, I would argue, never demand that they believe something they have good reasons to reject, but we can, in fact, ask them to proceed on the presumption that what we’ve known for decades more or less holds. We should not be ashamed of testing their knowledge of the tradition, no matter how “conservative” that makes us look.

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