The professor stood in front of the whiteboard, finger raised in righteous purpose before twenty totally focused students of Ancient Greek. The bearded, unkempt, bespectacled academic had suspended his recitation of the intricacies of noun declensions to hold forth on the “why” of it all.
Lower lip trembling as if he were close to tears, Dr. Johnson proclaimed, “A liberal arts education changes you. It doesn’t just — or even primarily — prepare you for a job. It is about becoming a better version of yourself.”
He stared us down, making the depth of his point via the passion on his face.
“I want to be an apologist, maybe as a professor at a university or something,” I said to Dr. Smith, another of my Classics professors. We had been chatting informally in the hallway outside his office. He had asked what I wanted to do with my life.
Dr. Smith had dedicated his life and heart to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus. Even some of his tests in Ancient Greek were designed with a missionary purpose…concurrent with high quality language instruction.
“That’s interesting,” he replied. “But the point of a university is to seek Truth, wherever it is to be found. As an apologist, you are — by design — saying you have the Truth and must defend it. You are defending the Faith, not advancing it.”
I spent ten years or so in college, progressing from an undergraduate at a Baptist school majoring in Religion and minoring in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin), to a Masters student learning Business, to a law student. Over that long and varied span, the project, the telos, the point of education became clear to me.
There are two, actually. First, job preparation. Though this never took with me particularly, I recognize that many people go to university to be better able to land desirable employment after school.
Second, training of the mind. With a proper education, you learn how to learn. You learn how much you don’t know. You learn to take in information, digest it, analyze it, and — crucially — critique it. If the information conflicts with other conclusions you hold, you learn how to more or less simultaneously challenge the validity of the new data and examine your previous conclusions. Using the techniques of science, reason, and discussion, you gradually learn how to arrive at the conclusions that are more likely than not to hold up over time.
That is, after a proper education, you change, as Dr. Johnson expressed so passionately and, as Dr. Smith suggested, you become equipped to discover Truth with some reliable measure of precision.
Part of the project is to learn how to reject old ideas, no matter how deeply held, and to adopt new ones. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to hold a conclusion provisionally, always subject to new evidence or argumentation.
At least this is what I thought education was for…
But I noticed that even professors who taught me to critique literature or to evaluate the merits of a business merger or to tear apart a line of constitutional argument would cling emotionally to deeply held beliefs. Some opinions simply ran too deep. They reached the core of the professor’s identity and as such sat beyond his willingness to apply the very techniques he was teaching us.
I recall an incident in law school. My Corporations professor had veered from scholarly instruction into the murky realm of indoctrination. He was a socialist at heart, you see, and so saw fit to rail against the concept of corporate stock being understood as “property” in any real sense of the word. Departing from the standard deference that students give professors who are on a tear, I challenged — politely, I thought — the professor’s opinion about stock. For my efforts, the next morning he treated me to a private chew-out session in his office, even suggesting that I drop the class. He said he had never been so insulted in his sixteen years of teaching law students. To be clear, my only challenge was to his ideas; I never asserted anything untoward about his character.
The surreality of this situation has stuck with me for more than a decade, and it comes to mind any time I find myself in disagreement with someone else on any issue that runs emotionally deep. It was surreal, of course, because it occurred at an institution that was specifically designed to teach me to argue points such as the one raised that day in Corporations.
It also comes to mind because, even though most of the people I know beyond a passing familiarity do in fact hold university degrees, I so rarely find anyone who can distinguish between a critique of their ideas and an attack on their character. Instead, they tend to act like the Corporations professor.
I don’t have the actual data, but it certainly seems that most of the discussions I have that delve into closely held opinions end poorly. Almost without exception, my interlocutor feels insulted.
Now, I grant that I can be brash. I do my best — I really do! — to keep my comments directed at the ideas being discussed, but my manner and demeanor seem to be substantially off-putting. I’ve known this about myself since I was young and I have put in a non-trivial amount of effort to be as polite as I can in such conversations without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of criticism (again, of ideas). Nevertheless, I seem to piss people off.
Even when I think I’m being polite, though, as with the law school professor mentioned above and with others, this doesn’t generally mollify my counterpart. Among the accusations commonly directed at me in such discussions are these:
- “You just want to be right.”
- “You want everyone to agree with you.”
- “You want to dominate the conversation.”
- “You won’t change your mind.”
What can I say? I do want to be right.
Not for reasons of ego, but because I simply don’t want to be wrong a minute longer than I have to.
Also, I want to find areas of agreement because the whole point of discussions on matters of some controversy is to arrive at a better approximation of the Truth.
Since I’m writing on my blog, I guess I am dominating the conversation. In a real exchange, however, I feel this charge is unfair because I so rarely try to shout people down. If they digress, devolve into insults, or (very commonly) speak incoherently, I will generally end the conversation. Whether that counts as dominance, I’m not sure.
Finally, I most definitely do want to change my mind, if it warrants changing. And I have. As a youngster, I went from being a sort of agnostic to a serious, dedicated Christian. As an adult, I changed my mind about that and rejected religion and faith. As a law clerk at the Montana Supreme Court, I regularly engaged in political and social arguments with a fellow clerk. She almost never made sense in these discussions, but her willingness to engage permitted me to really challenge and clarify my own thinking. As a result, my opinions evolved substantially on matters like the treatment of animals.
Over the last few years, my opinions on abortion, gay marriage, foreign policy, gun rights, and real estate agency have undergone huge changes, though I’ll understand if you don’t ask me about them.
Opinions were made to be changed. The fact that certain religious, political, and social points of view run so deep as to give us our very identities does not mean those opinions should remain constant. The better parts of judgment and personal development would be to change who we are when we discover we are wrong. This is the ultimate self-improvement project, and I plan to continue it.
I’d love to have you join me. But I’ll understand if you don’t.