Sunlit Water

November 17, 2006

Open Minds

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 11:47 am

One thing college professors like to do, particularly in introductory classes, is ask questions and make statements that are designed to unsettle their students, to challenge their assumptions and open their minds.  This behavior is generally associated with humanities classes, which are often largely geared toward “expanding horizons” and introducing students to perspectives they haven’t seen before (post-colonial literature, say), and is often the sort of thing conservative critics of academia latch on to when they complain about “liberal indoctrination.”  Obviously, having your assumptions challenged is a good thing generally, and learning to think and respond to new and difficult ideas is one of the main things colleges are supposed to teach.  And, indeed, in a lot of cases kids come into college with biases and misconceptions that need to be undermined if not eliminated entirely.  I do kind of wonder, however, how much this confrontational attitude is really necessary to get the message across.  I haven’t taken a whole lot of classes like this, but the impression I get is that many (though by no means all) professors like to challenge assumptions just for the hell of it, even if the specific challenges they are posing don’t have much substance to them.  I think this sort of pedagogy has a risk of backfiring once it reaches a certain level if students decide the professor has gone too far with a provocative statement they think is obviously wrong, calling into question all the other issues on which they’ve changed their minds.

Although this sort of thing is most strongly identified with the humanities, it’s common in the social sciences too, and indeed it’s there that it may even be more important since the conclusions of many social social sciences can be quite counterintuitive and professors have to break down preconceived notions in their students so they’ll really understand the subject matter.  There is an additional risk here, however, more than in the humanities, because empirical research in the social sciences is always progressing, and previous certainties are constantly at risk of being overturned by new data.

This is particularly true in economics.  Many econ professors, at least in my experience, love to challenge their intro classes with counterintuitive conclusions that demonstrate the usefulness of economic theory.  That’s all well and good as long as the data backs up the theory, but it doesn’t always, and many cherished Econ 101 examples (the minimum wage, for instance) have turned out to not match up well to the data.  This can be harmful in two ways: first, by turning students who see that the data doesn’t match what they were taught against economic theory entirely, and second, by empowering people who only take a little bit of econ with just enough knowledge to sound off about policy proposals without a glance at the applicable data (“the science of economics proves that I’m right!”). Not all of those people are arguing in good faith, of course; many of them know perfectly well that the data don’t support what they’re saying, but they also know that most other people don’t know that.  It’s kind of a mess.

If economics didn’t play such a major role in public policy, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but it does; although what academic economists do research-wise is generally pretty different from the simplifications you hear in the media, what they do in the classroom can have wide-ranging effects.  It would be nice if they would be a little more careful with the facts and a little less enthusiastic about opening minds.


1 Comment »

  1. professors like to challenge assumptions just for the hell of it, even if the specific challenges they are posing don’t have much substance to them

    This is annoying, mostly because there are almost always a bunch of supportable positions that could just as easily (and more legitimately) challenge the students’ assumptions.

    One of the more interesting class discussions I’ve had was in a political science class a few years ago, during which the professor asked if George Bush was really a conservative. It led to enthusiastic debate, and had the added benefit of not being entirely bullshit.

    Comment by Matt F — November 17, 2006 @ 2:34 pm |Reply

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