Thursday, April 19, 2012

Belief and Orthodoxy, Part 1

An elementary school principal I respect a great deal said something to me once that I've never forgotten. "Formal education will never produce a genius, but with a little diligence we may destroy some." I think it is an important insight for educators to keep in mind. It should not be the aim of our schools, especially our universities, to "produce" minds of a particular kind. Rather, we should provide a context in which minds can develop in their own way, ever mindful of the risk, namely, that by being too zealous in the pursuit of particular educational goals (by being too "diligent"), we provide a context in which they cannot develop.

I don't have very much to do with teaching these days. But as the promoter of a system for the production of academic results in writing, I too should keep the risks in mind. A writing discipline, after all, will never produce a work of genius, but it just may destroy one.

So I've been reflecting a little on a couple of basic principles that must be observed as you write your papers, one paragraph at a time, 30 minutes at a time. The first is never to let this become "mere busyness" or toil. To develop the basis of a claim you know to be true in the space of a paragraph, you don't need more than 30 minutes. This will often leave you with time left over, and this time can be used to read it out loud, and to think about what you are doing. You can do it slowly enough to keep this from being an exercise in writing words for the sake of writing words.

Second, believe the claims you are making. That is, confine yourself to making claims you believe. I always emphasize this when I define knowledge as "justified, true belief". In order to know, say the philosophers, you must hold a belief, and that belief must be true, and you must have a good reason to believe it is true. It's that first condition that sometimes gets lost in this "publish or perish" world. We know what "one" says on a certain subject, even without being sure we believe it. I think if there is one sure way to undermine your sense of your own genius it is to begin to say things you know to be publishable without being sure they are true. Or even things you know to be "true" but don't understand well enough to believe.

In times when there are strong orthodoxies it can sometimes be difficult to know what to believe. Or, rather, it is all too easy to know what to believe (what the "right belief" is). It is therefore difficult to stick to statements of one's own belief. I sometimes worry that our universities, which are systems of formal education and formalized research environments, have become too orthodox. I'm sure the orthodoxies are largely true and justified. I'm just not sure we're giving each other, and ourselves, the time we need to believe in them. Because that would demand giving us the time also to doubt them. And the luxury of remaining silent.

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To underscore the point: this post took me 25 minutes to write and consists of 529 words. A paragraph of academic prose is usually less than half as long. There would have been plenty of time to write about this subject more carefully.

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