heterodox: the blog
Keep the Classroom A Space for Weird Conversations
The intellectual value of universities consists in part in providing a “safe space” for exploring a diverse range of ideas, no matter how weird they may seem. If teachers are unwilling to venture into alien territory and make the classroom safe for unfashionable thoughts despite the security they enjoy, we cannot expect students to take the risk.
Students say the darndest things.
I wasn’t really talking about Mother Teresa when the young woman in the front row left me momentarily speechless. The topic for that day’s class was the problem of theodicy. How to “justify the ways of God to men,” as John Milton puts it in the opening of Paradise Lost, is a challenge taken up by theologians and philosophers of virtually every tribe and nation. To prime the pump, I had borrowed from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 bestseller and asked about the authors of various texts we’d read — the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s essay “On Providence,” among others — and how they would respond to the question, “Do bad things happen to good people?”
Not content to leave it in such abstract terms, I posed a thought experiment: Would it trouble you more to find out that Adolf Hitler was in heaven or that Mother Teresa was in hell? That bad things happen to good people is hard to deny. It understandably perturbs proponents of divine justice such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose story about “the Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov is considered a tour de force on the theme. That good things also happen to bad people is an even more bitter pill for many to swallow.
Enter the young woman in the front row. No sooner had I finished my question than she said, “She is.”
Uncertain that I’d heard her correctly, I asked, “Come again?”
More clearly this time, she said, “Mother Teresa. She’s in hell.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. It wasn’t just what she said; it was how she said it. Her tone was confident, matter-of-fact, with a knowing look one might have when saying “It’s going to rain tonight” or “The Godfather is the best movie of all time” or “O.J. was guilty.”
Mother Teresa, as it turns out, is not universally admired. On one side you have Christopher Hitchens criticizing her for unsanitary conditions in her clinics and for the bad manners of condemning abortion in her 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. On the other side you have anti-Catholic fundamentalists who consign the Angel of Calcutta to hell, though in their case she mainly serves as an object lesson illustrating the heretical belief that good works alone merit a ticket to heaven. Nothing personal, in other words.
As obtuse as these two perspectives may strike many readers, the simple fact that my student was willing to say, out loud, something so far outside the box was strangely refreshing, if a bit awkward.
However necessary it may have been to flatten the COVID curve in the spring of 2020, pedagogical adjustments made during the pandemic have produced negative outcomes at every educational level. I teach seminar-style courses in which we read classic texts — from Homer to Dante, with selections from Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Virgil, and Augustine in between — then sit around a table and discuss the important questions they raise rather than listen to lectures. It is hard to overstate how ill-suited Zoom is for such an intellectual endeavor. The natural flow, the give-and-take, the nonverbal cues — almost every aspect of a vibrant discussion is affected for the worse when it is conducted across cyberspace. An atrophying of social skills self-reported by a number of my students is one of the consequences of the shift to online learning. The effects have lingered even after in-person classes have resumed.
These impediments would have been daunting enough had they not come on top of a well-documented tendency toward self-censorship on college campuses over the last decade. Students and professors alike have grown increasingly hesitant to express opinions that may be controversial or misconstrued. One result of this phenomenon is that classics that have provoked vigorous, sometimes violent debate over many centuries frequently elicit only the most vanilla of comments in class discussion. It is still possible to get students to express views they suspect their classmates may find objectionable, but their willingness to risk such vulnerability is rarer than it once was. Colleagues have reported instances of students being bullied on social media for comments they’ve made in classes. Little wonder they have become so reticent.
This trend is all the more regrettable given that the intellectual value of universities consists in part in providing a “safe space” for exploring a diverse range of ideas, no matter how weird they may seem. If we entertain a broader spectrum of opinion, we may discover that — to return to the problem of theodicy — we lack a consensus on what is a “bad thing” and who are the “good people” to whom they happen. This would be good to know. Views that jolt the sensibilities of students can be a welcome disruption to the predictable and bland platitudes that sometimes pass for sophisticated discourse. Discovering your voice occasionally requires listening to things you’d never imagine saying. One-and-a-half cheers, then, for the student in the front row, whatever bone she has to pick with Mother Teresa.
Teachers must be willing and able to set an example on this score. If teachers are unwilling to venture into alien territory and make the classroom safe for unfashionable thoughts despite the security they enjoy, we cannot expect students to take the risk.
I tell my students at the start of each semester that I will intentionally say things I don’t really believe and that they may or may not be able to tell. My hope is that, by the end of the term, they will be able to pass an ideological Turing test. I borrowed this idea from Bryan Caplan, by way of Leah Libresco Sargeant. The classic Turing test seeks to assess whether a computer has achieved artificial intelligence on the basis of a human evaluator’s (in)ability to distinguish between a computer’s responses in a conversation and those of a human. An ideological Turing test is an exercise in stating views with which one disagrees as clearly and persuasively as their proponents. If a neutral observer is unable to tell whether or not the speaker sincerely believes, for example, that abortion is immoral or that the death penalty should be abolished, then the speaker passes the test.
Another way of thinking of this approach is to see it as a form of playing devil’s advocate. Playing devil’s advocate can be a very useful strategy for making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, because understanding any subject involves an awareness of alternatives. Arbitrarily assigning sides on a contentious debate topic can facilitate the learning of this skill in part because it frees the students from having to “own” the views they express when, for example, they argue that the quality of public schools declined as well-educated, highly skilled women gained greater occupational opportunities and left the field of education, or that, according to William F. Buckley Jr., it would be better “to be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone directory than by the two thousand members of the Harvard faculty.”
Most students will not throw themselves into the assignment with passion if they are on the “wrong” side, which somewhat mitigates the pedagogical value. The efficacy of playing devil’s advocate is greatly enhanced if the role is played convincingly, and this burden will often fall on the instructor. A modicum of acting chops is required since students more easily brush off unconventional arguments they feel to be made in a pro forma manner. Many students are constitutionally incapable of letting eccentric or objectionable statements go unaddressed, even when they strongly suspect they are being baited by a teacher playing devil’s advocate. Instructors with the nerve to carry it through — whether they play the part bombastically or winsomely or archly or cheerily or manically — thus have the potential to establish a robust atmosphere of inquiry.
Some disciplines lend themselves to this agenda more so than others. The study of religion is especially ripe, if only because most religions look pretty weird to outsiders. Simply articulating in a dispassionate way the claims made in any number of classic religious texts can elicit a spirited response from students.
The ultimate aim is not to prove that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder and that all value judgments are therefore relative. Rather, it is to help students see that the way to discover the truth is not around the welter of competing claims but through them.
In any event, suppression of weird ideas only temporarily works. It doesn’t cause them to disappear; it only drives them below the surface. There in the darkness they evolve into ever more eccentric forms — like the exotic flora and fauna at the bottom of the ocean where no sunlight penetrates — before erupting into the open, without warning. The same dynamics that stifle free expression thus lead to a situation where students assert inanities as if they are profound, oblivious to how bizarre they sound to other people. To be sure, not all ideas are equally worthy of serious consideration. But we do students no favors by shielding them from arguments that make them uncomfortable or stray too far from the pieties of the moment.
The most profound meditation on the problem of theodicy ever written offers an instructive comparison. In the Book of Job, the plot is set in motion when God humors Satan when he is literally playing devil’s advocate and calls into question the integrity of the beleaguered title character. Job allows his friends to give long speeches saying things that God ultimately says are wrong. Even when his wife urges him to “curse God and die,” he dignifies her blasphemy with an argument rather than simply telling her to pipe down. When he finally speaks out of the whirlwind, God is often characterized as telling Job to shut up. But as G.K. Chesterton notes, God takes it all in and doesn’t say to stop asking questions. Instead, he asks plenty of questions of his own, many of which sound pretty odd whether you hear them in King James English or in a more contemporary translation. (Hath the rain a father? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?) It is as if God means to say, “If you think the world is weird, you don’t know the half of it.”
The world is indeed a very weird, very diverse place. Refusing to acknowledge that it is weirder and more diverse in ways we’d prefer to ignore is a dereliction of our duty as educators.
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