Saturday, June 08, 2013

Engaging Information

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind, at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald


We're in school every day. We are surround by informers, and we are engaging information. Everyday, we are in school.

Learning, reading, listening to podcasts, streaming an MP3, attending lectures, these are all endeavors which require us to engage another person who is, on some level, attempting to instruct us.

This implies that public information dispensers, those who are "information informers" (writers, film-makers, teachers, politicians, entertainers, musicians) are all about the task of teaching. And so they are, whether we realize it or not. The books we read, the shows we watch, the movies we consume, these are all teaching us something. The authors of these words have something to say (or else they'd remain silent), and the authors of these words are accountable for their words (whether they like it or not), and we ourselves are being changed by the words we engage (whether we know it or not). 

In a recent interview, The Avett Brothers spoke of the impact of their popularity: they realized they need to be careful with the message of their music because a large audience attended their every lyric; with greater influence, and a wider audience, they accepted greater responsibility. 

But, what about us, the "informed." How should we engage the "informers" all around us.

I want to mention two extremes of engaging information.

The first extreme: accepting everything.

The second extreme: rejecting everything.

In the first, we assign to our "teacher" absolute authority; we do not think it possible they could be mistaken about anything. If they say it, it must be right. Many college students take this posture before their professors. I once did, and I had an instinct toward "submitting my mind" to these great scholars. I assumed what I heard in class was true. I assumed these men/women knew everything they were supposed to know, and were right. How wrong I was.

I'll never forget when the reality of the fallibility of my college prof's struck me like lightning. I took a final exam for one of my sociology classes, and to my surprise, made a B on the exam. In my mind, to the best I knew, I had answered every single question according to the information in the text book: the very information the professor had pointed us to. So, when I got my test back, I compared every question on the exam with the section of the book it covered. Guess what? According to the book, I was right. Every single answer my Prof marked wrong was, at least according to the book, correct. The Prof had marked the correct answers on my test, and I started looking up his answers. Guess what? About 70 percent of the time, what he said was the right answer was simply wrong, or at least not as correct as the answers I had supplied. 

Then, I realized: this professor does not even know the answers to the questions on his final exam. This was a major even in my life because it was so odd, so contradictory to my perception of "omniscient professors."

Then again, we might swing to the other extreme: Approaching information and "informers" with a totally critical bent, and rejecting any and every idea from authority figures and teachers. This disposition is often the consequence of prideful know-it-all attitude, and it cuts us off from engaging in beneficial ways with others who may know much more than we do.

Right before I was to begin my PhD studies in the UK, I sat down with a Prof who'd mentored me throughout grad school and explained to him a particular anxiety. I was concerned about my upcoming PhD research because one of my supervisors was known to be unfriendly to many things in Christianity, and a purveyor of false teaching. I foresaw a never ending war with this supervisor, and dreaded having to sit under them, and try to avoid contention. I was also afraid that this experience my impact me negatively; what if I started adopting some of these views? What if my faith started failing me? What if I was intimidated into avowing positions I detested?

Then, my mentor advised me, "Try to learn what you can from this supervisor." I expected he'd say the opposite, something like, "Reject everything this madman says." But he didn't, and what he did say was worth the price of all the education I'd received before. He communicated me, in one sweet sentence, enough wisdom to fill a book: 
-Be Humble, but also Wise
-Approach the situation as a person who wants to learn
-You know you are going to disagree, so be confident in your positions. They are true...
-But don't let disagreements get in the way of profiting from someone who has something to teach you.

His counsel set me free, not only agree with this supervisor, but also to disagree. If I'd gone in with the "accept nothing," view I would've started making a straw man of his arguments: I would have had the sort of negativity that ensured I would misunderstand him. All this would have only made me more weak in my own positions, while also ensuring that I had no real knowledge of my supervisors positions. 

Instead, my mentor sent me into this situation with the best possible defense against false teaching: a desire to learn and know the truth.

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