Education is when undeserved guilt degenerates into insincere shame

The debate over academic freedom brings me back to the topic of unoriginal thinking (which I touched on last week when I discussed young people who think thoughts which are not their own, but which are believed to be "cool").

Conservative students are discovering that not only is it not cool to be conservative, but if you dare to admit it in class, it can get you a bad grade. (NOTE: For the purpose of this essay I'll lump libertarians with conservatives, because leftists in academia tend to treat all who oppose socialism with equal contempt.)

I know people will disagree with me, but I think there is a distinction between someone who thinks and says something in order to be considered "cool" and someone who regurgitates thoughts a person in authority wants to hear in order to get a good grade. There is something about the latter which strikes me as less intellectually dishonest, because the thought isn't internalized.

Saying that socialism is great in order to get an "A" from a socialist professor is of course dishonest, but if the student knows that this is wrong and says it anyway, he is less dishonest than if he meekly submits to the will of his professor and internalizes the authority figure's "truth" as his own -- especially if he has to suppress critical thinking in order to do the latter.

However, the one who thinks what he is told to think is in a better position to have a happy life, so even if I am on the right side ethically, I may be on the wrong side socially. Is the unexamined life a happier life? Considering that the pursuit of truth will get you into more trouble than obediently accepting authority, I'd have to say yes. (But there's that troublesome issue of what it is that constitutes happiness; some unhappy fools actually consider true knowledge to be a worthwhile pursuit -- as if that might bring happiness!)

It is the distinction between internalized obedience and the external display of obedience that is at the core of guilt-based versus shame based systems. The military is a classic example of a shame-based system. Obedience to the rules and protocols does not presuppose a belief that they are right; if you know your commander is a disgusting excuse for a human being, you will show respect and salute him because if you don't you will be in trouble. But the key is, you don't have to mean it. No one cares and no one inquires. Such shame based systems are much easier on the nerves, because a free and independent mind is left alone and unmolested provided that there's an outward conformity to the rules of conduct.

Sean Kinsell provided a perfect example in his discussion of how refreshing it was to return to Japan's shame based culture after a visit to the American land of guilt:

I always feel a sense of release when I'm boarding a plane back to Narita. It comes from the knowledge that I'm returning to a place where every last little turn of phrase or arch of eyebrow isn't mirthlessly prodded for complex psychological motivations, where you can expect people to be polite and considerate in public, and where no one cares about your private life as long as you don't force people to reckon with it.
It's liberating not to have to worry about people caring what's going on inside you.

And thus, conservative students who simply spout the magic words their professor wants to hear (and are given good grades for it), can survive the university ordeal quite intact. Shame based "thought" -- because it isn't really thought -- is less harmful to the individual than guilt-based thought.

I suspect that without realizing it, the pedagogic approach of modern American academia has simply created a new culture-within-a-culture of shame-based political thinking which is as ideologically transparent as it is insincere. It may be academic tyranny, but especially in a large university setting, there's no way they can really probe the inner recesses of the students' minds to ascertain actual sincerity.

Ditto for the enforcement of political correctness. The new authority figures have raised a generation of kids who roll their eyeballs when their professors' backs are turned. I've seen them. They'll do what they have to do to get the grade, and then get on with their lives.

Anyone interested in such things as the pursuit of knowledge might call it tragic, I suppose, because they really aren't learning.

I'd say they are learning -- they're just not learning what their professors think they're learning.

As to the ones who feel guilty, they're victims of abuse, because education at the university level is not supposed to be about guilt. That stuff's supposed to be within the province of religion.

Unless these professors think they are preachers or religious scolds or something....

Hmmmm.... Perhaps some of them think they're filling an empty ecological niche.

They better hope the kids don't wake up to the fact that internalizing someone else's guilt is definitely not cool.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: What I did not touch on is whether or not there might even be a shame-based element operating among some of those who voice "cool" thoughts without internalizing them. An extreme example would be a Republican sympathizer who voices all the politically correct thoughts in order to get laid or invited to parties, but believes just the opposite. Many would frown on such cynicism, of course, and I have no idea how common it is. Some might go so far as to call such people "sociopaths," but that's another topic entirely. (At least I hope it is; the thought that American universities might be manufacturing young sociopaths is hardly reassuring. Dang! I just remembered that I need to catch up on "South Park.")

posted by Eric on 12.22.04 at 10:19 AM


This is one of the profound writings you deserve a thousand Instalanches for. Funny, that some post about a drunk driver gets it instead. Oh, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles....

Merry Christmas!

Steven, that's very nice of you, but I don't think that I or anyone else can "deserve" an InstaLanche, because Glenn Reynolds is an artist and the nature of art is that the subject materials of it are by definition not subject to being categorized as deserving of inclusion by anyone else. I am of course honored to be included whenever anything I have written is noticed by him or fits in with what he's doing, but whether I "deserve" the honor is a different issue. (I shutter to think what would happen to me if people started thinking they "deserved" to have me link them here! I'd go crazy, and probably be unable to write with a clear mind.)

I always try do my damnedest to make each day count and make my own stuff as worthy as I can make it, and I appreciate your support as well as the compliment.

BTW the drunk driving legal mess was very appropriate for an InstaPundit link considering the Christmas/law school/exam/drinking season, although it didn't remotely occur to me when I wrote it that it might be. That's the beauty of blogging as an art form. You never know what someone else is going to think.

Merry Christmas to YOU!

Eric Scheie   ·  December 22, 2004 5:32 PM

There are Pros and Cons to living a life of a collegic "sociopath" ... sometimes, you forget you are pretending.

mdmhvonpa   ·  December 22, 2004 7:22 PM

But the benefit of being a sociopath is you can always pretend you forgot!

Eric Scheie   ·  December 22, 2004 9:33 PM

Then there are the students like I was, incapable of regurgitation. I mostly kept my papers to topics where I could agree with the profs or TAs, until near the end. Then, my last two semesters, I couldn't take it anymore, let off both barrels, and left school a semester before graduating (with predictably low grades).

I'm not only a bad liar, I actually hate lying (unless it is to someone who has been dishonest with me; then it's a pleasure).

Ian Hamet   ·  December 23, 2004 7:53 AM just spent about eighteen paragraphs complaining about the repression of non-socialist opinions in academia, without presenting ONE SINGLE SPECIFIC EXAMPLE to back up your tale of woe and victimization.

I went to college too (UVa, 1978-1984 off and on), and found conservative bias in the International Relations department, and liberal bias in the History department. Both of my parents went to college as well (Stanford), and from piecing together their stories with mine, I can tell you that bias and mediocrity comes in all ideological stripes (as does excellence). Professors have been rewarding the echo of their own opinions from the dawn of time, and today's liberals aren't exactly breaking any molds.

If a professor gives a failing grade to a student who does not share his/her ideology, it could be for a variety of reasons:

1) The prof. is biased, and determined to punish non-conformity;

2) The student's reasoning or command of facts is flawed;

3) The student has no clue what he/she is talking about, refuses to admit the validity of differing views, and is using lawsuits and victim-mentality to fend off ideas he/she can't handle.

Any one of these scenarios is possible, and specific information about specific cases is required to determine the whole truth. Since you have not provided such specific information, you really haven't given us much to go on.

As a Pagan, I am rather sensitive to the use of exaggerated or made-up accusations to portray some persons as "victims" in order to justify or excuse their victimization of others. This post of yours has the tone of Bill O'Reilly accusing Jews and "secular elites" of trying to "cancel Christmas."

Raging Bee   ·  December 23, 2004 10:44 AM

While I've given other examples in other posts, I suggest reading the link I used as a starting point:

Thirty-one percent said they felt there were some courses in which they needed to agree with a professor's political or social views to get a good grade.

But I think it's fair to discuss this in general philosophical terms without any need for documentation. As a pagan myself I don't quite see your point about religion, although I think inflicting guilt on people sucks. Regardless of the source.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 23, 2004 10:57 AM

"Thirty-one percent said they felt there were some courses in which they needed to agree with a professor's political or social views to get a good grade."

That's the best you can do? Less than one-third of your sample said there were "some courses" where they were required to agree with the (unspecified) prof's (unspecified) opinions? If you're looking for an example of KGB-style mind-control, you'll have to do better than that.

Also, it is possible that the professors' opinions were based on years of experience that the students did not have. I had a right-wing nut for a prof, but I knew he had been an Ambassador to Peru, and had almost been killed in a terrorist attack, so I cut him some slack, especially when he talked about the Shining Path. "Biased" does not always mean "wrong."

My "point" was not about religion; it was about manufactured or exaggerated accusations creating a climate of fear, hysteria or hatred. And no, you are not discussing "general philosophical terms" here; you're spreading accusations based (as far as I've yet seen, and yes I read the article you cited) on insufficient evidence.

Raging Bee   ·  December 23, 2004 11:15 AM

"KGB-style mind-control?" Wow, you're right! I guess I WAS creating a climate of fear, hysteria or hatred after all. (And I thought I was complaining about making people feel guilty....)

Eric Scheie   ·  December 23, 2004 1:44 PM

So why did you focus entirely on examples from the most intolerant elements of the alienated academic Left? My friends and I can think of far more abusive examples from the religious right -- which take place in ordinary life, not just in academia.

Raging Bee   ·  December 23, 2004 2:03 PM

Raging Bee, I think you're right that it's not only liberal professors who can be touchy about students who express views that differ from their own. Remember, though, that they're the ones whose perspectives are reinforced and amplified by the overall campus culture at most universities.

I was in college ten years after you (yes, that means it was now ten years ago, but I prefer not to think of it that way), and during orientation week, we were bombarded with admonitions about acquaintance rape, multicultural harmony, heterosexism, and all the wonderful (university-funded) student organizations we could join to get involved in this or that pet lefty cause. The editorial page of the student newspaper was firmly liberal; the occasional conservative columnist or letter-writer always looked conspicuously out of place. Things were the same where I went to graduate school.

In that sort of climate, is it possible that there's a cadre of professors in the philosophy department who are ultra-conservative and expect their students to fall in line with their views in order to get good grades? Sure. But on most campuses, they'll seem odd and off-center. Challenges to their views will be all over the place, whether their students seek them out or not. The same cannot be said of liberals.

However, if Eric will allow me just a little more of his real estate here, let me just say that my advisor in the English department was its representative Foucauldian the-personal-is-political feminist, and she was wonderful. Really. When I wanted to incorporate Camille Paglia into a major paper, she she told me that the only requirement was that I be prepared to justify every citation based on its content. I could tell she was appalled, but she was true to her word. I learned a great deal from her about questioning your own assumptions and not calling yourself well-versed in a topic until you're ready to drop dead from research fatigue.

So when I talk about liberal professors, it's not from the perspective that they're all mindless group-thinkers, because my experience tells me they aren't. The problem is that those who are aren't challenged enough.

Sean Kinsell   ·  December 23, 2004 9:34 PM

Oh, damn. I almost forgot. Thanks for the link, Eric.

Sean Kinsell   ·  December 23, 2004 9:34 PM

Sean: You've shown an example from your own experience (as I have done from mine) and then simply stated that "most campuses" are the same as yours, without providing evidence to support such a sweeping statement. It may SEEM to you that most campuses are like yours, but that could be because you're listening to others who repeat the same charges in an on-line or off-line echo chamber.

I am objecting to all this, not because I can prove you wrong (I can't, at least not now), but because bigotry, hysteria, and sensational lies are spread the same way: an allegation, by insistent repetition, becomes "common knowledge." The same thing happened in regard to certain child-molestation cases and "Satanic Ritual Abuse." It also happens in the intelligence community. (Remember "yellow rain" in Afghanistan? It really WAS bee-poop after all.)

Like the allegations of "satanic ritual abuse" and the campaign to outlaw Christmas, your charges of systematic suppression of non-leftist views seem long on emotion and short on facts. I urge caution in repeating such charges, and a careful eye toward what ulterior motive they might serve.

Raging Bee   ·  December 24, 2004 3:27 PM

As a Pagan, i.e., a Polytheist, i.e., a theological Conservative, I totally oppose Political Correctness in all its manifestations, on university campuses and everywhere else, and I agree with Bill O'Reilly. We Pagans must align ourselves with traditional Christians and Jews in opposing the "progressive" forces of secularization and homogenization. And the best place to start is by defending the ancient holy day traditionally (for the past 900 years at least) known as Christmas. Merry Christmas!

"but especially in a large university setting, there's no way they can really probe the inner recesses of the students' minds to ascertain actual sincerity." - Eric

Yet. Give 'em time.

[And on that disquieting note, I'll snicker and wander off again. ;)

Merry Christmass, Eric. ]

Ironbear   ·  December 26, 2004 2:07 AM

Raging Bee:
"Like the allegations of "satanic ritual abuse" and the campaign to outlaw Christmas, your charges of systematic suppression of non-leftist views seem long on emotion and short on facts."

No, there's a key difference between the 1980's day-care witchhunt and the contemporary allegations about leftist orthodoxy on campus: the primary sources are available. You doubt what I'm saying? Fine. Skepticism is good. So go and read. Go to college and university websites and read the course descriptions their academic departments post. Read the depictions of campus life posted by student life deans and vice-provosts. Read the profiles of university-funded student organizations. Look at the ways colleges conceive themselves, as presented in ways they believe will show them in the best light to millions of Internet users.

Again, I'm not speaking for Eric, but my own point was that, while it's almost a given that there are particular conservative professors who are every bit as dogmatic as the worst leftist professors, it is improbable, bordering on inconceivable, that their poor conduct is magnified by campus culture and the weight of campus bureaucracy.

Sean Kinsell   ·  December 26, 2004 3:52 AM

WHICH "college and university websites" am I supposed to look up? There are thousands of colleges and universities in the US! And why should I do all the research when you're the ones making the (serious and inflammatory) accusations?

I'm sure there are plenty of "college and university websites" that support your allegations - as well as plenty that don't, particularly in the South. And offhand, I really don't see how the "primary sources" you mention can either prove or disporve your charge that students are unjustly penalized for not agreeing with the faculty's "party line." (If there's a university web-site that says "We flunk students who don't agree with us," I'd be amused to see the link.)

Some examples would be helpful, as well as some attempt at a statistical breakdown.

Raging Bee   ·  December 27, 2004 11:00 AM

Actually, my point had nothing to do with statistics, but the mechanics of guilt versus shame. I'm interested in how it works, not how often it happens. I've seen enough of the phenomenon to convince me that it does happen.

If you don't think it does, then we probably wouldn't agree on an analysis of "South Park" either.

(I fail to see how any of this is hysteria, so I guess we disagree there too.)

Eric Scheie   ·  December 27, 2004 11:31 AM

Okay, now that we're past complaining about the repression of non-socialist opinions in academia...

There is, as you say, an important difference between "shame-based" and "guilt-based" systems; but that difference is not always apparent, since the outward behavior is the same in both cases; and the line between the two is not always clear.

The difference is entirely in the mind of each participant: some people have more ability than others to accomodate others while keeping their own spirit/perspective/priorities/beliefs intact within themselves; and this ability (or lack thereof) is not specific to any one field of endeavor. Some students are able to suck up to their professors while holding on to their own notions of what is right or true, and some aren't. Ditto some soldiers, but not others.

The important question to keep in mind here is, when should one stand up and expose the falsehood and/or dishonesty, and when is it simply not worth the trouble? A soldier should tolerate a crappy command structure full of crazy or stupid commanders long enough to accomplish the unit's objective, then shed the uniform and start using his own head and heart in civilian life. A student might quietly roll his eyes at a prof's extremist or obsolete ramblings, regurgitate same to pass the course, then wake up his own mind when he gets a real job. Then again, maybe the soldier can buck the system and get results once in awhile; and maybe the student can force a debate, and force the prof to admit he didn't have all the answers.

A huge part of growing up consists of answering this question - when to conform, when to rebel - in relation to all of our daily interactions, in an ongoing process of trial-and-error.

Raging Bee   ·  December 27, 2004 2:31 PM

"We" are "past complaining?" I don't think I even used the word "repression." Were I a student and were I assigned, say, "A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES" (as thousands of students have been) and disagreed with its premises, I'm not altogether sure I would call the fallout "repression." But I'd have every right to complain.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 27, 2004 3:08 PM

You had "A People's History of the United States?" Big Deal. I had "Red Cocaine," which alleged that the entire Latin American drug trade was controlled by the USSR for the purpose of destroying American youth, society and values - which is about as silly as the LaRouchies' contention that said drug trade was controlled by the Queen of England, for the same purpose.

My father had a geography teacher who insisted on using maps of the Pacific islands that were out-of-date, and gave failing grades to Pacific War veterans who pointed out this hard-learned fact.

The fact that Republicans are now pretty firmly in charge of the US at nearly all levels, kinda proves that the campaign to penalize students for not echoing certain professors' leftist opinions, if it exists at all, isn't having much of an effect.

In fact, all this complaining sounds to me like a bunch of thin-skinned right-wingers attacking the most odious aspects of their most extreme opponents' views, in order to avoid facing more sensible or coherent arguments that they might not, in fact, be able to refute.

Anyone can trash an irrelevant extremist, left or right. Chomsky, Zinn, Coulter - they're all a waste of time. If you really want to defend "Classical Values," defend them against a real threat in the real world. How about the current campaign to have Creationism -- excuse me, "Intelligent Design" -- taught in science classes? How does that square with "Classical Values?"

Raging Bee   ·  December 27, 2004 3:38 PM

Actually, I think "Intelligent Design" is an ideal subject for irrelevant extremists.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 27, 2004 4:06 PM

Mee too, but the extremists in this case aren't irrelevant - they're pressuring school districts and publishers to toe their line, with noticeable effect, while the rest of us are diverted by phony whinery about "librul media."

Raging Bee   ·  December 27, 2004 4:20 PM

I'm noticeably late at this topic, having worked through Christmas -- Happy New Year, everyone -- but Raging Bee's opinions can only be maintained by ANYONE who doesn't have kids in the public school system (forget university) or who is notably blind to inculcation and indocrination of kids. I have sons in the public school system and the nonsense starts early. Very early. Depending on how ignorant the teacher is it can also be very funny. One of our kids was convinced glass was a non-renewable resource and we must never, never, never break a cup or bottle. He went spastic when I dropped a glass. (I guess the teacher saw the glass recycling bins and got confused.) Another one got give both Paul Ehrlich "we're running out of potable water" barrels in third grade and started preaching to me. I redirected him to the Ehrlich books and called his attention to the copyright date. In my family by the time the kids hit fourth grade they know how to regurgitate the teacher's opinions in tests but never to trust anything they haven't source checked. I'm educating them for the twenty first century.

As for the new generation, I think what we're creating is Double Think -- which is not exactly a healthy mode of living but is the only way of surviving totalitarian opinions inflicted daily by figures of authority. A Marxist-Leninist education made me the libertarian I am today. To the socialists in Academia, re: the new generation, Bring-It-On!

Portia   ·  December 28, 2004 11:39 AM

Excellent anecdote Portia.

BTW, I didn't mean to suggest that all discussion of Intelligent Design was extremist; only that it would appeal to them. Via InstaPundit, Rand Simberg has an excellent, balanced discussion of the subject.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 28, 2004 11:52 AM

Portia: I never pretended to know anything about public grade-schools, as that wasn't the topic. But I have heard from friends with kids that the silliness there goes in just about all directions - and has been since I was a kid, which is why my parents formed their own school rather than put me in the public schools.

As for creationism, here's some more discussion:

Raging Bee   ·  December 28, 2004 4:04 PM

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