Less Authority, More Courage (For All of Us)

My last post was about encouraging my students to re-evaluate what they think is certain.  I’m trying to help them break the habit of arguing from authority, of stepping in with swift shame and punishment of classmates who are “wrong,” and encourage them to notice their own thinking… and even to go so far as exposing that thinking to the class!  Even when they’re unsure!!  And in fact to become unsure.  To seek out uncertainty and celebrate it as a form of intellectual courage.  That’s going to be scary, and it depends on creating a supportive climate.

I responded to a comment on that post, in part: “I do realize that I’m pulling the rug out from under their trust in their own perception of reality, and that’s an unpleasant experience no matter what. Sometimes I think this is actually a spiritual crisis rather than a scientific one.”  To be fair, I’m careful not to suggest that their perception of certainty is invalid; only that it is important to notice the evidence that underlies it.  But that means considering the possibility that the evidence could once in a while not be strong enough.  That new knowledge might complicate old knowledge. In the conversations that follow, the students talk about wondering whether certainty exists at all, and whether anything exists at all, and what knowing means in the first place.  That leads to what it means to “be right”… and then what it means to “do right.”

Because… if you can’t know things for sure, you can’t be a good person?  I think?  Because there is a single correct answer and deviating from that is not only to “be wrong” — it is to “do wrong.”  And if you “sin” in this way privately in your own head, that’s bad enough to inspire fear of meaninglessness.  But if you do it in front of others, it’s shameful and inspires fear of punishment.

My best guess is that they have tangled up “right and wrong test answers” with “right and wrong moral behaviour” — being a “good person” means being a good student… usually a compliant one.

And since our definition of “moral good” is so narrow (especially in school systems), you don’t have to be “wrong” to be “bad.”  Even failing to be sure is failing to be “good”.

So, I’m provoking a moral, or maybe a spiritual, crisis — or maybe exposing an underlying crisis that was there all along.  What do I do about it?  How do I help students enter into uncertainty without being immobilized or injured by it?  They don’t know what to do when the rigid rules are removed, and I don’t know what to do when they get scared.  What do we do when we don’t know what to do?

Our classroom conversations range over ontology, epistemology, ethics, and, yes, faith. I realize I’m treading on thin ice here; if you think opening a conversation about faith and spirituality in my classroom (or on this blog) is a mistake, I hope you’ll tell me.  But I don’t know how to talk about science without also talking about why it’s not faith, to talk about truth and integrity without talking about what it means to do what’s “right”, why all of these might contribute to your life but one can’t be treated as the other.  And it’s a line of conversation that the students dig into avidly, almost desperately. Putting this stuff on the table seems to offer the best possibilities for building trust, resilience, and critical thinking.

So when the students open  up about their fear and anger around what “right and wrong” have meant in their lives, and why so many possibilities of what they could mean have been hidden from them, I go there (with care and some trepidation).  I’m careful not to talk about particular sects or creeds — but to invite them to think about what they think of as morally right and wrong, what fits into that structure, and why models of atomic structure don’t need to be shoehorned into that framework.

There is occasionally some overlap though.

A historical figure I’ve learned a lot from wrote in her journal about re-evaluating an especially weighty authority…

And then he went on … “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say?” …  This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down … and cried bitterly… “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the [ideas] in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.

Since this belongs to a particular faith community, I don’t bring it into the classroom.  I think about it a lot though; and it’s the spirit I hope students will bring to their re-evaluation of the high school physics they defend so dearly.

If I expect them to respect and honour the thinking of their classmates when they think it’s wrong (Bad? EVIL?), it’s crucially important that they feel respected.  If I want them to stop arguing from authority, I have to be meticulous about how I use mine. One technique I’m going to try tomorrow is sharing with the class some of the “cool moves” I noticed on the most recent quiz.

New Plan

Despite my angst about this issue, I’m actually thrilled by the curious, authentic, and humble thinking that’s happening all over the place.  So tomorrow I’ll show some of these (anonymous) examples of non-canonical ideas and explain what I think is good about them.

As for the students who argue from authority and squash all other ideas, I seem to be failing at understanding their needs and changing their minds.  I’ll keep working on it.  But I’m also going to try something new.  I will make sure to seek out their assistance in dreaming up praise for their classmates.

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