(This post was previously published on Black, White and Gray with an open comments thread.)
Dogma is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” Interestingly, the second definition provided by Merriam-Webster as “a belief or set of beliefs that is taught by a religious organization.” Of course these two different definitions are not meant to be read together but it as does seem that Merriam-Webster assumes that religious beliefs, and only religious beliefs, are accepted without question or doubt. It would not surprise me if the individuals constructing these definitions did accept the myth that dogma only occurs in a religious context. There is plenty of evidence on college campuses that show the incorrectness of that myth.
Here is a great example of what I term education dogma.
Note that the students are chanting about not being silenced while they are obviously silencing the speaker. My understanding of this situation is that the speaker published something that challenges some of the assertions about a campus rape culture. [See more explanation here] Such a challenge is an affront to the dogma of the students. Therefore, these students do not feel that the speaker has a right to speak on a different topic. The violation of beliefs they accept without question or doubt creates their incentive to shut down the proceedings.
I do not know how common such “silencing” of unpopular speakers are but the very fact that they occur on college campuses is an insult to the notion that colleges are places where individuals are free to engage in a variety of ideas. For the dogmatic, ideas that violate the notions defended by education dogma are deemed “dangerous” and too much for the tender ears of our students. So in additional to shouting down speakers there have been calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” so that individuals do not have to listen to dangerous ideas. The true danger of these ideas is their threat to certain dogmatic beliefs of our students. These students are unwilling to consider the possibly that they are wrong, or perhaps not as right as they might believe. Education dogma motivates students who do not want to challenge themselves with innovative ideas but desire to shout down speakers of those ideas so that other students cannot hear them either. This is worse than the Jehovah’s Witness who come to your door to pitch his religion since at least he is not stopping you from listening to other truth claims. The need to proselytize is not limited to religious institutions.
When I observe scenes played out in the video perhaps the saddest element is that these students have probably deceived themselves into thinking that they are strong. The reality is that they are acting in weakness and insecurity. Only the weak and insecure seek to shut down the rights of others to present their own ideas. Only the weak and insecure cannot tolerate alternate perspectives. I fear that these students have been taught that it is strength to stare down their dehumanized opponents and silence them. As I watch that video I did not see intellectual powerhouses but I symbolically saw individuals who were yelling nonsense with their hands over their ears so that they would not hear an idea that may confront their presuppositions about reality. It is the same feeling I sometimes get when I see Christians in intolerant sects refusing to even consider alternate ideas to their unique theological perspectives.
For all practical purposes the students saw the speaker as a heretic. The use of the term heretic can bring up images of torturing, imprisoning and killing of those who disagree. This is not occurring. However, it is reasonable to ask whether the seemingly restraint of the students from such drastic actions is due to their moral compass or to the fact that they do not have the social power to engage in such actions. Education dogma has led to attempting to kick offending businesses off campus, attempts to fire professors, and the official shunning of students who hold the “wrong ideas.” Those with education dogma do punish those who violate their beliefs to the highest extent possible given their current level of institutional powers.
I defined this as education dogma and not educational dogma. The later term implies that the beliefs are natural consequences of obtaining more educational information. The conclusions drawn from those with education dogma are not necessarily the natural conclusions one must draw with more knowledge gained from academic study. Instead higher education occurs in a specific social institution that promotes certain subcultural values and beliefs. Participants in these institutions are expected to accept these values and beliefs without question. These beliefs are not the result of gaining more facts but instead are the dogmatic adaptation of certain social values provided to them by this subculture. We see evidence of this in that it is clear that students like the ones in the video are not looking for more information to make accurate assessments, but simply look to affirm previously accepted beliefs.
There are certain assertions we all take without question. The reality of gravity is supported with so much evidence that it is unreasonable to deny that it exists. Dogma becomes relevant with beliefs that have reasonable alternatives. The refusal to question such beliefs encourages those with dogma to dismiss dissenters as not only wrong but also as evil. The notion that they are evil heretics provides legitimation to punish or silence ideological out-group members. The dissenters are seen as having nothing of value to say and it becomes permissible to dehumanize them.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of beliefs accepted as dogma in higher education. It is not my intention to capture all possible education dogmatic beliefs but to provide a sampling of these beliefs. While people may quibble with a few of them, overall it is pretty clear to those of us on college campuses, and who do not accept this dogma, that these beliefs are accepted without question among many college students and professors.
1. There is a campus rape culture that encourages the sexual assault of women.
2. A woman accusing a man of rape has vastly more credibility than a man who claims his innocence.
3. The earth is getting dramatically warmer due to human activity and altering that activity can stop or slow this trend.
4. Israelites settlers and the Israel government are as bad as or worse than Palestinian terrorists.
5. Fundamentalist Christians are morally the same as Muslim terrorists.
6. Military action in the Middle East creates more problems than it solves.
7. Criticism of Islam as a religion of terrorism is an example of Islamophobia.
8. Religious freedom is not as important as acceptance of sexual minorities.
9. Society would generally be better if traditional religion disappeared.
10. Marriage between those of the same sex should be seen as the same as marriage between those of different sexes.
11. Trans women should be allowed to use the same facilities as biological women.
12. The physical differences between men and women play no role in economic disparities between the sexes.
13. A woman has a right to an abortion for whatever reason she chooses.
14. Black men are targeted by the police.
15. Anti-Hispanic racism is an important part of what motivates those who oppose immigration reform.
16. President Obama is criticized more than previous presidents because of his race.
17. Raising taxes on the wealthy will improve our economy.
18. Political conservatives are either greedy manipulators exploiting the marginalized or sincere dupes voting against their own economic interests.
19. There is little, if any, correlation between hard work and economic success.
20. The United States is more damaging to the world than other western industrialized nations.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing that these statements are either right or wrong. For the record I agree with some statements and disagree with others. I am not arguing it is problematic that students on college campuses have these beliefs. I argue that it is problematic that they hold onto these positions with a dogmatic attitude where they are unable to entertain alternative perspectives. There are arguments opposing these statements that are not tied to evil motivations but consist of perspectives that differ from the tenets of education dogma. Yet those who hold alternative perspectives are not just wrong but they are– put in the proper term – racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, denier, sexist, cisgenderist, pro-rape, etc. They are heretics in a binary worldview where creative compromises and third ways, which require the critical thinking skills which we should be teaching our students, are ignored and only stigmatizing and silencing the heretic is allowed.
When I look at the beliefs connected to education dogma it is clear that, similar to other political/social ideologies, they are socially constructed. There is not a logical connection between these beliefs. What logical connection is connects support of Palestine, abortion, tax increases on the wealthy, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants? The social construction nature of these beliefs indicates that there is not a coherent source of truth within them, but those beliefs are human attempts to sustain an arbitrary ideology. These beliefs may be right most of the time or they may be wrong most of the time. But it is naïve to think that the tenets of this dogmatic ideological system are always correct as they are not connected to an accurate central principle. This creates an opportunity for tremendous damage since there are times where education dogmatic beliefs lead to punishment for the unimaginable sin of being correct.
For example, if I constructed this list a couple of months earlier I probably could have added some variation of “Hands up, Don’t Shoot.” With Holder’s Justice Department report it is now clear that Michael Brown was not shot in the back nor was his hands signaling surrender. I thought as much when the first autopsy report came out, but I only told a few friends of my suspicions. Others, who publically stated that the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” narrative was inaccurate, were accused of supporting racism. Even after the Holder report and a relatively progressive journalist such as Jonathan Caphart admitted that the narrative was incorrect, activists continued to push back against the evidence. Those with dogma cannot be bothered with evidence that goes against their own convictions since in their minds contradictory views must be punished. Stigmatizing those with opposing opinions teaches others that if they articulate the wrong political position then they will be demonized and bullied. Dogma does not support rational discourse whereby we can get closer to the truth, be it was Michael Brown unjustifiably killed or whether religion is beneficial to our society, but it stifles such conversations with perverse incentives to hold onto disproven ideas to avoid being dehumanized by the adherents of this dogma.
Once again I have no problem with students who conclude that the ideas in the list are correct. I have a big problem when those students seek to silence and stigmatize who disagree with them due to the dogma by which they hold onto those beliefs. But it is unfair to only blame these students. They are at colleges and universities that should teach them the failure of this narrow-minded epistemological approach. Students are responsible for seeking out alternative perspectives and developing an attitude of inquiry allowing them to interrogate their own presuppositions. But their college and university teachers should be held to account since more than a few college professors have done a horrible job introducing critical thinking skills. These teachers come in with a certain set of assumptions and if students agree with those assumptions then they can leave college without any disturbance to their pre-college ideology. Then we have the gall to call that critical thinking. It is anything but critical thinking. It is confirmation thinking and we do our students a disservice with such an approach.
It is not just the professors who perpetuate this fraud in our educational system. I mentioned the recent talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as ways to project our students from unpleasant ideas. But college is exactly where individuals should wrestle with uncomfortable ideas. This is the time to explore new perspectives and measure them against old personal ideologies. How can a person know whether he or she has good ideas unless they are tested against competing ideas? One of the best things for my faith and intellectual thinking was to go to graduate school and have some of my previous faith-based perspectives challenged. At times I changed how I thought due to the challenges and at other times I become more convinced that I was correct because the challenges were inadequate. Ironically a conservative Christian Republican has a better opportunity to learn critical thinking in college than a progressive humanist Democrat because of the opportunity he/she gains to consider new ideas. When we allow students with certain perspectives to go through college without challenging them we not only promote dogma, we also do those students the disservice of never helping them to engage in the critical thinking necessary to intellectually grow. They are reduced to being a sounding board that regurgitated the latest expression of political correctness.
In my race and ethnicity courses I go out of my way to make sure that students, all students, have their presuppositions challenged. This includes the white conservative and the black radical. In my sociology of religion course I make sure that students, all students, have their presuppositions challenged. This includes the atheist and the highly religious Christian. I do this because reality, and well done comprehensive research agendas, almost never conforms to our presuppositions. So if we do our best to follow the evidence we eventually have our presuppositions confronted. I also do this because critically thinking requires us to struggle with new ideas and find ways to incorporate them into our current epistemological framework, or possibly jettison that framework for a more accurate one. Students should not be free to have their ideas go unchallenged in a college setting but rather they should learn how to defend those ideas in a robust manner.
We have seen similar images in a religious context. We have seen religious individuals burn books with unpopular ideas and religious groups unwilling to incorporate new theological insights that test the core of their current theology. These excesses are generally pointed out and rightly criticized. However, there is more than adequate evidence that dogma is not limited to the religious sphere. Our educational institutions often perpetuate and sustain dogmatic thinking with a ruthless determination to root out all heretics. Perhaps it is because both religion and education are the institutions used to construct the moral underpinnings of our society that we are most likely to be used them to legitimate dogmatic thinking. This can make them the key source of dogma in our culture. For whatever the reason why both religion and education have a tendency to promote dogmatic thinking, identifying this illogical epistemological approach wherever we find it is important if we are going to be able to engage in honest introspection of our ideas.