Listening to Authority and Listening to the Outside Evidence
In a September 8, 2013 NYT OpEd, Professor Aaron Hirsh, chairman of the Vermilion Sea Institute and the author of “Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez,” has a delightful essay that begins with a story about his students and he floating in the Sea of Cortez. Two of his students notice a popping sound coming from the water below. One of these more perceptive students is blind and the other is a musician. This sparks a whole series of questions from students about where this sound is coming from (it’s shrimp), evolution and so on.
Hirsh relates this story to consider the question of the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes) that are all the rage in higher education right now. His main worry about MOOCs is that they are tightly controlled environments in which the material is entirely selected by the professor (the authority) that the student is wholly encapsulated by in the course. The triangular relationship that exists in customary non-online classes of professor, student, and the outside world are truncated into only a binary relationship between what the professor gives to the students and what the student sees and is being tested on. This raises a larger question about the nature and role of education and the tasks of citizens, as Hirsh puts it:
To weigh the claims of authority against evidence that is not curated by that same authority; to forget, at least occasionally, about how one is being watched or assessed by that authority; to be skeptical and independently minded — these are vital abilities in a citizenry defensive of its own power, and I worry that students working inside a virtual world of their professor’s construction are learning to listen too much to the teacher and too little to outside evidence.
This is a pungent observation. It happens to match, first of all, a point that we make in our 2011 Master White Paper on California’s Public Higher Education System entitled “Killing the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Public Higher Education System in Peril”:
What is at stake is more than education, however, as important as education is. What is at stake is the kind of society in which we want to live. Education’s impact is deep and wide: the kind of broadening that people receive through the educational system – and more generally through media, art and culture, child-rearing, governmental statements and actions, and so on – bears directly and substantially upon the way that young (and not so young) people learn to think, gather, evaluate information, recognize disinformation, and make choices about political, economic and social issues.
Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privateers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed as the answers in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. This grows all the more significant when there is a growing storm of false or misleading information emanating from people and organizations trying to seduce people into buying their wares, whether those wares are commodities or ideas. Should this trend persist it will mean that our society will become increasingly intellectually impoverished, because its citizenry has become vulnerable to being manipulated by hucksters, opportunists, and those who have more ready access to mass media by virtue of their owning media, possessing a lot of money, and/or having friends in high places.
Secondly, this is where the principles that guide a wise pedagogy must also inform a wise political world (how strange it seems to speak of wisdom and politics in the same phrase!). The public is too vulnerable to thinking about major political questions (e.g., Syria’s civil war and Obama’s plans to bomb Syria), relying too much or entirely upon what political authority is telling them to think.
Political authorities and an accommodating mass media frame the issues in such a fashion as to essentially pre-determine what the public will think, barring an alternative force such as an insurgent social movement intervening and contending for the people’s allegiance. “Will we be humanitarians or will we not?” is the way that Obama et al. want the public to see this.
To pose the question that way is to rule out other ways of looking at this, leaving aside the dishonesty of U.S. officials decrying the horror of weapons of mass destruction only when they are not being used by the U.S. (e.g., depleted uranium or white phosphorus or Agent Orange) or by some U.S. ally (e.g., they said nothing when Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally and used poison gas to massacre Kurds). How does bombing Syria to kill people, especially non-combatants, foster peace? How does committing the supreme international war crime — attacking a country that does not threaten yours — constitute a “humanitarian” gesture?
People need to learn how to listen to and evaluate the evidence independently of political authority.
This is something that requires a recognition by the public, first of all, that the public needs to do this. The problem here is that you don’t know what you do not know. Most of the public doesn’t know that they are being misinformed and manipulated. You only discover that you didn’t know something when you learn something new that alters the way you looked at things before.
Despite these disadvantages, the public is not stupid (at least not most of them). They can see some things based on their own experience and knowledge. This brings us to the second point: In a good pedagogical situation, the authority (the teacher) does not have a different agenda than fostering the student’s enlightenment. The teacher’s authority rests upon the fact that s/he knows more about the subject they are teaching than the students do and that this authority assists the learning process rather than interferes with it.
If the student is not really interested in learning and being enlightened but just wants to get through it as expediently as possible, then they will not take advantage of what the teacher can teach them about how to learn or how to think but will only want to know how to get done as easily as possible so as to get their credential. MOOCs and the exclusively online universities market themselves this way: degrees are hurdles to get like a hamburger that you order at a fast food place. Fast Education gets you as close to real learning as Fast Food gets you the best taste and nutrition.
In politics, authorities, by contrast, have a stake in what information is given to and what is withheld from the public and other competing bureaucracies. They are not interested in full disclosure and real transparency. There are occasionally individual exceptions, but they are exceedingly rare and they do not characterize or govern the overall structures of power. Generally speaking individuals who are genuinely interested in the public really knowing what’s going on are either prevented from gaining any real political power, ejected from the existing structures of power, or if they are tolerated, they are severely marginalized and kept from having any real influence other than acting as the ones that “keep hope alive” for those in the public who want something else but haven’t yet woken up to the structural nature of the problem.
How can this situation be changed? After all, the people with political power make the biggest, most consequential decisions. The longish answer to that is what I discuss in Globalization and the Demolition of Society. The really, really short answer to that question is three-fold.
First, growing ranks of the people have to be trained in how to evaluate evidence and not be prey for authorities who do not have our or the planet’s best interests in mind.
Second, those growing ranks of people have to participate directly in bringing to other people’s attention that they are being misled and taking what people do know from the news and from their life experiences and combining this with a scientific approach and a knowledge of history, raising up and concentrating what is already known to people. Done well, what you are doing is giving voice to the voiceless. You are doing the equivalent of playing a pure note on a Coronet that stirs people with recognition. You have to become a political activist, in other words, in the broadest sense of the term.
Third, the point of all of this is to change the world by mobilizing people in growing, expanding ranks (not in a straight line but in a back and forth process in conjunction with the objective conditions) to take hold of and fundamentally transform the world in all aspects.
In a word, this means a revolution.
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)
About the author: Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo