Enter a Contemporary Civilization class: the Greek word for virtue and its definition have been written on the board; copies of “The Republic” lie open on the table; the professor asks the class to find injustice in Plato’s just society. As the discussion develops, it becomes clear that the professor is trying to move the students to evaluate modern equivalents and perhaps even learn something about their own sense of fairness. An hour later, however, many leave the room unsatisfied, annoyed at “that guy” for sidetracking the conversation. “That guy” is a common phenomenon—the person who is very sure of his own opinion and always seems to have something to say, regardless of its relevance or substance.
We have probably all been “that guy” on occasion, and we have almost certainly run into him on campus at one point or another. Not only is he obnoxious and annoying, but he can also be detrimental to the quality of the discourse and to the education of everyone in the room. If we are coming to college to broaden our horizons, to develop personally and intellectually, to understand ourselves and our world better, then we should have every right to be frustrated when our discussions, in class and out, often seem closer to the braying on network TV than to Glaucon’s enlightened disagreements with Socrates.
The seminar session that spirals out of control is simply one particular example. What may start as a casual conversation about politics between two students trying to get to know each other can quickly devolve into a heated argument. Tempers flare and voices rise as neither participant wants to leave without having impressed the superiority of his opinion on the other. Alienation results: Both come away with a sense that the other is somehow illogical, deluded, or wrong.
For an institution that prides itself on the quality of the discourse that goes on in its halls, we are surprisingly stubborn and sure of ourselves. We do not take the difficult step of simply walking away from a conversation that is going nowhere nearly often enough. Entertaining the possibility that we could be ill-informed, mistaken, or plain wrong on a given issue happens even less frequently. I know that I have been guilty of immediately becoming defensive when I read or hear a comment which with I seemed to disagree. It is an instinctive and understandable reaction, but what if we made a conscious effort to avoid seeing others’ views as attacks on our own? What if we attempted to treat each contentious issue that arose as if we had no previous knowledge of it at all? This is of course a thought experiment—I do not suggest that we can somehow eliminate all bias from our opinions—but it can still have positive effects on our dialogue and what we get out of it.
Checking into class, a political forum, or a campus controversy with open-mindedness can help us learn and grow in a way at least as valuable as learning about, say, the biochemical pathway for glucose metabolism. To reconsider our prejudices and admit that we are wrong is a humbling experience, especially when so many of us are accustomed to being right (often but not limited to our past academic experiences). Being around smart people who think differently from us is, after all, one of the selling points of attending a college like Columbia. Such an environment can help us recognize and refine our own values and thought processes, but only if we let it. Less obviously, however, building a habit of withholding judgement will, over time, force us to demand more evidence to support any opinion if it is to stand up to our critical, dispassionate analyses.
An argument founded upon specific, trustworthy proof can only be stronger than one put together a priori. This is impressed upon us each time we write an essay or learn about an important experiment, yet this largely empirical method of reasoning does not seem to translate smoothly into our everyday lives. While we all know that a paper that does not cite any sources is certainly not going to receive a good grade (and may even be tantamount to plagiarism), we still follow and defend empty rhetoric that we agree with all too easily.
I am not saying that disagreement is bad, or that certain opinions should be suppressed. Disagreement is the catalyst for learning about and understanding others and, more importantly, ourselves. Constantly asking, “What if I am wrong?” will help us move towards a more developed, critical view of ourselves—away from entrenched debate and towards a personal dialectic.
Bob Sun is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and biology. He is a member of the Committee on Instruction. Terms of Engagement runs alternate Thursdays.
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