Sunday, May 16, 2021

Graduate School

Dr. Thomas G West, discussing John Locke and the misinterpretation of him 

As a graduate student in Political Theory at Claremont (College) I ran into Locke, I was taught Locke in an Intro class, never anything serious. We read the Second Treatise and that was it, boom. Spent maybe a week or two on it. I taught, and began teaching Locke in my teaching career starting at the University of Dallas and then here at Hillsdale and I continued to repeat stuff I had heard and read in graduate school about Locke. One of the things that is good about graduate school is that you learn a few basic ideas. One of the things that's bad about graduate school is that you think that 's all you need to know. And I had, in my own understanding of Locke, a kind of revolution, kicked off by a scholar named Peter Meyers called "Our Only Star and Compass"... (Italics mine.)
This section of the discussion was about skepticism and curiosity, which you are encouraged to develop all through school through the late undergraduate degree.  But somewhere in late college the focus shifts to convincing you that now you have arrived, you really know something and you should accept what you are taught rather than be skeptical of it.  After that, students apply skepticism only to their area of specialty, and sometimes not even that.

This accords with my limited observation. Therapists remain curious about developments in therapy and have opinions based on new reading, research, and their own experience. But they treat what they learned about social psychology and anthropology as unmoveable, far more than a less-educated person would. Worse, it extends even to the references to history and literature that came into their graduate studies in psychology. I have had frustrating discussions with young psychiatrists explaining patiently to me about something called Implicit Bias and looking shocked when I tell them that Implicit Bias turns out not to have much effect or foundation. They usually just walk away, irritated at this person who clearly knows nothing but contradicts what they picked up in passing while studying something else. Pastors do something similar with regards to the economics and social science they were taught somewhere along the way. 

At best, they top off their knowledge listening to NPR or reading popular sites treating in ideas.  Actually, that is actually "at worst," because those echo the same fashions they started with, reinforcing them while providing only selected snippets of new information.

When one has to keep up with a topic as complicated as acute psychiatric interventions one has considerable disincentive to apply that curiosity and skepticism broadly.  It is easier to regard things learned as fixed objects. Yet it leaves you forever at the mercy of the prevailing fashion of your university at the time of your studies. I think I have spent more time unlearning what I learned in Introductory Anthropology than I have saved time relying on it. Unlearning is hard, because it takes a willingness based on character traits.


Sam L. said...

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, NPR! I left it behind me in a whirlwind of dust.

Grim said...

Locke is always taught that way -- Second Treatise and basically nothing else. But the First Treatise is really worth reading, if only because it establishes a deeply religious baseline for his thinking -- and, for students, also because it requires them to learn a little bit of the Bible to understand what he's talking about.

I always tell people that in High School we lie to you, teaching you thing we know aren't true but that are 'good enough' for people who aren't going to go further. In college we teach you that the stuff you learned in High School wasn't true, in preparation for you to discover where you think you might want to invest the time involved in learning what really might be true.

Grad School is for teaching you, within a discipline, the best introductory view we can plus a lot about a specific area where you will focus. When you get through your MA and PhD, you should be prepared to begin to do your own investigations at the frontier of that specialty.

What the attentive student ought to conclude from this experience is that they don't really understand anything outside that specialty. What they're likely to conclude is, as you say, that they're among an elite who really understands a world that the fools with lesser educations do not.

james said...

Even within your own field, there's so much to learn you wind up having to take a lot of it on faith--so long as it seems consistent with the rest of the material.

dmoelling said...

You are probably at your worst just about graduation (both B.S and later). You have learned a lot of fundamental material but unless you are a born genius (a new Gauss or Teller) you lack the experience to think much for your self. So you are a true bore for a year or so until you realize how little you know. I spend a lot of time with young engineers teaching them how to really think. Interestingly exposure to legal disputes helps. The whole exercise in litigation of showing how you actually know something and what the key questions are is an enlightening experience.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@dmoelling - that is true in mental health as well. I had not thought of it quite that clearly until you put it that way.