Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mr. Fish is all wet: teaching and revealing beliefs; God; sex; volcanoes

.....This post refers to my previous post, which concerned Stanley Fish's view that, in the classroom, teachers should simply keep their opinions to themselves.


.....I’ve always rejected teaching that proselytizes*. I reject the notion that my job, or part of my job, is persuading students of some political (etc.) view or philosophy.
.....My position is a common one among teachers. Essentially (cliché alert!), as a philosopher and a teacher, I see myself as teaching students how to think, not what to think. Understandably, students sometimes fail to perceive the distinction.
.....But what is the point of teaching how to think if that knowledge doesn't lead to beliefs and convictions? No point at all. You can't teach how to think without implying, to some extent, what to think. And so things get complicated.

.....For instance, I teach students to approach beliefs in relation to reasons and arguments. I teach students how to distinguish between good reasoning and bad reasoning. (I took a good deal of logic in grad school that prepared me to do this.)

.....But that doesn’t mean that I must not reveal my view or opinion in the classroom. In fact, often, by not doing so, the logic ("critical thinking") instructor risks portraying “logic” in a way that implies its impotence or irrelevance, its status as an abstraction with no connection to the concrete.

.....Here’s a simple example. In the course of teaching students about fallacies, I explain why one must not engage in or tolerate “cherry picking”—i.e., focusing only on evidence/reasons that favor “one’s view” while ignoring all other evidence.
.....But, at least a few years ago, we Americans were in a moment in history in which the most important event in the world—the invasion of Iraq—quite clearly came about and was “sold” to the public through cherry picking. There really was no doubt about this, and, over time, the case for this has become overwhelming.
.....Given the importance of the war—especially for Americans, who decided to wage it—I wouldn’t consider myself a responsible teacher if I did not point this out.
.....I told my students: “If you’re willing to cherry pick the evidence, you’ll make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes will be serious. Look.”

.....If a professor of vulcanology takes his class to a volcano, and he/she proceeds to lecture (from a safe distance) about, say, "pyroclastic flow," he sure would be a knucklehead if, at that moment, pyroclastic flow started pouring down the volcano and he didn't mention it!

.....I do not come to class simply asserting that the Bush administration are bad or confused or dishonest people. I discuss what it means to think well and honestly. I discuss and warn against, in particular, fundamental fallacies of reasoning. Now, as it happens, a commission of one of those fallacies was at the heart of the most important event of our time.
.....So I made the point. How could I not?
.....Students discern my view (well, part of it) about the buildup to war: it involved the cherry picking of evidence. I don't disguise this. Why would I do that?

.....That the Bushies systematically ignored evidence to the contrary of their position (about Iraq & WMD, Saddam & Al-Qaeda, etc.) is as plain as day. And yet, some will now protest: it's only your opinion that the Bushies "cherry picked." —Ah, yes. There is no objective truth. There's only "opinion." That's what I love about many conservatives today. They are Postmodernists. Only they're too fucking ignorant to know it.


.....In my “intro” classes, I discuss the well-known arguments for and against the existence of God. It would be disingenuous, I believe, for me to offer a logical critique of these arguments (that’s what philosophers do, friends) without noting that these arguments are (with the possible exception of inductive forms of the "problem of evil") very weak. Everyone in my field (including believers) knows it. Anyone with a grasp of logic will draw that conclusion or some version of it. Competence ensures that.
.....Should I hide my view on the quality of these arguments? Even when my (perfectly ordinary) application of logical standards to these arguments in the classroom plainly answers the “quality” question? If an argument is demonstrably weak, then I need to say so. What's the point of philosophy if it doesn't point to anything?
.....I do not, of course, declare to my students that God does not exist. But that is only and exactly because an application of the methods of the logician/philosopher do not in this case warrant such a declaration. It warrants (demands) the statement that these arguments are weak: "Maybe there are strong arguments for God's existence; we’ve not found them yet. We'll keep looking. Does God exist? Dunno."
.....On the other hand, one needs reasons for one’s beliefs. Good ones. Lots of people believe in God. Where are the good reasons for their belief? Again, they may exist, but, roughly speaking, philosophers (and everyone else) have not yet found them. With regard to having good arguments, theists are much like believers in Bigfoot.

.....I have no doubt that many conservatives (and a few of my students, too) imagine that people like me enter the classroom “teaching” atheism and the wickedness and incompetence of the Bush administration.
.....No. It’s not like that. It’s nothing like that.


.....At this point, the real enemy among us is something that much of the Postmodernist crowd and much of the conservative crowd have in common. They don't really believe in reasons. They don't have a clue about evidence or the standards of logic or scientific method. (To see the point as it concerns the "theory" [postmodernist] crowd, study the Sokal Hoax. Trust me, it's an eye-opener.) They just have Beliefs. Theirs are right, they think. Others' are wrong. It's "obvious." So they shout and sneer.
.....No. If one wants truth, one needs to work with reasons. Anything can be "self-evident," you know. Self-evidence means zilch.

.....In the end, it's how you think, not what you think, that matters.

(Hey, the title of this post mentioned sex! What about that? A: False advertising, plain and simple.)

*With some groups of students (mature, serious students), I have on occasion laid my cards about an issue or question on the table. For instance, I have done this while discussing, say, the moral responsibilities of a citizen or a parent or a spouse. (Among other things, I teach Moral Philosophy, my specialty.) Here, I have sometimes allowed myself to think out loud and to express a view to which I have gradually arrived over years—but never with the idea of "teaching" it, though I plainly am attracted to it, despite the usual reservations. Part of my motivation is to model grappling with an issue, sometimes for many years, and trying to arrive at some understanding. I do believe that, at such times, students understand that I do not intend to be "teaching" the view and that I welcome disagreement and challenge. When I think about such moments, Professor Fish's view strikes me as especially wrongheaded. Hiding my perspective would make me a less effective teacher. Far less.


Anonymous said...

Who does this Stanley Fish think he is, anyway? Is he the self-appointed spokesperson for academics?

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Clinton confuses toughness with sophistry.

OK, no surprise there, but why can't her fans see that? And why get all pissed off at the O-Man, who seems to be a relatively honest guy for a politician? He's almost classy.

Who can 'splain it?

Anonymous said...


I took Chunk's Intro to Philosophy class this last Spring. I expected all sorts of Plato'ism's and the history and study of Socrates, that, upon exiting the bookstore in January with my "text," which was basically 30 pages of Lecture/Essays stapled with a cover letter, minus references to Plato, and free of charge, I was a bit confused.

Where was Plato?

I'm kinda modest, a bit. I'm not exactly slow (but, there are many quicker than I) - and I'll admit to being a bit discouraged after two slow weeks in class, but something unexplainable happened.

Chunk's class got interesting, and Chunk himself became interesting very quickly.

What do I care if Chunk makes a quick one directed at Dubya? I can see clearly that it wasn't for the sake of lashing out against the administration, but that whatever was said, directly refers to the text, thought, and idea presented in class. The funny, er, reference to Dubya, was just a manner in keeping things relevant to current events, in which, to most Instructors' hope, that students stay abreast in current events, and that they are able to see and think for themselves whether some things seem a bit aloof.

Chunk structured his class as a means to develop ones thinking. We live in a time where news reaches us instantly. Too often we are influenced by what the media reports (Fox Propaganda, Clinton News Network), and can easily find contradicting reports. His class was relevant, and encouraged each of us to think for ourselves by examining whatever evidence we found, and using our minds to arrive at a possible conclusion, not a preconceived thought or idea begging for support.

Did it become obvious in time that Chunk thought different politically than the current administration? Absolutely. But then, that is something nearly congruent with 70% of the nation (with 30'ish% approval rating for GWB). BTW, what is 70% of close to 300,000,000? And why would something that 210,000,000 Americans already think be considered controversial, or wrong, or bad? Apparently, it's just stating the obvious...

Chunk always openly and honestly asked for others to support differing views with evidence. Concerning the God debate, he admitted at least a dozen times, his own possible desire (would make things pretty simple) for conclusive evidence on the existence. To the best of his ability (and, more than most), none exist. Did he ever ostracize anyone for having or even displaying opposing views? Never.

It saddens me that this fine instructor, in a sense, feels compelled to explain himself. All of this coming from a registered Republican who differs on some views from Chunk. (now, registered Decline to State)

I've read ratemyprofessor.com comments where some have dropped his class, and were offended by his teaching. Why some are offended to develop the skills needed to think critically is beyond me. It goes both ways. The skills you learn are encouraged, begged even, to be used to further thought in any direction, whether for, or against. Where I grew up, these people who dropped his class would be called quitters, for quitting when their thoughts or beliefs or ideas were challenged, or when it became difficult. So, in the words of Tyler Durden, fuck them.

Anonymous said...

Well stated, 10:16.

Bohrstein said...

Here here! *raises yet another mug and is becoming inebriated with all this respect going around*

Bohrstein said...

I'm often quick to speak without providing any substance to a conversation (what can I say? I'm a damned fool!)- but it should be noted, at the very least, that Chunk (as far as I know after 2 semesters) doesn't advertise Dissent in his classes. There is something captivating enough in his lessons that afterward some select students drive home in a deeper state of consciousness than whence we arrived - and damn it all, inquiring minds are insatiable.

Anonymous said...

Chunk, thanks for the excellent, cogent, well-written rejoinder to Fish. As a prof with a similar approach, I much appreciate it. And how lovely to hear from former students who GET IT about Chunk and about good teaching. The whole thing makes my day.

p.s. Question: Why is it that profs like Chunk and me) don't win those "best professor" awards, almost ever? One answer: because making students challenge their own beliefs and learn to think critically can be (for them) downright painful and uncomfortable. It doesn't always feel good. Amazingly, many students seem to equate good teaching with "making me feel good." Glad to see that this is not universal.

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