The Tao of Learning: Assent, Skepticism, and the Ways We Learn

The Tao of Learning: Assent, Skepticism, and the Ways We Learn

I would like for us to think about two distinct ways of learning, which turn out to be two ways of knowing, and two ways of being. I am going to shorthand these two ways of knowing as “skepticism” and “assent” though I will use synonyms for both as I elaborate. The relationship between these two ways should be seen as reciprocal or dialogic or complementary—much like the yin and yang. Often when people are asked to draw the symbol of yin and yang they mistakenly color the one side in completely and leave the other empty—but the symbol’s power comes not just from the beauty of the circle bisected by a sine curve—but because in each half “the other” is represented. In the yin, the dark half, there is a light “eye” and in the light half, the yang, there is a dark “eye”.

One of the great gifts of the Enlightenment, perhaps the singular gift of the Enlightenment, is the gift of skepticism. The residue of the Enlightenment, the skeptical approach, has proven to be a tremendous tool to advance learning. In fact, one might argue that knowledge only exists with skepticism.

There are limits to perpetual skepticism, however. Descartes and his descendants ran into problems with radical doubt and Stephen Toulmin analyzes the failure of radical doubt in his book Cosmopolis. The philosopher Wayne Booth studied this radical skepticism as it appears in all forms of contemporary life and even identified what he helpfully calls “motivism.” Motivism states that people’s actions and their reasoning are not the product of their free will but rather of motives—often concealed even from themselves—and that those motives, being “unclean” de facto render their actions and opinions wrong and self-serving. Think of our political discourse filled as it is with statements beginning with, “The only reason that Senator X says this is….” Or, “The real reason that the President wants to do such and such is….” Motivism attacks the idea that there can be any verifiable actions or policies or ideas—and in some cases even facts—except, of course, one’s own. If someone’s motives can be questioned, and whose motives can withstand the inquiry of absolute doubt, then all of that person’s subsequent ideas and actions can be dismissed as self-interested. Booth’s intricate and demanding book-length argument, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, fleshes out a series of lectures he gave at the University of Notre Dame where he demonstrates that contemporary life is far more comfortable with skepticism or doubt, often to the point of fetishizing it as, ironically, its own religion with its own dogma. It is clearly the predominate mode of intellectual inquiry in contemporary culture. In an age where despite a rampant publication of the self we are terrified of looking “duped” or “credulous” (“punked” in the vernacular) and where “belief” (in all sorts of areas) is held to be indefensible and merely a reflection of a weak mind and/or personal preference, skepticism and its close cousin, irony, are ascendant. One thinks of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris or those I think of as “evangelical atheists” who are as certain in their view as any religious fundamentalist.

To change one’s mind with shifting evidence is also regarded as a catastrophe to be avoided as one would avoid drinking raw sewage. This, of course, denies the possibility of growth, but that apparently matters little to those wanting to play “gotcha” or those terrified of “flip-flopping.”

This adoption of skepticism and irony is reflected not just in the sciences but in the arts. David Foster Wallace traced this notion to its logical conclusion and said: “Postmodern irony and cynicism has become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

In fact, if I am honest with myself I will recognize that I have been guilty of exactly this and I need to be on guard against it—to teach myself to be careful of the seduction of skepticism.

Still, motivism is an extreme application of skepticism (hence the separate name). Which of us has not benefitted from doubting ourselves at some point—or from questioning others or received opinion? Indeed, little progress would be made if each generation merely genuflected at the altar of the previous generation. And this is the danger of “assent”—or really of blind assent. Though I’d say most people’s problems with systematic assent are related to psychological defense or fear—a fear of being taken advantage of—rather than a more reasoned response, but I could be wrong. Following Booth’s argument, we might point out that those devoted to skepticism as their tool for developing knowledge and learning about the world have assented to its primacy over all other methods—so is assent prior to skepticism and equally important to knowledge? I don’t know which is prior—that strikes me as something of a chicken-and-egg argument—but I cannot conceive of the advance of knowledge without both.

But to demonstrate that I will need to move away from Wayne Booth; I will need to appeal to a different contemporary philosopher, Tina Fey. You may know Fey as a wonderful comic and female outsider in a predominantly male genre; I’d say that her autobiography, Bossypants, is filled—as much comedy is—with philosophical insights delivered with a candy-coating. In a framed set-piece she asks us to consider that adopting the rules of improvisation that will change our lives (and eliminate “bellyfat,” though she acknowledges that part needs more investigation). Here are the rules of improv: 1) Always Agree and Say Yes; 2) Say “Yes, AND”; 3) Make Statements; and 4) There are no mistakes, only opportunities. So, how does this work in real life? Here is how Fey demonstrates rule 1, Agree and Say Yes. If I say, “’Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas!’ then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.” What this rule teaches us, Fey points out, is to “respect what your partner has created.” Since teaching is relational—we gather with our students around the subject to be taught and journey together—and being a colleague is also relational—this is a good rule to know and to master. Respect what your student has created; respect what your colleague has created. (This does not prohibit us from later on going back and applying our skepticism to this first assertion that your finger is a gun; but if we applied the rule of skepticism first, we would not discover—or create—the next idea.)

Fey explains rule 2, “Yes, AND” in the following way, “If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you just say ‘Yeah…’ then we’re at a standstill. [but, if you follow on with] ‘What did you expect, we’re in hell,’ [or] ‘Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures,’ [or] ‘I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,’ now we’re getting somewhere.” If the lesson to Rule 1, AGREE, is to “respect what your partner has created,” then the lesson to rule 2, Yes, AND, is that we each have a responsibility to contribute—it is OUR relationship. It is our relationship with our students or colleagues—not just their relationship.

The third rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. “This,” as Fey explains, “is a positive way of saying ‘Don’t ask questions all the time.’ If we’re in a scene and I say, ‘Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?’ I am putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. “In other words: Whatever the problem is, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag,” Fey concludes.

I agree; that person is a drag. I have been that person. Perhaps when we approach our students or colleagues with criticism—and I am assuming the criticism is legitimate since why would be criticizing otherwise?—maybe we could approach them by saying, “It looks like you are having trouble getting your homework done. How do you think we might address that?”

The lesson to MAKE STATEMENTS is “be part of the solution, be active, not passive.”

The last rule is THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. As a veteran teacher I can tell you that I have graded many tests, quizzes, papers and projects FILLED with “opportunities” and often “opportunities” I really wish that I could ignore. But my students and I have often learned from the “opportunities.” If many students keep making “opportunities” then maybe I am not teaching what I think I am teaching.

A classroom, even when tightly scripted, (and all classes should be scripted), is a place of improvisation because the student doesn’t know the script. Fey concludes her piece on improvisation by pointing out that improv is a road to discovery. All learning is discovery, and we can discover as much by assenting as by doubting. Let’s think about the four rules and their lessons: AGREE and SAY YES so that we respect what our partner has created; SAY YES, AND so that we honor our responsibility to contribute; MAKE STATEMENTS so we remind ourselves to be part of the solution; and THERE ARE NO MISTAKES so that we teach ourselves to see opportunities.

Among Greg Boyle’s remarkable gifts in Tattoos on the Heart: his resiliency, his optimism, his hope, his practicality, his honesty, and his pain; perhaps the one I appreciate most is his gift to “stand with” the other. To empathize, not sympathize and not pity, but to stand with another. “Leon Dufour,” writes Boyle, “a world-renowned Jesuit theologian and Scripture scholar, a year before he died at ninety-nine, confided in a Jesuit who was caring for him, ‘I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know? I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the one right in front of you.” How Trinitarian that concept is. The Gospel of the Trinitarians is the one that tells us the parable of the saved and the damned. The saved fed Jesus when hungry, clothed him when naked, visited him in prison, gave him drink when thirsty and comforted him when ill. The saved are unable to remember having done this. So Jesus tells them that whenever they did it for the least of his brothers, they did it for him. They “stood with” the others. The damned did not; in fact they want a do-over. “God,” they say, “if we knew it was you of course we would have behaved better!”
This ability to truly see others, to—by an act of the imagination—place yourself with them, is a form of assent. If skepticism functions as a distancing tool (like irony or doubt), we use assent as a kind of embrace—an intellectual embrace that brings us to stand with the idea of a partner (or critic). Boyle quotes the poet Wendell Berry who says that, “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.” I suspect this is because that willed imaginative empathy is a distinctly human quality. I doubt anyone is fully human until she can put herself in the place of another. Edith Stein, the Carmelite nun and Jew, who was executed in Auschwitz, argued, and I am paraphrasing Garry Wills here, that we achieve our own interiority, our soul, our self, only by the interplay with other interiorities. I explore other persons like me and different from me, and define a self in the process—so that the isolated person is a non-person. Even our God is not an isolated God but one who exists in relationship with a Self. Moral progress, Stein argues, is a matter of making a self that pays its debts to the other selves that helped it come into being. To break off or diminish that respectful interplay with other minds is morally to die. And really, how dare we ignore the debts we owe each other? Respect what the partner has created; remember your obligation to participate, be part of the solution, see opportunities where others see failure.

How do we learn the interplay with other interiorities? How do we teach that? Is assent or skepticism more likely to lead us to that goal? It seems to me that you will be more likely to inhabit someone else’s point of view in an act of assent. Even if you later reject that point of view, having had it is a remarkable tool for growth. I would say we are more likely to recognize that interplay with others in assent than in skepticism, we are more likely to pay our debts to others in assent than in skepticism.
At DeMatha, we strive to provide an education that is both timeless and timely. If we educate only for the timely we will be forever chasing the new, trying to harness the fleeting. But what if we “stand with” our students, “stand with” our colleagues, practice assent as well as doubt. What if we teach them timeless values and ideas and approaches and make use of timely discoveries and technology. I’d like us to try so that we will have educated the whole person.

Ordinarily I would end at this point but I want to append what the Japanese call an atogaki. The literal translation of atogaki is “afterword” or “postscript” but it means quite a bit more. A Japanese author of a nonfiction book or article will often in the atogaki provide a guide for how to critique his or her work. As the builder of the argument, the author knows where more spackle and tape and paint have gone in to making the argument appear cleaner and smoother than it really is. A Japanese atogaki will often contain phrases such as, “Had I further time to develop my thesis I would have done the following,” or “The evidence is weakest at this point and I would like to pursue further corroboration.” How typically Japanese this seems to me. So, here is a partial atogaki of this talk. I have been hesitant to give this talk for many reasons: the first is that I find the concepts herein are demanding and the philosophy difficult and I fear my own examples and explanations may be inadequate and so I risk losing some people; 2) I do not want to be misunderstood as arguing for either one of these two ways of knowing above the other—neither is “better” than the other in every situation; 3) I do not want people to think that I am after a kind of special pleading that demands acquiescence given my position as principal and my interest in defending “knowing through assenting.” That is, I don’t want to be heard as asking for people to agree with me on every decision or approach or action. One of the most important gifts we can have in life are the people who will force us to articulate as clearly as we can what we do and why we do it, who will encourage us to face our limitations—to battle those—and often that happens in the realm of skepticism (not motivism but genuine skepticism) though I believe it can also happen in assent; 4) I know I missed several opportunities to make closer connections; for example I ignored Wallace’s use of the word “redeemed”—a distinctly religious word—and I didn’t make anything out of his pairing of “liberating and enslaving”—those words which echo our Trinitarian charism; and 5) I am pretty sure that I did not really pave the way for the transition that explains how assent as illustrated through improv connects to Boyle’s call to “stand with” the other—though I sense it exists. Doubtless there are many other lacunae large and small but these seem to me the most pressing.

I hope we’ll have a great year, that we’ll stand with kids and stand with families and stand with colleagues, that we will doubt and assent, that we will discover—both knowledge and wisdom, both ourselves and others. Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.



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2 responses to “The Tao of Learning: Assent, Skepticism, and the Ways We Learn


    Today is the funeral of Michael Brown of Ferguson. I lived 7 miles from Ferguson for 29 years and taught in the Ferguson-Florissant School District at the beginning of their personal “white flight” era. Your discussion is extremely timely and “hits home” as they say. The need for empathy–for that respectful interplay with other interiorities–“This ability to truly see others, to—by an act of the imagination—place yourself with them, is a form of assent.” I have been saddened by the rush to “motivism attacks” at this precise time when the experience of raw pain and human frustration with a situation that cheapens the lives and value of their own children’s existence bubbles to the surface and forces us all to stop and observe the other as human–hurting– as we all would. Thank you for your thoughts.

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