Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The degradation of argument

We live in an unreasonable age.

Courtesy of US News

Flip a channel, change a dial, turn a page – anywhere you look, you are bound to encounter an irrational argument, especially if you are one who often looks to the news.

In this world of politics and punditry, you can see a court’s decision to strike down codified discrimination being called “bigotry.” You can see a presidential nominee discuss a wish to see covert military action in Iran – on national television (an interesting interpretation of “covert”). And yet, rarely does one hear of repudiations to these arguments, left unexamined as they are.

What happened to philosophy or to the examined life? Why do we not teach students philosophy from the beginning of their educational journey? And bear in mind, when I speak of philosophy as a much needed staple of education, I am not making a call to students that they execute a deep doctrinal denunciation of Kant’s unfortunately arcane tome, “Critique of Pure Reason,” nor defend the esoteric ideas of Spinoza. I do not request that a student must understand what great minds have reasoned out. Rather, I suggest that said student learns to decipher how these philosophers reasoned through argument to find answers.

I came to this topic when I discovered an article discussing a mandate Brazil has given its high schools: teach philosophy. This simple and, as I’m sure some might argue, superfluous intrusion into the curriculum has led to some interesting moments as students are being prodded to think beyond the multiple choice answer, and are forced to apply philosophic thought to real world principle. For example, in an affluent school of the area, the students understood inequality to be a simple fact of existence. When, by edict of the teacher, they encountered Plato’s classic, “The Republic,” the students discovered a society with which they were well acquainted.

“The Republic” describes a supposedly utopian society, wherein a hierarchy of classes is ingrained within said society. And in this strict social hierarchy, complete with its fascistic overtones of over-rulers commanding unquestioned authority over the supposed lower castes, the students found no surprise nor affront in the implications of this class system. However, when the teacher put forward the fact that Plato’s hierarchy was based not on wealth, but on wisdom, they stared nonplussed.

Do you notice the implicit assumptions within the general philosophy of the students? That inequality is essentially a divinely ordained phenomenon; or that, following that trail of logic, that inequality must of a necessity be based on income and wealth; or that, being in the tier of plenty, their position in society as überkaste is static and unquestionable? These students, barely grown into their adolescence and just becoming aware of the burgeoning notes of empathetic thought, have barely considered the position of those who face different social and economic concerns.

This is a subtle danger faced in societies and a grave marker of our schooling system. If we teach our youth to the test, if we push learning by rote rather than by reason, we run the risk of them believing everything we say. They should not. Education is about questioning the order – for while great minds have constructed great societies and nations, petty minds have torn them asunder. Are we truly so afraid to scrutinize our assumptions and convictions? If they are reasonable, should they not be able to withstand the idle inquiries of a high school student?

A conviction that fears questioning is a conviction uncertain of its veracity and defensibility. Ideas need to be questioned and dialogue needs to be opened, lest we run the risk of having ideas become beliefs. And, to paraphrase Kevin Smith’s “Dogma”: ideas can change, nobody dies over an idea. Beliefs however, people fight wars over beliefs.

We need to ensure the youth are educated in such a manner that they don’t hear the words of an authority figure as dogma, but that they see them as they are: ideas, subject to the fallibilities and faults of the human mind, almost assuredly with room for improvement. We are in serious danger of teaching the youth not that the questioning of authority is wrong, but much worse – that in our instruction, we are not arming them with the reason nor ability to question authority.

Such unhesitant submission is what leads to feudal hierarchies, to god-emperors, to divine right, to, conceivably, a mandate of Heaven (please, excuse my foray into reductio ad absurdum). We don’t necessarily need kids with doctoral theses on esoteric, philosophic notions, but we need kids who can reason out an argument, and dissect the assumptions passed on by their forebears. History is not necessarily the story of progression, but if we don’t do something to give children the necessary tools of an educated people, it most certainly will not be.

Jesse Putnam is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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