by Jake Wright
This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.
A common problem instructors face at the introductory level is naïve skepticism. Such skepticism is not the result of some thoroughly considered view of truth, but rather a reflexive, unthinking rejection of universal truth. It can take the form of claims like, “Well, that may be true for you,” or “that’s just your opinion.” Of course, claims like this might be warranted for certain propositions, like whether a hamburger is delicious, but seem clearly out of place for clearly factual questions like whether humans cause climate change or whether increased access to guns leads to an increase in gun deaths. Such claims also might be warranted given a particular, well-developed skeptical view like scientific anti-realism, but these sorts of nuanced, well-supported views are not typically the sorts of views introductory students bring with them to class. Thus, a natural question one might ask is why students would do this, especially if the point of education is to gain knowledge.
In my forthcoming paper, “The truth, but not yet: Avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims,” I argue that there are a variety of reasons why students might be motivated to adopt naïve skepticism. Many of these reasons have to do with the students themselves. For example, they may be at a stage on Perry’s intellectual development framework that predisposes them to such claims, or they may have moral commitments to tolerance and diversity that seemingly obligates them to adopt a purely relativistic view of truth.
Some reasons have to do with the claims that are themselves at issue. Research has shown that claims that are normative, controversial, and unsettled are more likely to elicit relativistic responses, and for disciplines like mine – philosophy – if it’s not normative, controversial, and unsettled, it’s often not worth talking about. Even if you’re not a philosopher, nearly every discipline faces such questions. We must ask ourselves what the normative implications of agreed-upon facts are, we must interpret evidence that is unclear, and we must choose theoretical lenses through which we interpret our data, and such choices are not always as clear-cut as we would like.
In addition to the above reasons, I argue, students’ naïve skepticism is also the result of our teaching. In other words, many of the otherwise justifiable pedagogical choices we make carry with them the unfortunate consequence of encouraging naïve skepticism in our students. Let me give an example. One common strategy for presenting normative, controversial, and unsettled claims is to “teach the debate,” or present the most plausible views in their best light without explicitly settling on one as clearly preferable. There are many excellent reasons why one might want to teach the debate. The instructor may be trying to develop particular skills (eg metacognition and critical thinking) that may be negatively impacted by declarations of truth by fiat. Epistemic humility may be called for. Teaching the debate may encourage discussion or respect the effect of instructor/student power dynamics. As I said, these are all excellent reasons, but these pedagogical benefits come with a cost.
When teaching the debate, especially at the introductory level, the emphasis of the course often shifts from one of discovering the truth to being able to demonstrate particular disciplinary skills. For example, suppose I assign a paper asking students to argue for whether or not the mind is a purely physical entity. If I teach the debate, students will have three broad options to choose from: the view that the mind is purely physical; the view that the mind is purely non-physical; and the view that the mind is made of physical matter, but has certain non-physical properties. If I’m teaching an introductory course, I can expect my students to have only the most rudimentary understanding of these views. They do not, nor should they be expected to, understand complicated versions of each position built upon decades of disciplinary activity. Further, what I’m ultimately interested in is whether my students can demonstrate certain basic philosophical skills, like argument construction and analysis. Thus, the standards on which I am grading my students hew much closer to “show me you can do a thing” than “tell me what the fact of the matter is.” It shouldn’t be surprising in such circumstances, where topics are presented without any indication of which competing view is correct and when assignments assess skill development rather than truth discovery, that students feel comfortable declaring that there simply is no underlying fact.
The question, then, becomes what we should do about this. As I argue in my paper, I don’t think the proper response is to abandon pedagogical techniques like teaching the debate. The pedagogical benefits they bring with them would reduce such a response to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The most common response has been to maintain our pedagogies while directly confronting the naïve skeptic. When a student declares there is no truth, we try to point out why they obviously don’t really think that. But such strategies fall flat. The naïve skeptic may abandon (or feign abandoning) their view for the nonce, but they often quickly return to it after the discomfort of direct confrontation has left them.
Instead, I argue that we should work to overcome naïve skepticism via a reconception of our introductory courses as an extended discussion of metadisciplinary aims and how those aims differ from the particular aims of the course itself. In other words, I suggest undermining the conditions in the course that give rise to naïve skepticism itself by moving students away from the defensive posture that comes with direct confrontation, addressing the prior commitments that students bring with them, and giving students the opportunity to interrogate whether a particular discipline is able to discover truths about the world. There’s much to say about how the strategy plays out in practice, but space prevents it here. For a detailed discussion, though, I would encourage you to read the article, which I hope you find useful and thought-provoking.
Jake Wright is a senior lecturer in the Center for Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. His research focuses on the pedagogical and ethical justifications for in-class practices at the introductory level. He can be found on Twitter (@bcnjake), Google Scholar, and PhilPeople.