Students ≠ Kids?

As noted many times on this blog, I work within the philosophic tradition known as American Pragmatism. William James proposed this tradition’s core principle—the pragmatic method– as a way to resolve seemingly intractable “metaphysical questions.” In short, it holds that to know an object, we should examine that object’s effect on other objects. I’ve found that this simple move—tracing the consequences of a belief or statement or action— can prove remarkably useful in clarifying my thoughts. In the following I’d like to demonstrate the pragmatic method in action. Specifically, I want to interrogate a commonplace I often encounter as a college writing teacher: students ≠ kids.

Before we begin, I need to clarify what I mean by “commonplace.” As I understand it, commonplaces are ready-made verbal formulas. They are the bits of distilled wisdom, imparted to us by our various communities, that help guide our actions.

Commonplaces are obviously important. They help us understand and interact with our environment. We therefore become very attached to them. This emotional investment can sometimes blind us to their actual nature. Me and my commonplaces get so close, James would say, that I start to see them as ontologically true. And that’s a problem.

Consider a US Marine, guided by the belief that as a Marine, she is “always faithful” and “first to fight.” These commonplaces shape the Marine’s actions. Hence, they’re important. If the Marine is a pragmatist though, she recognizes that “always faithful,” though it may (seem to) fit her to a T, remains a mere verbal formula. It’s been applied to her from without and therefore remains open to revision (or even rejection). It’s true, sure, but true only because of what it does in context. In other contexts, or for other Marines, it may be false.

Now let’s turn to a pedagogical example. College students are adults, not children (students ≠ kids). This is pretty much a truism among progressive educators, its utterance sure to garner a round of head nods at the conference or faculty meeting. Is it true or false though? Following James, we can find out by tracing its consequences.

So what does students ≠ kids do? Well, first it encourages teachers to “take the training wheels off,” to make students responsible for their own learning. A long line of progressive educators, from Maria Montessori on down, would suggest that this is a positive move.

So our example can do positive work. If we wish to follow James though, we must keep in mind that this statement is in no way ontologically true. We can’t, for example, prove empirically that college students are adults and not children. Instead, we must view this statement for what is it is—a community generated object acting on other objects. Among certain constellations of objects, its consequences may be other than positive.

Consider a common situation faced by writing teachers. It’s near the end of the semester. You’ve worked through a carefully designed syllabus, given your students every opportunity to think critically and learn and grow. Despite this, some students remain mired in bland thought and language, comfortably ensconced in the status quo. This is a frustrating moment. And for some teachers, reminding themselves that their students are NOT fully formed adults may be a potent ameliorative tactic. It can help the teacher read more generously, find new reserves of patience. In short, writing teachers can’t expect college freshman to think and write like Theodor Adorno. Conceptualizing college students as in-process, as plastic, in short, as children, may help teachers come to terms with this fact.

So, here we have a commonplace (students ≠ kids) that in certain contexts does positive work. In other contexts, the inverse (students = kids) does positive work. From a Jamesian perspective, we can therefore say that this commonplace is both true and false. To make this determination we consider the thinker, the context and what the commonplace does for that thinker in that context. In short, we must use the pragmatic method.

Admittedly, such an analysis makes an implicit moral claim. It suggests that it’s better (more logical, more socially useful) to think of our beliefs as tools rather than objective descriptions. As tools, we’re free to change said beliefs as circumstances necessitate. We’re free to view our students as both adults and children, for example. William James makes a strong case that this is the best way to approach our world. It forces us to stay flexible, makes us more generous thinkers. I too think this is a good way to live and to think. Use of James’s pragmatic method can help nudge us in this direction.

Truth, Action and Climate Change

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

Pool Table v. Lava Lamp

Would you say that the interaction among people, objects and ideas is more like balls on a pool table or the goo inside a lava lamp? I know this seems like an esoteric question. Hang with me though. The answer you give is really important.

In my last post I wrote about pragmatist philosophy. One element of this way of thinking is an emphasis on the interconnected nature of experience. This isn’t to say that “all is one”– the world is certainly made up of lots of different kinds of stuff– but instead, that all is relational, dynamic. People and ideas and objects, as William James says, exist in a state of constant flux. They’re always changing, always influencing each other in new, unpredictable ways. In other words, to James and John Dewey and myself, the world looks like the goo inside a lava lamp– everything in constant motion, effecting change, but at the same time, being changed.

Of course, not everyone is a pragmatist. Some thinkers view people, objects and ideas as separate, self-contained entities. Things exist as they are. Good is good, dog is dog, Bob is Bob. When they come into contact, one thing can affect another, for example, Bob can pet dog, but change isn’t necessarily mutual. There’s a certain consistency to things, which means that given enough time (and computing power) courses can be charted, consequences mapped. In other words, for these thinkers human experience is like a pool table– a world of cause and effect, solid objects and straight lines.

I know this is some heady stuff. It’s not just metaphysical speculation though. For example, consider the case of Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich claimed that by the mid-1970s the world was going to run out of food. He wanted to put sterilants in water and cut off India from foreign aid (because the Indians were all going to starve anyway). Ehrlich is a respected figure; his claims were reasonable, based on statistics and historical data.

Of course, nothing Ehrlich predicted came to pass. Food supplies have increased, while almost universally, population growth rates have declined. Where did Ehrlich go wrong? In my opinion, his predictions were off because he failed to see the world as a dynamic system. Humans, unlike numbers in an equation, change in response to their environment. In this case, scientists discovered new agriculture methods. Women stopped having so many children. In short, people, objects and ideas influenced each other and began to interact in new, unpredictable ways. They didn’t just bounce around like balls on a pool table.

The case of the defused population bomb is just one example of the dangers of static, atomistic thinking. Our world is in constant flux. Whether writing poetry or predicting the apocalypse, we should keep this in mind.

What is Pragmatism?

On this blog, I often refer to something called “pragmatism.” What is this pretentious thing? In short, it’s my way of making sense of the world. The term comes from philosophy, but the ideas underlying it are pretty simple. In fact, you may be a pragmatist and not even know it.

Pragmatism is an (some say, the) American philosophical tradition. It’s associated with people like poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, social reformer John Dewey and always dapper, “bluesman of the mind” Cornel West. It was first popularized around 1900 by William James, ghosthunter and brother of novelist Henry James. More recently it was championed by philosopher Richard Rorty.

So what is a pragmatist? How does such a person think? Well, first off, there’s no such thing as pragmatist dogma. Two people can have opposing views about a topic and still both be pragmatists. Instead of telling you what to believe, in other words, pragmatism is a mindset, a disposition.

As I see it, the pragmatic mindset has three key features. #1: Pragmatists believe that value can only be determined by looking at the consequences of an object, action or idea. A belief is true if you can act on it. An action is good if it has positive consequences. This is a simple idea, but the impact is huge. It means that pragmatists disregard essences. We don’t care what a thing is, we only care what it does.

#2: Pragmatists view ideas as tools. As James puts it, all humans exist within a constant, overwhelming flux of sensory inputs. Ideas are just tools we use to cut this flux into manageable bits. They help us do stuff. When an idea is no longer useful, it needs to be discarded. In practice, this means that pragmatists value experimentation, flexibility and openness. We don’t fetishize ideas.

#3: Pragmatists recognize that all people, having had different experiences, will cut up their sensory flux in slightly different ways. In other words, people will always have varying beliefs. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, diversity of opinion is good because it gives us more ways to solve problems. Of course, it can also cause conflict. That’s why pragmatists promote respect for, and understanding of, differing belief systems. You have your beliefs, I have mine– recognizing that neither is “wrong” (or at least can’t be judged as such from an outside perspective) is the first step towards compromise.

Of course, the above traits are valued by many individuals and cultures. That’s what makes pragmatism, as William James said, “a new name for an old way of thinking.”

So who’s not a pragmatist? In my opinion, basically anyone who thinks they have access to some fundamental Truth. This includes religious fundamentalists (Truth = word of God), unreformed Marxists (Truth = Marxian economic laws) and certain dogmatic believers in logic or the scientific method (Truth = logical formulas or “objective” scientific observation). Of course, all these groups have access to limited, localized truths. The key, from a pragmatic perspective, is not to let them push that truth on others. We must politely remind our fundamentalist friends that ideas are tools, not fetish objects.