Tag Archives: Betsy DeVos

What to think

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We saw yesterday (post here), that Mika Brzezinski , cohost of Morning Joe, said that it’s the media’s job “actually control exactly what people think.” She obviously didn’t mean that, some people jumped on it anyway. Here’s another example of lapsus profiteering (I’ll find a better name).

Today let’s think for a second about the phrase “telling people what to think” and its cognates. I bring this up because sometime today at CPAC, Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, filed, for the nth time, the complaint that universities “tell people what to think.”  From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” read the remarks. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Teaching is pretty challenging. You have to deal, in the first place, with people who are not your epistemic peers. This means they know less than you do. As a result you seem pretty pedantic much of the time and pretty much anything you do with them in class will involve telling them what to think. For instance: don’t generalize from marginal casesdon’t straw man people you’re arguing with; and don’t base your argument on vague and equivocal terminology, like “think” (in the above case). Now naturally I’ll give reasons for their thinking this. But I’m still telling them what to think. That charge is inescapable because, and I’m telling you what to think again, vacuous.

Yes, of course she means to dust off the old one about “indoctrination” and the like. Well, while we’re lazily advancing tropes, here’s one of my own. I’ve tried and tried to indoctrinate my students into not using the passive voice –yet it still gets used! How successful will I be in getting them to accept the subtleties of my modified version of Rawls’ theory of justice?

Outflanking

Consider these two images.

The tweeter is obviously right, they’re not equivalent. Having a conservative world view (and being a billionaire with little prior educational experience) is not remotely close to what Ruby Bridges had to endure.

But this kind of move is extremely common. It’s a variation on the phenomenon of “leveling up” or “outflanking.” I think it has its origins an important fact about how we hold beliefs.

Here it is: people don’t typically change their view on the spot; they just don’t usually have that kind of direct control. Even in the face of much better reasons, people fail to move. This points less-skilled (or maybe more skilled) arguers in two directions.

On the one hand, the inability to change beliefs on command suggests that beliefs can’t be changed at all (or only with great difficulty and it’s not worth trying). If this is the case, then every criticism is ad hominem and so out of bounds (thus the above). This is of course bad.

On the other hand, to get someone to change a belief, you can’t say: “change your belief, it’s false!” You have to get around behind that belief and the belief that supports it (or even better at the structure of believing itself). This is not necessarily bad, but it tends away from the matters at hand (in the case above the very legitimate questions about DeVos’s knowledge and preparation for her important position).