Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Many of us are understandably frustrated by the bad ideas coming out of Washington D.C. these days, in the form of unqualified cabinet selections, impulsive policy statements, and unhinged late-night tweets. We recognize the danger of our current national mood and feel duty-bound to respond with every tool at our disposal. And, no doubt, to be a professor, whether during these troubled times or in more halcyon days, one must first and foremost profess. It is an obligation woven into the title. Yet, now more than ever, we must attempt a difficult balance.
On the one hand, the act of being a professor, hardly a passive privilege but rather an active responsibility, emerges from the Latin reference to working in the world: to “lay claim to, declare openly." It is a declaration of one’s expertise, measured against public standards; it is a statement that one knows. Yet there is another meaning, public, yes, but also much more personal: the “profession” that one believes.
Socrates, pious citizen and iconoclastic gadfly, understood the difficulties of straddling both positions when he was called before the Athenian assembly to answer charges that, among other crimes, he had confounded the youth of his city with his rhetorical wiles. To be fair, Socrates would retort that he was no sophist, that he was a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. Putting aside this argument for a moment, we may still yet recall that when he was threatened with fines, imprisonment, and ultimately death, Socrates knew that he could not rely on mere dialectic to save him. He knew that he could not be “saved” at all if he were to honor what he professed. He would speak, publicly and dangerously, to profess both what he knew and what he believed.
This ancient convergence of knowledge and belief calls to mind a contemporary conundrum facing the university professor. In our classrooms, we call upon our disciplinary knowledge to convey what is known in our fields. Of course, knowledge is fraught with debate. Fact-claims reside within and emerge from ongoing questions that remain to be settled, they are shaped by epistemological and paradigmatic filters, and, most importantly, they are subject to violent repudiation - though not by “alternative facts,” that absurdly flippant excuse offered by Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway for administration hacks’ willingness to confuse fact with conjecture. No, facts are rightly repudiated by our merciless efforts to test them and reveal, not with passion but by method, that what is fact today may be falsehood tomorrow. Our willingness to submit our claims to peer review is a necessary standard that demonstrates the degree of our professionalism.
At the same time, abstract facts are used for concrete purposes, to build things, to formulate policy, to impact human lives. It is one thing, after all, to know the effect of carbon emissions on the planet; it is another thing entirely to advocate for their reduction because that kind of professing - that kind of advocacy - resides less in fact than in value (the comparative value of human life over corporate greed, for example). And values are not facts. Values emerge from that other manner of belief that called for Socrates to speak against the prevailing wisdom of the assembly, even at the risk of his life. And this is where the question becomes particularly thorny. Because values in a democracy (which is itself both a manner of government and an aspiration for human affairs) are not tested as facts; they are tested by our ability to persuade, to profess our beliefs not as facts but as ideal possibilities.
The professor’s dilemma, then, is the struggle between one’s identification of facts and one’s advocacy for beliefs. There are few other jobs where those terms blur so easily. Certainly, few of our students would confuse us with priests extolling holy writ from our lecterns. But our power to measure their educational outcomes through the act of grading makes for a grave responsibility. How we meet that responsibility - indeed, how we define it - can hardly be resolved to universal satisfaction. But we must try our best to define our terms and defend our stances, publicly, if only that we may benefit from hearing the perspectives of others.
Speaking therefore as one professor, I hold that the classroom, certainly one located in the humanities and social sciences, should as much as possible be treated as a microcosm of public life where each student is encouraged to craft meaningful articulations of the facts and beliefs as they understand them. As professors, we are called to introduce students to many of those facts, along with some of their more useful frameworks. But we should not abuse that power by encouraging students to confuse beliefs (neither ours nor theirs) with facts. No doubt we should share our beliefs, profess them without shame. But our students require first that we demonstrate a democratic tolerance for debate and an open-minded appreciation for contrasting opinion.
Some might say that this perspective demonstrates intellectual cowardice, that this day demands that we transform our classrooms into tools that may dismantle the creeping (and sometimes nakedly obvious) crisis of the Trump Age. I sympathize with that position. Indeed, I believe that Trump is not only ill-informed but that his occupation of the presidency is illegitimate. And I recognize that resistance to that which one both knows and believes to be wrong may take many forms. But for now I can imagine no better response to the anti-democratic impulses of his administration than a bravely democratic stance, to teach my students to listen to the opinions of others, to parse those opinions for the validity of stated facts and the utility of stated beliefs, and to debate them, publicly and with confidence. The story of our country, after all, is one of bad ideas holding sway for a while before ultimately being won over by good ones.
In response to an illegitimate president who mocks our values and fears our democracy, this is one professor who will speak out and push back. I will support allies in all sorts of public action to resist Trump and return our country to a positive, humane course. At the same time, I will attempt to live that difficult balance in my classroom, to encourage students to practice the principles that Trump repudiates. We will listen to each other, learn from each other, and inspire each other to speak authentically and honestly about what we believe, even at the risk of encountering opinions that strike us as wrong. We will practice that virtuous profession that counters falsity with fact while respecting the fundamental humanity of our interlocutors. No matter how wrong our opponents may be, as we define that term, we will engage them in the marketplace of ideas, not with force but with persuasion, not with hate but with love. And then, not easily, not without pain, but eventually, we will win.
Lectern image from Amazon