Thoughts on Orthodoxy in the classroom

Orthodoxy is believing the correct things as demonstrated by adhering to the correct creeds, saying the right things, and otherwise demonstrably proving that you are not heretical in your belief.

Orthopraxy is performing the correct actions and conducting yourself in the right way.

These two concepts are most often applied to matters of religion with the idea that one begets the other, but with different emphases on how to best preserve society. I would like to apply them to education–partly based on a frustrated tangent I went on in the classroom this past semester.

Freshmen in college seem either to know or to crave “the right answer” in history classes, depending on the question. If the question is about racial or gender issues but does not require much prolonged thought, students can regurgitate a politically correct answer that they learned in high school. Slavery is bad; Europeans have treated Native Americans badly and are never sympathetic people as a result; of course women should be allowed to have jobs and vote–to give a few simplistic examples. The problem is that when the students prepare essay answers or write papers they sometimes say shocking and bigoted things, sometimes because they are trying to say something else entirely, and sometimes because while they know the politically correct answer, they are grappling with the issues presented only in a superficial way while holding onto beliefs that they have been trained to hide.1

Somehow schools and society are teaching students that they need to have the correct, rote answers on political issues ready at hand. If they can repeat those answers for the teacher, then everything will be fine. Thus, students go into a class like mine trying to rummage around and provide me with the right answer that I am looking for on any given week. If they don’t have that answer or can’t find it in their tea leaves, they stay silent for fear of being wrong.

I teach discussion sections for the survey of American history. Beyond answer questions about the lecture each week, my goal is to foster an extended discussion of the readings and topical issues going on in the world related to the readings. There are inaccurate facts–and I am a stickler on that count–but, assuming the facts are correct, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and I am looking for them to talk about the issues, talk about the reading, and otherwise engage with the world around them. I am interested in the process by which they come to answers and beliefs and less about the beliefs. This emphasis on orthodoxy only serves to get people to mask potentially politically incorrect beliefs, which actually does nothing toward creating a more understanding society. If students are forced to follow the process, then, even if they are not persuaded to be more caring, understanding, and respectful, then at least the beliefs will be laid bare.

The issue at hand is that education is a process, not a test, not a series of facts, and certainly not a series of answers. In fact, education is about the absence of answers–and the journey to find them.2 The is an uncomfortable truth that many people do not like to deal with and why there seems to be a rush to escape school. But education–whether in kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, or your spare time on weekends–is a process by which we learn about the world around us and thereby interact with the world around us. Any active antipathy toward the process combined with the fear of failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I just need a better way to convey this to my students.

1 For instance, in a paper about the American myth and the war in Vietnam, one student wrote: “The soldiers however were not met with open arms from the natives, most were not even looking to be freed.”
2 As Martin Schwartz points out in a discussion of the importance of stupidity in scientific research.