Magazine article National Forum

Rationality, Intelligence, and Good Papers

Magazine article National Forum

Rationality, Intelligence, and Good Papers

Article excerpt

In a philosophy class, I once suggested to my students that they find whatever way they wanted in which to show me they had understood the text on which we were working (Plato's Republic). I told them they could write a paper of the kind with which they were already familiar or, alternatively, draw a diagram showing how the central concepts in Plato's philosophy relate to each other; write a short story about someone coming to Plato's Republic and trying to fit in; give me a list of what seemed clear to them and what did not; come and talk with me about the text and tell me what they understood; prepare a short play presenting the important ideas in The Republic; or discuss with me other ways they would like to work. I received diagrams, letters to friends about the book, "regular" papers, journal-type entries, lists of thoughts and questions, and had several conversations with students who were more comfortable talking. When I had discussed with each student his or her presentation, we talked in class about translating the different modes of expression into the conceptual form the language of the usual academic paper. I asked them all, then, to write such a paper, drawing on their own more comfortable ways of thinking about the subject to help them through it.

The papers were significantly better than any I had received before. I believe that had I shown to some of my colleagues a set of those same students' earlier papers and those written after the experiment, with names removed, they would have judged the second set of papers to be the product of "more intelligent" students. My experiment was designed to help me, and the students, see first how they really tended to understand and then to help them work in the one way for which they were most likely to be rewarded in higher education. I believe one reason why they did better on their second papers was that they felt more confident simply because I had recognized that the academic-paper form is only one of many ways of achieving, expressing, and communicating fully "rational" understanding.

Rationality itself is a mystified concept in the dominant tradition (as was suggested earlier by Kant's and Jefferson's judgments of the "irrationality" of those whose mode of understanding differed from the one these men recognized and valued). It has so many meanings that even, or perhaps particularly, among philosophers it is difficult to pin down, yet it has an enormous prescriptive force in higher education and in the society formal education serves. Students are supposed to be learning to be "more rational" through education, and that is understood to mean that they are becoming better citizens, even better people. To be labeled "irrational" is to be discredited. But, of course, there are, as the experience I had in my course indicates, many modes of thought and expression that are not irrational but simply different from the primary modes of expression of rationality enshrined at the center of the dominant tradition. These modes tend to go unrecognized or be devalued in higher education because they do not match the presently privileged notion of rationality.

In the dominant culture of the West, a narrow view of what is rational has created educational systems that can make many of us feel inadequate and inept because our ways of thinking, of making sense, are not met, recognized, given external form, clarified, and returned to us refined and strengthened. Instead, too many people are made to feel "stupid." Their minds or their own most comfortable mode of expression tends to work differently from those particular constructs: academic "intelligence" and "good" papers. I have worked a great deal with older students returning to higher education, and time and again I have heard painful stories of early experiences of that sort from people who, when they got up the courage to return, have gone on to prove to themselves and their teachers that they are capable of good to excellent work. …

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