Religious knowledge: does Pew get it right?

Yesterday, the results of a study by the Pew Research Center made national news.  And ever-media 2.0-conscious Pew even added a mini-version of the quiz readers can take.  Blogged, tweeted, facebooked about, the new findings cascaded through the world of social media, gathering new interpretations and speculations like a rolling snowball. 

My curiosity -- or rather suspicion -- was raised almost immediately.  A quick multiple-choice test for "religious knowledge"?  Atheists and agnostics scoring higher as an aggregate than Evangelical Protestant Christians or Catholic Christians?  That leads by lightening-quick inference to tweets [links removed] like

Kant at the book club

Tonight at the Cumberland county library Great Books club, Kant's short, dense but readable essay Towards Perpetual Peace was on the docket.  I showed up a few minutes after everyone else had arrived, having walked the five blocks in a cool drizzle that hopefully heralds the end of summer here in Fayetteville.  The old members greeted and the moderator greeted me as I came in, happy I was back after having been AWOL since June, traveling up north.  Someone said:  "we were hoping you'd show up," a reflection both of the fact that we were talking about a philosopher this time, and of the cordiality of the group.

All the seats around the table were occupied; there were a few new faces, and for the first time, I was not the youngest member.  At one end, next to the moderator, a thin, young white man whose close copped hair and mannerisms betrayed him as having strayed in from Ft. Bragg (now that I think back, perhaps he resembles me at his age, in the Army, 20 years ago, an array of commonplaces, allusions to an idiosyncratically perused  literature, half-worked out thoughts at my disposal, searching for something, not sure what, not sure where, not sure with whom. . . ) At the other end, two black women, one older, collected, smiling, the other, a social worker younger than me but closer to me in age.  I disentangled a chair from the stack, and she slid her seat over slightly so I could between her and Jacquie (a regular, French, who I later asked for a word I couldn't recall:  tremblement de terre)

I am always very interested whenever our selection is a philosopher to see what the book club makes of him or her. It's a quid pro quo.  They are happy to get my explanations, context, occasional judgments, mentions of connections, since for better or for worse, I'm a philosopher -- or at the least have studied them and teach them.  I don't think they need me much, actually, and I'm paying close attention each time to what they have to say, how they construe the passages, what they respond to, what makes sense to them, resonates with them, what else it calls to their minds.

So far, in the sessions I've been able to attend we have read selections by Simone de Beauvoir (from The Second Sex) and Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish), and the whole of Machiavelli's The Prince.  So, Kant, and this essay in particular, actually fit in quite well.

Online Communication and the Morality of (counter-)Violence

Today, I finally started making good on yet another scholarly obligation I incurred some time ago.  A colleague with whom I share a common interest in Aristotle's Rhetoric and in the interconnections between politics, rhetoric, and ethics more generally, had asked me about a year ago to look over a paper he'd written some time ago on flaming in online chatroom discussions.

[A side note (or perhaps a diatribe!) on Aristotle's works and disciplinary boundaries:  Far too many "Aristotle specialists" -- but none of the good ones -- read Aristotle far too selectively.  I've been surprised and dismayed to find that for the most part, my fellow philosophers tend to carefully read either the Metaphysics, or some of the logical treatises, or the Nichomachean Ethics, and then ignore the other works.  Political scientists predictably enough focus on the Politics.  Communications people focus on the Rhetoric, Lit-Crit and Rhet-Comp on the Rhetoric and Poetics.  The better scholars in all of these fields cross the disciplinary boundaries, and read the rest of the Aristotelian corpus, discovering that interpretation of the individual works greatly benefits from that, each work informing the others. A plug for one recent example of this sort of Aristotle-interpretation: Marlene Sokolon's Political Emotions: Aristotle and the Symphony of Reason and Emotion.]

The basic thrust of the paper was sound.  Whereas some interpret flaming as simply a symptom and contributing cause of incivility in online communication -- here, chat rooms, but the paper has implications for most other online forums as well --flaming can also perform a rhetorical and even ethical function.  That stance ties in with some topics I've been mulling over since childhood and occasionally writing about since grad school.

Injecting Information Literacy into Critical Thinking classes

Every semester at Fayetteville State University, I teach at least three Critical Thinking classes.  If I offer an upper-level class (and here, Intro counts as "upper level"), and it actually gets enrollment (nowadays, ten students minimum), then I teach that as well.  If it doesn't make enrollment, then its four CTs that semester.  This semester I have a course release, so three CTs. Next semester, I decided not to even try offering an upper level.  So, four CTs. For a philosopher, used to research and publishing, this teaching regime is potentially mind-numbing.  Remember the movie Groundhog Day, and the period of frustration, then boredom and despair Bill Murray's character Phil went through?  Imagine that, but now with a textbook and underprepared, mainly uninterested Freshmen students (and upperclassmen who flunked the first, second, third time around).

Groundhog Day provides a useful analogy here.  The danger is that of becoming jaded, disengaged, cynical, and thereby both workmanlike and almost useless to one's students.  The repetition of the trivial, disconnected from tangible consequences, seemingly not making any lasting difference has affective and practical consequences.  Or in less jargony terms, the repetition produces emotions, moods, and actions. Give it time (and in the Groundhog Day universe, that's all you've got), and these congeal into habits and palpable attitudes.

Now to putter with another metaphor, when the educational Establishment hands you a bag of lemons and tells you "the bad news is all we've got are lemons; the good news is we've got plenty of 'em," buddy, you better start liking lemonade and researching recipes for different varieties.

Paying a Friend What I Owe

When I started this blog up three days ago, I originally gave it the title "Ask a Philosopher. . .  or don't," playing off the fact that typically we philosophers aren't asked for, but give our views and observations anyway (generally for free -- we're far too generous -- a tradition going back to Socrates).

Then, I opted to shorten it, and when I posted a link to the first entry on Facebook, my old college friend Dan Callahan (a perfect moniker for a political career if I've ever heard one!), dropped a little conundrum in my lap:

suppose a 16 year old male decides that the theory of evolution is indeed factually true not because of a biology class or independent reading of scientific literature but because every sci-fi movie and TV show he has seen throughout his life has claimed it to be true. Does he "believe" in evolution or not? In either case, what consequences does this have on the current cultural clash?

Because I'm a practiced philosopher, I avoided the big-implication issue he explicitly asked me about, and focused in on what I could address fairly easily.

sure he believes in "it" -- no problem there about belief-- but probably what he believes in is not the "theory of evolution" (or a theory -- given that there's historically more than one!), but a sort of vague, ill-defined notion that evolution takes place, that it is "scientific" in some sense, that evolution explains some phenomena (which he'll call "things"), etc.

Dan was not so easily satisfied.

How can they believe in "it" when they don't know what "it" is?

Now, that there is a genuine grade-A philosophical problem.  To answer it fully requires more time and space than Facebook makes available, and honestly more than I intend to devote to it here. There's three things I do intend to say about it, though, and I responded with one of them

Because they have a vague belief, with an ill-defined object. Perfectly possible to believe all sorts of things in such a manner. One reason why belief is not the same as knowledge

And this is quite true. We often have and express beliefs about imaginary things or about real things that turn out to be quiet different than we picture them.  We don't always have a definite, clear and comprehensive mental grasp of what it is that we adopt this doxastic attitude towards, and which we express in our language. And thank God, because we need vagueness in some things and contexts.

I should point out here that at this point Dan and I have both made an imperceptible shift away from inquiring about "believing in. . . " to "believing that. . ."  It may well be that belief in. . .  can be appropriately vague, while the associated beliefs that. . . ought to be clear.  And this sort of popular-fictional-based belief which is purportedly in the theory of evolution might well fit in that category.  Dan thinks not, and he makes a key point:

Sorry, I still think it's a more interesting problem than that. If I believe in 'A' in the context that "to believe is to understand" (as is the case with science) but don't understand 'A', then the situation becomes interesting, IMHO.

To believe in the theory of evolution -- putting aside all of the problems of clarification that talking about "the theory" threatens to raise as soon as you start delving into the history of science -- does mean believing that some set of propositions (or claims, or statements, however you like to put it) are true -- a very large set if you want to understand the theory in its application, a smaller set if you're content with speaking in general.

And notice -- believing in the propositions that are supposed to constitute the theory of evolution is not the same as believing the propositions that are supplied as "proof" or "demonstration" of the theory.  Generally, if you believe one set, you'll believe the other, of course.  But logically they are not the same.

Can one claim to believe in "science" (itself a terribly vague term, as any practicing scientist who is at all reflective will tell you!), or in a theory without actually having some solid understanding of what one is believing in? Well. . .  yes, but then one is believing in a manner that goes directly against the spirit and intention that lies behind and animates science.  That is to believe in science in a very unscientific, unenlightened, irrational, uncritical way.  (and in many of the blogs and conversations dealing with evolution, that's precisely what one sees!)

So, the second thing I have to say about this:  Dan's 16 year old believes in an ideological construct (in the classic Marxist sense -- I'm no marxist, but I do think he got some things right), one which might well turn out at points to coincide with something resembling what a consensus of scientists mean when they refer to the theory of evolution, what it is that they pass on not only through teaching but through demonstration (via argument, not direct observation, of course, given the nature of the theory) to the new generation of scientists in formation.

Dan's 16 year old believes that "evolution is real," or some other analogous proposition.  Although other people may (and in my book, do) have good grounds for believing something along the lines of the propositions the theory of evolution sets out, Dan's 16 year old clearly does not. From a Critical Thinking perspective, he is as careless and sloppy as anyone else believing in something largely because of references to it in culturally-manufactured and -dependent entertainment commodities.  He has about as much warrant for his belief in evolution as he would if he believed that Fred Flintstone has a bad temper among other vices and that Wilma ought to send him to anger management classes. 

The picture does not get much better, actually, if he has had a high school class dealing with evolution.  Not from an epistemological perspective.  Unless it's a top-notch class, taught by an unusually competent and committed teacher, our 16 year old will again have only tangential contact with the theory.  He'll watch some documentaries, read a textbook, write a paper for which he copies internet resources, and promptly forget almost all he has learned by the time he is in my college class!  Most likely, the only real basis for his acceptance of the ill-defined shadows of the thing in his head he calls the theory will be Argument from Authority -- the teacher says so, the textbook says so, the scientists say so.

So, what is our 16 year old?  An ideologue, pure and simple.

I'll throw out the third remark without explanation, which can be the matter for a later post, or dealt with in comments.

 "Believe" is not a univocal term, or as the analytics who for the moment rule the Philosophy roost might say, "the grammar of 'believe' is not as straightforward and clear as we originally thought it was"

Last call. . . . for Integrated Course Design

Today, by email, I got a "last call" for the products of our Summer Integrated Course Design products.  If you don't know what integrated course design is, or what it would have to do with summer, apparently you might fit in well at Fayetteville State.

"Integrated course design" is the admittedly jargony name for carrying out structured reflection about what the real goals you have for students taking your course are, then designing learning activities and a curriculum that actually have a good chance of realizing that for those of your students who are actually willing to put in the work required by the active learning they claim they enjoy better, educators claim engages them more, and more importantly many employers in the new tough knowledge-based economy are going to expect of them.

Having gone through a semester-long Faculty Development Seminar last year, which was led by our provost, and in which we used Dee Fink's book on integrated course design, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, I have to say that there is something to this.  Having sat through classes and conversations with education majors as an undergrad, taught them as a grad student and a professor, and endured my share of babbling about education theory by "experts" as a professor (i.e. someone who actually teaches about something for a living), I tend to be a skeptic about any supposedly revolutionary new concepts in education.  I tend to be stand-offish about most forms of "assessment," unless its demonstrated to me that there's actually something real being assessed.  I tend to turn a jaundiced eye on claims about new paradigms in education.  Typically, what's supposedly new, innovative, better than what we've been doing turns out to be something that has already been done, and might have been discussed by, oh I don't know, say. . . . Aristotle.

the CLA at FSU: a model for incorporation

First a bit of stage setting: Several years ago, my institution, Fayetteville State University, deliberately became involved with a powerful and flexible assessment and teaching/learning tool, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Over the last two years, through faculty development, ongoing course redesign by individual faculty, a variety of faculty-driven efforts, administrative support and leadership, and deliberate shifts in assessment, the CLA has quickly burrowed many deep roots into the soil of FSU.

When I first arrived at FSU two years ago, transitioning from six years of teaching for Ball State University in a maximum security prison to a small southern historically black college where we Philosophy profs teach 3-4 Critical Thinking classes per semester, I had never heard of the CLA. Nor had nearly all of the other professors, staff, and administrators. A few professors had been shipped off to a CLA Academy, and were ready to lead a workshop on it that Fall. Our new Provost glimpsed the potentials of this new mode of assessment based on performance tasks, rubrics, and involving "authentic assessment" of Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Writing skills, He decided not only to support but to invest his long-earned institutional capital into advocacy for adopting the CLA at FSU.