Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How much should students defer to professors?

Although there are a lot of college students who read this blog, we're all students in one way or another, so the question isn't directed only at college students, although I'll frame the discussion in terms of professors and students.

I think it's pretty easy to recognize that we don't defer to professors who try to persuade us to change our personal values. Or is it?

Let's say a professor tells a student that marriage is outdated and pointless. Does that student defer to the professor, or think for herself/himself? What if the professor teaches that alcohol is good for health? Or that God doesn't exist? At what point does the student learn for herself/himself?

When I was at the university, I was taught lots of things that turned out to be untrue. Some of the professors were teaching from ignorance; not personal ignorance, necessarily, but they were teaching what they were taught, which most people believed at the time.

It's natural.

It doesn't make much difference what field you are in, either. These problems arise in the arts, sciences, religion--just about any field is subject to change as we learn more about it.

One of the dangers of deference is Balkanization. People who defer to their professors become blind to (or oblivious of, or, worse, disdainful of) alternative viewpoints and inconvenient facts. People who defer to their professors tend to become intransigent and overconfident in their newly acquired expertise.

I see this all the time, in every field.

We see it play out on a daily basis in politics, where both sides are myopic and refuse to even understand alternative points of view, much less empathize with them. There is a lot of "us vs. them" going on as a result.

The obvious example related to this blog is how I was taught the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. "Everyone" knew it when I was at BYU. Now I see that idea was based on a series of false assumptions, but it was universally taught back then, and the legacy of that groupthink endures today among many people.

As a student, I didn't have the background to understand the fallacy of the assumptions my teachers were relying on. I deferred to their expertise, basically.

Students need to realize that the purpose of a university education is not to please faculty by deferring to their expertise. Students need to learn for themselves, using professors as resources the way you would a textbook or a video. Learn what your professors know, but don't stop there. Inevitably, unless you defer completely to their expertise, you will soon know more than your professors.

Some professors are more open-minded than others. You'll discover this quickly if you inquire.

It's up to each of us to learn for ourselves.

A free book on this topic (not one I wrote) is here: http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/91strip.html

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