What Do We Really Know?

What Do We Really Know?

Many years ago, when I was a college sophomore majoring in Sociology, I took a course in Criminology. The professor was a stern European and he graded in a way I had never previously encountered. It was called “Right Minus Wrong,” meaning that grades would be calculated by subtracting wrong answers from right ones. The final exam consisted of 100 questions, each offering three or four choices. If I answered all 100 questions with eighty right and twenty wrong, my grade would not be 80 but 60! There was no penalty for not answering a question, so If I answered 80 right and left the other 20 blank, my grade would be 80. I was reasonably sure I knew the answers to all 100 questions, so I answered all of them.

My final grade in that course was D. That, plus the fact that the stern European professor was the only one teaching most of the advanced Sociology courses, led me to change majors.

That experience taught me two priceless lessons. First, that it is possible to think we know something, even to be certain we know it, and yet be wrong, thus proving that we actually didn’t know. Second, that circumstances can create a fog over genuine knowledge and lead us to turn away from it and embrace error, even foolish error.

These lessons have been helpful in many situations, and they are helpful in dealing with the present irrationality in politics, the media, education, and religion. Here are two examples:

(1) U.S. Border Security. One popular view of this is that the border is completely secure. To hold this, one must be willfully blind to the hordes of men, women, and children who violate the border every day including Sunday. An equally popular view is that the border is wide open and that its openness is demanded by God and/or common decency. (Truly progressive people have the gift of simultaneously holding the contradictory ideas “secure” and “not secure.”.)

Both these views are held with certainty. In other words, they are not open to question, let alone debate. People get this certainty by being taught they were born wonderful and know everything worth knowing. (René Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” Modern progressives say “I feel it, therefore it’s true.”) Their certainty is frequently misguided because history has been neglected in college curriculums for half a century, so students neither understanding nor respect the past. If they had learned that the ancient Romans lost their empire when their weakened army failed to expel Goths and other barbarian groups who had entered the empire without invitation and challenged their rule, they might wonder whether a similar finale is possible for the U.S. But if they didn’t learn that, they don’t know it, it is therefore (to them) not worth knowing, and the illegal aliens keep on streaming in, unchallenged.

(2) Professors Training Minds. Reportedly, in an in-class dialogue, Dr. Stephen Berk, a Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Schenectady’s Union College, criticized a student who said ” Israel supporters have a free guaranteed spot in Hell.” According to Berk, the college president later commented, “We do not condone the student’s words. We also do not condone the manner in which this student was confronted in a public setting . . .” In other words, instead of supporting the professor’s correction of a student for a clearly inappropriate statement, the president suggested the Professor’s correction of the offense was as objectionable as the offense! He thus embarrassed the one who acted wisely and encouraged the one who acted wrongly.

It is difficult to determine whether the college president believed the foolish statement he was making. (For all we can know, he may believe the nonsensical notion that everyone creates his or her personal truth.) He could have been so convinced that his response was flawless that he failed to consider that it might be both stifling meaningful teaching and misleading students about the value of truth, respect for others, self-control, and openness to learning from those who disagree with them. Not knowing, yet believing he knew, led to a mistake he may still be unaware of. Such is the trick that “knowing” can play on us.

I will close with an ironic footnote to my introductory paragraphs. Many years after receiving that “D” in Criminology, I wrote a college textbook in Sociology titled A Guide to Sociological Thinking. It is still in print in English and in Turkish. For those who are wondering if the book includes guidance in answering “Right Minus Wrong” questions, the answer is, no it does not.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero