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The Right Child on the Right Road

Given that it is probably my favourite line from the whole Blackadder series, I must surely have mentioned before the imploration from Edmund to Baldrick to think for himself and not to rely on others for all his views and ideas, finishing with the superlative put down: ‘For you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people.’  Basil Fawlty at his best, or worst, might have come up with a better line, with Manuel playing a similar fall guy role, but we can save Torquay’s worst hotelier for another day.

A recent read that reminded me of the need to make proper use of our critical faculties was ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in which the authors give a stark warning that we are in danger of creating a generation who grow up without having their views challenged for fear of damaging their mental health and resilience.  They argue that by shielding our children from ideas that may challenge their worldview, we are doing them more harm than good.

Lukianoff and Haidt highlight three areas that they call ‘Great Untruths’, where they claim society has developed a series of misguided principles.  The first is when we say that what does not kill us makes us weaker, in other words we are harmed by the words and thoughts of others, not made stronger by our ability to overcome the hurt that might be caused.  The second is when we tell people always to trust their feelings, making the point that such feelings are an unreliable guide to reality and are based on internal processes laden with bias.  The third is when we point out that life is a battle between good people and evil people, thereby polarising the view of others to two extremes of behaviour.

To counteract such ideas, the authors offer three wisdoms that would make a good set of values for a school or university: we should prepare the child for the road and not the road for the child; our worst enemy cannot harm us as much as our own thoughts, unguarded; and the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

In order to justify their arguments, they provide a host of interesting anecdotes and ideas.  For example, they make the point that there is no universally accepted definition of ‘critical thinking’, but most treatments of the concept include a commitment to connect one’s claims to reliable evidence in a proper way – which is the basis of scholarship.  With some justification, they say that it is not acceptable for a scholar to say, ‘You have shown me convincing evidence that my claim is wrong, but I still feel that my claim is right, so I am sticking with it.’  When scholars cannot rebut or reconcile disconfirming evidence, they must drop their claims or else lose the respect of their colleagues. 

Outside the world of scholarship, how often do we now hear about fake news, my truth and alternative facts – all of which are too often just an excuse to deny reality.  I like the quotation from the US politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan: ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.’

The authors make the point that if we do not allow open discussion, we run the risk of creating a call-out culture in which almost anything one says or does could result in a public shaming.  This can engender a sense of walking on eggshells and it promotes self-censorship.  Call-out cultures are detrimental to students’ education and bad for their mental health, creating an us-versus-them system of thinking that is incompatible with the educational and research missions of universities, who require free inquiry, dissent, evidence-based argument and intellectual honesty.

I need to read more about the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, because every time I come across a reference to him in another source I am struck by the power of what he says.  Lukianoff and Haidt quote him saying: 'Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed.  Don't feel harmed and you have not been.'  They illustrate the point by adding that the more ways your identity can be threatened by casual daily interactions, the more valuable it will be to cultivate the Stoic ability to not be emotionally reactive, to not let others control your mind and your cortisol levels.  The Stoics understood that words do not cause stress directly.  They can only provoke stress and suffering in a person who has interpreted those words as posing a threat.

I may need another blog to round off some of the ideas I took from this fascinating book, but I will end this week’s offering with three further points.  I enjoy our brain’s inability to make the links it needs to from time to time.  For example, as the authors highlight, simple correlations are suggestive, but they cannot tell us what caused what, and there are many opportunities to identify what are known as spurious correlations.  Apparently, the annual per capita consumption of cheese (see last week’s blog) in the United States correlates almost perfectly with the number of people who die each year from becoming entangled in their bedsheets, but that is not because eating cheese causes people to sleep differently.

If you attend our scheduled prizegiving event in July, you may well hear this story, which resonated strongly with me when I read it.  The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, said this in a speech to his son’s middle school graduation in June 2017: ‘From time to time in years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.  I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.  Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you do not take friends for granted.  I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.  And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then that your opponent will gloat over your failure.  It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.  I hope you will be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.  Whether I wish these things or not, they are going to happen.  And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.’

And this quotation from Hannah Holborn Gray, president of the University of Chicago, 1978-93, should probably be engraved above the entrance of every school and place of education in the land: ‘Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.’

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