Having taught a variety of philosophy courses in my less than traditional career, one of the ideas I am most committed to conveying to my students is that it is not good enough – not by a long shot – to simply be “right.” Quite the contrary: it is better to be mistaken for good reasons than to be “right” by accident. After all, even a broken clock is “right” twice a day, but that doesn’t make it a reliable timepiece. It takes a real commitment to inquiry and logic to be mistaken based on genuinely substantive reasons. And the most important difference is, of course, that if you are mistaken, but on the grounds of solid reasons, then that mistake can be rectified by finding and correcting the mistake in those reasons. Because if you are mistaken on the grounds of good reasons, then it is necessarily the case that the mistake is somewhere in those reasons.
This can be a tricky notion for younger persons to accept. (It is an especially tricky notion for narcissistic sociopaths of any age to accept. Consider, for example, Donald Trump … ) The notion that “being right” is the only thing that counts, regardless of how one achieves that particular form of “right”, is arguably a driving factor behind a great deal of plagiarism. But conclusions that are achieved in fashions that are not methodologically sound are not “conclusions” of any kind, they are dogmatically asserted bullet-points, as cognitively vacuous as mere barnyard noises. Not only do such things fail to advance inquiry, they actively impede inquiry.
It is worth spending a few moments on this “win at all costs” ideal that disregards method in the name of some (almost invariably) externally stipulated outcome. The assignments presented to students in a class have goals, and the extent to which those goals are met or achieved will be rewarded with grades. The corporatization of higher education has moved away from discussion of grades to something that sounds more businessy and “dynamic”: “learning outcomes.” As a phrase, there’s nothing any more wrong with this one than any other buzz word. But the problem is that it still places the emphasis on the outcome, rather than on the learning. The only purpose of the “outcome” is to provide a motivation for the learning, a motivation to which there can be applied some kind of metric. The problem here is that the motivation ceased being a motivation for anything other than itself; the metric became the only end people in positions of power were interested in attending to.
Measuring, you see, is easy. (Provided you’re not a stickler for meaningfullness.)
Learning, on the other hand, is hard. (Especially if you’re a stickler for meaningfullness.)
So when persons in power decided to do to education what McNamara’s team did for the Vietnam war (More bodies? We’re winning!) real education was left in the dumpster in favor of “measurable outcomes.” And since genuine human growth is so subtle and nuanced as to be almost, if not simply, impossible to quantify, the exchange is made for something that is quantifiable, regardless of the actual human impacts of such a savage focus.
This, by the bye, this is why John Stuart Mill’s more subtle, multi-tiered system of utilitarianism was abandoned by that overwhelmingly utilitarian discipline, economics, for a simpler and more measurable calculus of utility: $. There are a few economists who actually turn their thoughts to such Aristotelian notions as “human flourishing.” But despite being Nobel Laureates, they stand in the minority.
When the only thing that counts is passing the test, getting the grade, then the hard work of learning how to learn, of coming to grips with real inquiry, fades into the background as an annoying distraction, nothing more than a perceived obstacle to achieving the desired “outcome.” And we then wonder at the seeming tsunami of cheating in the classroom.
Which brings us back to the issue of method. Logically defensible technique is not guaranteed to produce the results we want – always, or even ever – only results that can be justified. Much as Euclid is accounted as saying, “there is no royal road to geometry,” (supposedly to a young Prince who felt his station in life exempted him from effort), there is no easy way to master logical cogency. Rather, one has to practice, fail, get up and try again, and continuously test those results against the recalcitrant reality we are inquiring into.
Mastering sound inquiriential techniques is every bit a matter of cultivating habits until they are deeply rooted – even automatic – as is learning to play the guitar, or to recognize the strategic significances of patterns of pieces on a chess board. My examples here are chosen deliberately; habits of thinking are both perceptual and propositional. Seeing patterns is at least as important as rendering a formal analysis of those patterns. (They have to be perceived before they can be analyzed.)
The thing I keep coming back around to is that achieving facility in such skills is not a matter of reading a book or taking a test, but rather a matter of practice. Such practice must be conducted deliberately, constantly, and repetitively. The story (possibly apocryphal) is told of the brilliant cellist, Pablo Casals, who even into his 90’s would practice at the cello some six hours a day. When asked why, one of his replies is supposed to have been, “I think I see some improvement.” Apocryphal or not, Casals’ commitment to the cello meant that he worked and studied at it intensely, every day of his adult life. Because playing the right note is never a matter of luck or hope; it is about method and mastery.
All of which is hard work, of course, and those who only wish to cheat their way to “the answer” never have the patience for that kind of effort. There is, however, one such form of “cheating” that is even worse than trusting to luck and hoping for the best, and that is leaning on ideology and assuming that it is true. I’ve written on a number of occasions about Robert Altemeyer and his studies on the authoritarian mind set. There is an intrinsic laziness to such people, where they just take it for granted that they have lucked into the correct ideology, and no more inquiry is needed to test any of their basic assumptions. Such vicious intransigence is every bit as common amongst ideologues on the political Left as well as on the Right, but the Left has seldom held any substantive political power in this country such that dogmatic extremists were ever in a position to be of any influence (dogmatic lies from the political Right to the contrary notwithstanding.) A few lefty professors at Ivory Tower universities scarcely match the power of corporate money and conservative Christian activism.
This is a somewhat unexpected turn for an essay that began with the thesis that it was better to be wrong for the right reasons than to be “right” for no reasons at all. Luck is not a method, and hope is not a plan. But those who would turn to such a lazy disdain for hard inquiry open themselves up to the credulous acceptance of claims they not only have not tested, but which they’ve never cultivated the habits that would enable them to perform such tests. Obliged to share governance with such persons, it might seem that we are all left just hoping we’ll get lucky. But there are things we can do beyond just closing our eyes and waiting for the airbags to deploy. One of them is to be deliberate about our own habits of inquiry, and both publicly and insistently bringing those habits of inquiry to bear on real problems in the world. When this happens, we begin to make our own luck.