First, Question Your Own Dogma

Ideas matter. But ideas are rational. Dogma is not.

I say this having recently read a post about liberal professors and teachers feeling afraid of their conservative students. But there’s a lesson here that’s applicable to all of us.

In response, I suggest that we all take a close look at how we share our political and social philosophies, regardless of whether we are teachers. We have just witnessed a presidential campaign waged primarily with dogma (and misinformation and slander and libel). We should have learned something from it, especially if we hope to undo what has been done to our country and our people.

For clarity, here’s the definition of “dogma”:

dogma – a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true

Most of us associate the notion of dogma with an adherence to strict religious beliefs whose teachers and followers insist must not be questioned. Yes, they say, Jesus actually raised a man from the dead, and arose himself after being crucified. No, they say, you must never draw or portray Mohammed, and so on.

But political and social dogmas are commonplace as well, and too often we resort to these unethical shortcuts to win arguments or teach people about our beliefs. The problem is that dogma isn’t taught so much as memorized. It neither asks for nor tolerates self-reflection. Revolutionary educator Paulo Freire’s concept of the “banking concept of education” reflects this notion. It posits students as “containers” waiting to be “filled” with knowledge. They are passive in the task, as containers would be. The teachers only expect them to memorize and recite what they’ve been taught. Nothing more.

…the world is a vast swirl of billions of people all trying to influence each other. Teaching and learning – in and out of school – are inevitably extremely dynamic processes. 

Little surprise that Freire’s notion is presented in a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed . Insisting that our students and our citizens be little more than vessels – not actual actors – in the classroom and society devalues individual thought and creativity. In many societies today and throughout history, it has even criminalized those things.

It is easy for most of us to point to times and events in our lives when we encountered dogmatic teaching or preaching. We rant and rave about robotic, uninspiring teachers who perform their jobs by painfully inflexible guidelines. We become infuriated with corporate representatives trying to resolve our customer complaints by simply repeating over and over “but that is our policy.” We remember with discomfort encounters with “Jesus freaks” and their like accosting us on our doorsteps or in public and insisting that we “find Jesus or burn in hell.”

But dogma isn’t always so obvious. Nor is it always others pushing it on us.

Ask yourself, what might I be dogmatic about? What ideas do I consider irrefutable? What beliefs of mine do I never question?

It may be your faith. It may be your love of your country. It may be your belief in higher education. It may be your culture. It may be your community, your family, your employer, your lifestyle, your diet, your exercise regimen. Really think about it. What are you most likely to be inflexible about?

I’ll play fair. For me, it is the value of human life. I believe that all culture and politics should be guided by the notion that all people deserve an equal right to life, liberty and happiness.

Now imagine how my belief in the sanctity of human life could be construed by others.

I could be a strict right-to-lifer in the abortion debate. (I’m not.)

I could be against the death penalty. (I’m not sure that I am.)

I could be against all wars. (I’m not. Sometimes war is an unpleasant necessity.)

There are a dozen different arguments that can be made against my beliefs. Hypocrisy would most certainly be one of them. While I would enthusiastically debate that point, I recognize that my point of view is not unassailable. To do so would be dogmatic.

If we are to survive a world of corporate-run media, corrupt propaganda-spewing political monopolies, and a zeitgeist of obedience and punishment, we must do our damnedest to delegitimize the script. 

Freire countered the “banking concept of education” with the more active “problem solving” concept of education. This posits that the world be seen as a work in progress, and that students be encouraged to think about ways to influence or change it. Of course, the world is a vast swirl of billions of people all trying to influence each other. Teaching and learning – in and out of school – are inevitably extremely dynamic processes. We are not merely passive “containers” for information. We accept, reject, seek out, refine and add to the things we learn. What we learn isn’t our “content.” It is a catalyst for further reflection.

That said, this is a lesson for everyone, not just skittish or worried teachers and professors. If we are to survive a world of corporate-run media, corrupt propaganda-spewing political monopolies, and a zeitgeist of obedience and punishment, we must do our damnedest to delegitimize the script. That means eschewing knee jerk reactions and really considering issues and events from multiple perspectives.

I am not advocating acceptance of things you cannot accept. I am advocating self-reflection in conjunction with passion. Ask yourself what your prejudices or dogmas are before you act or react. Only with that in mind can you thwart them.

Doing so, we make ourselves better teachers to the people that we interact with, and that’s the goal. We must avoid inciting the stiffening of the back and the clenching of the fists that accompanies blind self-righteousness. We must recognize that for far too many of us, the give and take of discussion is seldom portrayed as civil, thoughtful and empathetic. We have to address this. We must be the better example ourselves. Improving the cultural and political dialogue is entirely on us.

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