Classroom politics

Whether students like it or not, one of the things I aim for in my classrooms is to break down the (usually artificial) divide between academia and everyday life. It’s made somewhat easier by the fact that the sort of things I teach are easily applicable to non-academic activities.The reason they typically don’t like this approach is that they tend not to want to think about things when they aren’t being students – and of course they tend to only be students when at University. It makes them uncomfortable to think about the possibility that their strongly held political or religious beliefs may in fact be social fictions. But the matter of most concern to me is their inability to realise that the fact that something may be a fiction doesn’t mean one needs to – or even should – stop acting as if it’s true.

Whether or not humans are equal, should vote democratically, have rights or have a god, some of these sorts of beliefs can undoubtedly conduce to harmonious societal living. But they can equally conduce to chaos and disorder – and typically do in those instances where they are believed to be literally “true” rather than true in some sort of pragmatist fashion. My questioning their literal truth uses these beliefs merely as a springboard to discuss our relationship with what we call knowledge – the beliefs themselves are chosen mainly for the blind allegiance so many students have to them.

This approach tends to elicit two responses (not counting the response of apathy or unresponsiveness). Some dislike me for being some version of an athiestic rabble-rouser, spreading poisonous and anti-something-or-other nonsense. And the other camp comes to me after lectures, asking some pointed question like:

Student: What’s your opinion on religious beliefs?

Me (reluctantly, because I fear the ensuing argument): My opinion on religious beliefs is that they are usually irrational and potentially dangerous.

But instead of the expected offense, and then argument, they smile and say “Me too” before walking away. And this sort of student is nearly as worrying as the first group – they’ve merely found a “sympathiser”, and will walk away with their belief strengthened, and their need to think about that belief lessened. And I’ll want to call them back and play devil’s advocate – or in this case, god’s advocate – until I remember how incredibly difficult that is, and resist the urge.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.