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Constitutional education, history, commentary, reform, compliance, and interpretation.

2012/05/20

Disprove it!

The hallmark of Enlightenment scientific reasoning is a commitment to diligently seeking refutations to one's favorite propositions. Confirmation bias is the natural tendency of uneducated people, more devoted to finding support for one's position than reasons to doubt it. It is that culture of brutal examination of all sides of every issue, of pursuing the truth to wherever it may lead, even if that is somewhere one doesn't want to go, that has produced the scientific progress and civic virtue that are essential to the rule of law.

There is a reason why student debaters are instructed to prepare to argue both sides of a question, don't know which side they will be asked to defend until they ascend the podium, and are judged on their skill rather than on the appeal of their position to the judges.

There is a reason why the best lawyers submit briefs that do not just argue one side of a case, but present the best arguments for all sides, and distinguish the arguments that best apply to the facts of the present case. A good brief is not supposed to be a passionate polemic, but a dispassionate inquiry into the truth that respects the role of the judge to weigh all sides and reach a just conclusion.

Today one is more likely to hear "Disprove it!" from a defiant partisan directed to an opponent. We have yielded to a sports culture that demands victory at any cost, rather than truth or justice or honor.

Today we turn out legions of advocates for positions they never honestly examine, or even know how to examine, who seek out the company only of those who agree with them rather than those who might make them think and perhaps become compelled to abandon beliefs in which they are invested. There was a time when such persons would be relegated to the ranks of the uneducated, their opinions considered unworthy of high regard. But now they are too often celebrated, given degrees and book contracts, and invited to appear on talk shows.

That does not mean educated persons deliberate endlessly. At some point the judge, and we are all sometimes judges in matters before us, must make a firm decision, but if he is a good judge he defers judgment until the last moment.

The key discipline is the ability to suspend judgment until it is needed. Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books of the Western World, also wrote How to Read a Book, which should be required reading for every public school student. It instructs us to read every prose work three times, the first time for structure, the second time for propositional content, and the third time for evaluation of its propositions. Judgment is suspended until the third reading.

In the method of brainstorming, participants in a group are asked to propose as many ideas as they can think of, good or bad, and instructed to make no judgments of the merits of the ideas until the final evaluation phase. They are to be told that bad ideas Are often more productive of good ideas than good ideas are.

When I was a public school student in the 1950s this Enlightenment tradition was part of the teaching we received. But when I did some substitute teaching in 2001 what I found was students only being asked to express what they "feel" and told that everything is only opinion and that all opinions were equal. Missing was the last step of critical judgment. I hear from other credible observers that this is a widespread problem in public education today, along with a lack of discipline generally.

Our schools are not not turning out enough good citizens. They are mostly turning out barbarians. They may be charming and manipulative barbarians, but they are not prepared to engage in the processes of wise governance that depend so much on subtle judgment by informed electorates. I would not want to be judged by a jury composed of most of these kids. I am also not sure I would want most of them serving alongside me in combat. The problem is not just that most of them can no longer pass the physical exam. The problem is also intellectual and moral. Are we going to have to send our students to boot camp or to war to get them to shape up?

It is often said that "civilization is always only one generation away from barbarism".* Our failure to impart martial and civic virtues to our offspring is the single greatest threat to the survival of our nation and its tradition of constitutional government. It deserves our immediate attention.

* Attributed to Roland H. Bainton, author of Here I Stand, a history of Martin Luther.


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