Think it possible that you may be right

Thinking about a response to Ben’s comment on my earlier post about thinking, I realised I perhaps need to change my most common diagnosis of “why some students are scared to think”. I always put it down to a lack of intellectual confidence – believing that I am not clever enough to understand this clever book or this complicated idea. But I wonder if it is also, or rather, about a lack of confidence in intelligibility as such – believing that this clever book or this complicated idea does not really make sense, or can never make sense to me. Believing, on some level, that the world or the text is sufficiently arbitrary and random that the only way to be sure you have found a right answer is to have The Teacher tell you so. Never having found the world or the text a friendly and welcoming place for your mind.

Never having learned, not only to “think it possible that you may be mistaken” (as Cromwell said) but also and perhaps more importantly to “think it possible that you (yes, you – and, after all, why not you?) may be right“.

I realise that this could turn into a long and speculative rant about the postmodern condition, and I would rather it didn’t. (I mean – maybe I’m the old-fashioned one here, stuck in my weird modern ideas about rationality and the quest for truth. OK. Guilty as charged).

There is a kind of faith that is a necessary precondition for seeking any understanding at all; namely, faith that something can be understood. (Which, particularly when the something-to-be-understood is a someone, comes very close to the virtues of hope and charity as well). And I start to wonder whether and to what extent I am encountering instances of the lack of that faith.

For more about virtue in the university, see Mike Higton’s forthcoming book.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alison Breadon on 31 March, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Hmmm. Not sure. I’m trying to remember back to my first year, and I think I did have my confidence rather squashed, but I also think quite rightly so. I didn’t have a clue, and there was precious little teaching of concepts, ideas, other people’s insights that would have helped me shape my reading/understanding. I remember one of our first seminars – we were given no specific reading list. I only had the haziest idea what modernism was, hadn’t heard of postmoderism, and we were given a handout of undiluted delueze and guattwhatever and the introduction went something like ‘I’m sure you all have your own views on postmoderism, I’m going to talk a bit about blah blah blah’ – there was plenty of room for discussion, and I’m sure my thoughts on the text would have been welcomed, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on . . . An extreme example. But also maybe the result of a system (dare I say it . . . subject *looks around anxiously, hoping no other artists are reading*) where I was essentially creating my own work from age 14 or so (it was a progressive secondary school!), setting my own projects and problems, doing my own investigating, following my nose, reading and writing only related to my dissertations and a few interesting but specialised and unconnected lectures/lessons on art history. No genealogy, no theory – I could happily chat away about what I thought of all sorts of work, but had no context or language for it. Good for the confidence I suppose! But I never really ‘caught up’, and work that has a knowledgeable relationship to it’s context is stronger work, so I think having that rather misplaced confidence zapped was pretty helpful – and it wasn’t unpleasant, actually rather exciting and fun (though dreadfully taught, but what do you expect . . . )
    I’m not sure it’s hugely different now, though I could be wrong.
    I know it’s not really what you’re talking about, but just a perspective from someone who did no essay subjects or work on any text at all before university!


  2. Posted by Alice on 1 April, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    But on the other hand the postmodern idea that there is no one right answer just different interpretations in different contexts could help students. Once they get their head around it, they can see that they are not looking fior the essence of capital-t truth in the text, but for what the text says to them in their context when they think theologiocally. Maybe it challenges their values, maybe that challenge can be refuted, maybe it leaves them thinking about things differently. But it is about that encounter, rather than a dissection. Maybe that helps?


  3. I am inclined to agree with Alice on the specific note of ‘on the other hand the postmodern idea that there is no right answer just different interpretations… could help students’ line.

    Whilst ultimately I think we at least want to stab at this thing called ‘Truth’, we have to at least realise that we aren’t necessarily going to arrive at it on our own. I mean, the most commonly cited truth seems to be gravity, and we now know that even that is more a question of overwhelming probability than indomitable ‘fact’.

    Every statement has meaning, every meaning has truth; the more people that read any single book/essay/idea and draw something entirely different from it, the more meaning that book produces. There is a great deal to be said for creativity in this process.. It’s about understanding a single concept from a dozen points of view – after all (cliche incoming), it’s all ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’ anyway (Whitehead, I believe?).


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