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Why I Still Believe in the Enlightenment

I knew when I became a history teacher that there were certain stereotypes I wanted to avoid. For example, I didn’t want to be the teacher that kids like but don’t respect who spends all of class time relating to but not teaching the kids. Still, my politics are pretty radical for America (though pretty mainstream in Europe), so a lot of people assumed that I would be that teacher, in order to “get” the kids to believe what I believed. But the thing is, I never worried about that because I knew that the kids would reach the right conclusions with full information. Which is to say that I think the evidence is on my side. I’m classically liberal, which means that I believe that freedom, truth, logic and scientific reasoning are our best hope to provide everyone with the best society possible. Now, if this were true, it would be simple, right? People would reach the conclusions based on the information that is available. So why hasn’t that happened? The older I get the more I realize how limited people’s information is. Most people aren’t operating under the best information available and even if that information were easily accessible, and it isn’t, they wouldn’t know how to find it anyway. Now maybe some of the reason for this is sinister: “they” don’t want people to know. But I personally feel that in all of my experience of looking at government documents around the world that arguing that its all part of some master plan that “they” cooked up is giving “them” too much credit. It is rarely the case that “they” are that competent. The people with power really believe what they believe, sure there might be a few psychopaths who are acting for the cameras but most people with power believe in the bullshit they sale. How does it happen that an entire elite comes to believe nonsense? Well, first they stop looking for answers. They close their minds and hearts to any evidence that contradicts their worldview. Now maybe, I find it more palpable when their worldview lands them on the same policy position as me, but its still just as dangerous. This problem is what caused the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the famine of the Great Leap Forward. Much of the progressive policies of the 30s and 40s, including Social Security, I agree with but many of these people ALSO believed in Eugenics so a good policy position can come from a very dangerous place. That’s why I try really hard to be cagey enough to never get labeled or to never join anything because I want to make sure I have enough autonomy to call anyone on their bullshit.

I take for granted my research skills but the fact of the matter is that even the smartest people I know cannot research as well as I can, so they are working off of limited information as well as limited worldviews. For example, police shootings. What do we know about them? Well, it turns out not a whole lot. But what we do know is that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot by police, the majority of the victims are in fact white, and that police officers never get charged. Based on this information, what are the logical conclusions we can draw? One might be that racism exists. One might be that poor white people are the majority of the population and possibly the majority of the poor. One might be that we give police officers impunity. I think all of those statements are probably true, but most people have, at best, one of those pieces of information. Our conclusions are limited by the limit of factors we can hold in our head at one time. There are rarely two sides to anything, usually there are somewhere between “a lot” and “infinity” sides to anything. More often then not, one has to consider that all sides or some combination of the sides are correct. Sometimes information is correct but not valuable to the discussion. And sometimes, people don’t have even one piece of correct information or believe in information that is functionally unprovable. Now, in this example, believing ONLY that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot is probably a much less serious problem than believing only that the majority of victims are poor and white, but both won’t get us to a workable conclusion and solution because they won’t deal with the culture we have built up around the police, or poverty, or gun violence. They only look at one of many factors.

It is for this reason that I maintain the belief in skepticism and scientific reasoning. The difficulty in it is that it is unpleasant and uncomforting to most people to have to constantly hold in their head that they are probably wrong, that there is limited information and that we still have to make life and death social decisions based on what we have. But the comfort that I do take in skepticism and a scientific approach is that eventually we are going to reach a point nearing truth, and that if we get distracted by misinformation that the road to truth will be a lot more difficult for us to reach. The difference between people who are able to bring to light new Truths, who are able to think differently, and solve problems is that they are willing to consider the possibility that all of us could be wrong. No matter how many degrees, rewards, books, years of research, every single one of us could be wrong. Someone with more information is more likely to be right. They operate in probabilities instead of certainties. And it is not just about the “scientific method” that we teach in school, artists, historically, have been some of the best people to do this and it is because they go looking for perspective. I believe in evidence, even when it is really unpleasant for me to have to believe in evidence. I accept when I’m wrong, adjust for the new information and move on. Most people don’t do this; most people just repeat what they believe over and over again until they find someone gullible enough to listen to them. For example, I was in an argument with a libertarian one time about our health care system and the person said, “well, why don’t we treat it like food distribution?” So I responded with a clearly articulated, backed by research response and he actually simply repeated the same point. These kinds of thought processes are part of what makes our politics so frustrating, at some point Americans stopped believing in science and logic.

But I also believe in something else. Absolutely everyone is capable on some level of doing this. Pattern recognition and logic are stitched into the very fiber of our being. Children have to be trained NOT to do this. Absolutely every student that I have ever had has reached the right conclusions when they had evidence, some got there faster or easier, but all of them can do it. Because this is what fundamentally makes us human, and it has long been the dream to ensure that everyone gets the same opportunity to get the kind of education that allows us to do that. That is what a true education would mean, and the biggest thing holding us back from achieving that is not that “they” want to keep us ignorant, but that “they” believe that we aren’t all capable of that. We relinquish our humanity far too quickly, when we should instead be fighting for it with our lives. That ability and belief in that ability are far more likely to lead us to liberation than anything else and that’s why I believe it is inherently a human right to receive that education, no matter what the kid’s home looks like. I don’t want to be right, I don’t want to win, I want everyone to be free. Because I believe that freedom is the only pathway to humanity, and that’s something that we can get everyone to believe in no matter their worldview.

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One thought on “Why I Still Believe in the Enlightenment

  1. Rachel,

    I am glad you articulate your faith in empiricism, skepticism, and reasoning in your classroom and have your students develop those skills. I concur with you and Neil Postman that these are some of the most important lessons that students can learn, or not unlearn, through their educations.

    When I was a high school student in the Bay Area, I became highly sensitive to the political leanings of my teachers. My politically outspoken teachers were liberals, yet most taught using illiberal pedagogies. Ironically, as I tried to write exam answers and essays that safely conformed to their political beliefs to maximize my scores with minimum hassle, I became alienated from their viewpoints. I felt they were thrust upon me by their hegemony over students who were trying to maximize their GPAs. I was trained to place subvert logic and evidence to favor conventional wisdom and elevate orthodoxy. Those habits of truth avoidance were internalized by me as a student, mirroring George Orwell’s fearful dream that journalists would do likewise.

    In the interest of preserving intellectual freedom for students, at least from my influence, I try to give students sources that come on both sides of a polarizing debate, without advocating for a particular side. For example, President Polk’s request for a war resolution and Lincoln’s “Spot” resolution, coupled with the contexts of US Presidents’ territorial ambitions and prior legal precedents for defending American soil/lives against foreign invasion. In that, I have my students seek truth and pattern recognition, as you described, rather than trying to divine their teacher’s bias as I did years ago. I don’t know if you have similar policies about refraining from open advocacy on politically polarizing issues in classes or convincing students to pursue answers regardless of whether you’ll initially agree with them provided that they’re supported by evidence- I’m stating my approach to keep class discussions intellectually honest. The evidence may be on your side; students need the safe space (of not seeking first their teacher’s answer) to explore conflicting evidence/arguments to reach the same conclusions as you and develop their agency as public intellectuals.

    I disagree with your assertion that the people who are in power are generally ignorant, biased, closed-minded in their work of wielding it. Your description does apply accurately to members of our formal political establishments. However, most political officeholders are servants of higher powers, identified as “financial politicians” by Ferdinand Lundberg in The Rich and the Superrich. The owners have always acquired their fortunes (at least in part) through theft and/or predatory speculation. And when they/their representatives at certain exclusive clubs and private/quasi-public institutions that they created, their opinions carry far more weight than that of a typical member of Congress. These conversations are written or recorded very rarely. Their leading members (eg, JP Morgan, David Rockefeller, Eli Broad, Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Carlos Slim) and have created institutions quietly enacted public laws and policies that protect and reinforce the privileges of their class, including our mass media and school funding/accountability systems. Our political economy is consciously and dynamically shaped by (mostly) intelligent and informed actors, even if the de jure establishment often appears and is hopelessly nearsighted, corrupt, and petty.

    Thank you for critiquing how people’s limited understanding of statistics and generalizing what they already know often leads to the creation of racial/gender stereotypes. The aversion to all forms of mathematics that many students leave school with (because they have accepted the stereotypes of “dumb” math students) helps perpetuate this favoring of demagoguery and conventional wisdom over reason and quantitative research. This post certainly helped me reflect on how I can better cultivate my students as researchers, thinkers and eventually as political radicals!

    Jules Brouillet

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