Ilana R. Akresh is an Associate Professor in the Sociology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In his oft-quoted 1953 essay, Isaiah Berlin draws upon a reference to the Greek philosopher Archilochus, translated as: a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one big thing. Although the original essay was primarily focused on Tolstoy (who Berlin classified as a tortured combination of fox and hedgehog), it’s been used in several other contexts. For instance, it has been argued that all great politicians are hedgehogs — or, I would argue, at least they are when they are working as politicians: Politicians need a unifying idea that is easily pitched to voters and that can be captured in a pithy soundbite.
In a 2005 book, Philip Tetlock, a professor at UC Berkeley, used this framework to examine the ability of “experts” to predict outcomes. Among other things (including an inverse relationship between fame and accuracy), he found that although hedgehogs were often quite persuasive in their language — perhaps in part due to the strength of their convictions — foxes tended to be much better forecasters.
There were several reasons for this: foxes were more willing to be self-critical thinkers, possessing intellectual humility. More importantly, they were willing to update their beliefs when presented with new evidence, and were more skeptical of grand explanations. This contrasts with the hedgehogs, who would sometimes stretch their overarching narrative beyond any range for which it was originally intended, and who tended to more doggedly stick by their initial understanding of the world.
Of course these are stylized categories, making them reductive by definition. That said, the extremes can be informative. In this case, they can inform our understanding of the goals of higher education: It would seem that, unless we think we’re filling the universities with future political campaign managers, the same skills that made the foxes more nimble and better predictors in Tetlock’s work are also the skills we want to impart to an informed citizenry.
One of the main ways to operationalize this in the classroom, at least in the social sciences, is to teach multiple explanations for social and political problems, and to explore a range of possible solutions.
Consider, for instance, the topic of poverty — clearly something discussed in colleges far and wide. Seeing the world as a system of oppressive hierarchies that generate inequality is one way to see poverty’s causes. However, it is far from the only way to see them. A multiple-explanations, or fox-like, approach would encourage a more nuanced and multifaceted view of the causes of poverty – which would include discrimination and oppression, without being limited thereto.
This approach also involves talking openly about the best (and worst) ways to exact change, given each set of factors. When we only teach a narrow range of explanations and interventions, we’re preparing hedgehogs, not foxes.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that students don’t stay in college forever. They go out, lead, and create the world of tomorrow. I have a lot more faith in a world that’s led by those with a little intellectual humility and an eye for nuance than a world led by those with a single, blunt instrument, looking for new applications.
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