Something has been irking me as of late, and I get the feeling that I’m not alone here. It seems like, especially in classes related to the humanities, a vocal few dominate class discussion by espousing arrogant, narrow-minded worldviews as fact. And no, I’m not just talking about Republicans. This is a phenomenon that is ideologically indiscriminant, and the offenders in general have only one thing in common: an unrelenting refusal to question their own beliefs.
In the unyielding partisan bickering that often exemplifies a typical political science class, the world appears to be a very black and white place. Regardless of who you listen to, half (or substantially more) of the country has beliefs that are not only wrong, but downright idiotic. Never mind questioning the rationale for these opinions. In this self-assured student’s mind, a differing thought is an idiotic one.
Take a contentious issue like socialism and the free market, for example. There is no clear-cut consensus on how a government should function, and some of the world’s most intelligent people have devoted their lives to studying this very issue. While I don’t doubt that these discussion hogs — a seemingly well-learned undergraduate bunch studying at a respectable university — have a strong basis for their beliefs, I find their arrogance to be misplaced.
Yes, the free market has done wonders for wealth creation in the western world, but that is far from the whole story. Even Adam Smith, effectively the creator of capitalism, acknowledged that a free market is unlikely to generate shared prosperity on its own. On the flipside, capitalism’s imperfections hardly prove the feasibility of socialism. Advocates for heavy redistribution of wealth would be well-served to at least consider the effect such policy would have on worker incentives. Supporters of either side have plenty to contribute to the discussion, but only if they accept that perhaps the answer is not so straightforward.
This is, of course, only one issue out of many in one particular discipline. You can find such overconfidence in classes ranging from religious studies to sociology, and on a nearly infinite variety of issues. Is God’s existence a logical necessity, or is he simply a creation of man’s own? Are systemically impoverished minorities the result of institutionalized racism, or are there other explanatory factors at play? I don’t have the answers, but it seems that plenty of people in my classes know them definitively. So my question for those so quick to claim conclusive comprehension is this: If you are already so certain of the answers, why are you here?
I’ve always thought that our basic goal in attaining a higher education is to take in as much information as possible. By coming in with rigid preconceptions about the way the world works and refusing to question them, I would argue that you are merely cheating yourself.
There is a reason the theory of gravity is still called a theory: It is the unwavering principle of science that all knowledge must be constantly examined. If new, trustworthy information arises to call long-held beliefs into question, a responsible scientist would not scoff and discard it. On the contrary, he or she would gladly re-evaluate those beliefs in the interests of finding the truth.
But the truth is not obvious and quite possibly not even knowable. The best we can do is to take in as much information as possible, by being open to opinions we may find distasteful or flat-out wrong. Even if your opinions don’t change, you might be surprised what you learn.