Sunday, May 22, 2011

Going to college? Know someone who is?

If you are about to head off to college, one thing you should be very aware of is the fact that universities today may claim to promote open exchange of ideas and the freedom to question assumptions, but in fact that is only true within a certain dominant paradigm.

There is a dominant ideological paradigm or framework of ideas with certain shared assumptions. These assumptions include a dominant geological framework (uniformitarian geology), which reinforces a dominant biological framework (Darwinian evolution), which reinforces a dominant anthropological framework (which includes "evolutionary" progress from hunter-gatherer societies to primitive agricultural societies to greater levels of civilization in a generally unbroken line of progress, with some setbacks), which reinforces a dominant literary-political narrative (a view of history and literature as the record of one group oppressing and colonizing other groups, and an attempt to undo the effects of the hegemonies that resulted from these past power matrices).

As a result, "freedom to question assumptions" is permitted if it is in accord with this dominant narrative (for instance, courses such as "Introduction to LGBT Studies" or a symposium on "queer Caribbean literature" might seem to be "open-minded" examples of freedom to question assumptions, but would actually fit right in to the overarching paradigm).

On the other hand, freedom to question assumptions might become a little strained for a student who wanted to write his anthropology thesis on the possibility that mankind knew the size and shape of the earth before the first dynastic pharaohs ruled in Egypt, or the professor who wanted to teach a course exploring the possibility that man started out more advanced in knowledge and then became less advanced for many thousands of years. How about a geology course examining the abundant evidence around the globe for a worldwide flood in antiquity? Such "freedom to question assumptions" would fall outside the reigning orthodoxy of academia.

As a result, students in college are not exposed to rigorous challenges to the reigning assumptions. Challenges to this dominant paradigm are not welcomed and debated on the merits of the evidence for one theory or another, but are more typically met with ridicule or ad hominem attacks.

Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that the dominant uniformitarian geological theories -- including plate tectonics -- may in fact be wrong (see here, here, and here for some of the evidence). There is also substantial evidence that ancient civilizations had the ability to cross the oceans and had a good idea that the earth was spherical and how big it is (see here and here, for example).

Students in college now or heading off to college soon should know that there are very valid reasons for challenging the assumptions of many of the theories that are passed off to them as fact, beyond any questioning. In fact, learning to put all the various theories on the table and to identify their starting assumptions and evaluate the evidence for and against each competing theory should be a central skill that is taught and encouraged in college. The fact that competing theories are more often mocked than evaluated should raise a warning flag (for more on that subject, see the cholesterol theory discussion here and here).

If you are in college now, or know someone who is or will be soon, encourage them to follow the links in this post and to cultivate a true "open mind," not just an open mind within the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in the current university environment. There are very real reasons why we need more college graduates with the ability to truly question assumptions and the theories that their professors declare to be beyond questioning.