Pedagogy and Habits of Mind

Learners, their  Mindsets and  General Education Objectives

Philip A. Pecorino

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Fall, 2004 


The rather standard statement of the goals of general education portion of degree programs involves both the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills associated with the "modern" period of Western history and the mindset or habit of mind that typifies that period.   When the instructional staff that is of the "modern" mind or habit of mind confronts a student body that is diverse in mindsets or habits of mind and in the values associated with them, there results a tremendous challenge to bring the diverse group of learners into the "modern".  More attention is needed to the diversity of fundamental habits of mind in attempting to improve the efficacy of instruction and accomplish the objectives of a General Education program and the Liberal Arts and Sciences core and the most basic objectives of higher education.

- - - - - - - -

All educational institutions hold out and celebrate varieties of expressions of their basic educational goals and in particular the objectives of their general education programs.  Most common in such expressions are statements to the effect that graduates would have developed their critical thinking skills, information literacy and communication skills and are able to make mature and well reasoned judgments including aesthetic and ethical decision making.   As laudable as such goals may be and as wonderful the sound of such declarations are those who trumpet these notes at all serious about the import of such declarations? Do the supporters of the declaration make commitment to consider and address the most basic habits of mind and belief systems of their learners?  If we were to seriously consider how well and how we are to achieve the general objectives for degree programs then we would need to seriously consider some of the most central elements of the lives of our learners: their mindsets or habits of mind.  We have not as yet begun to do this.  An institution that wants a genuine general education program that sets out the general objectives and wants to place great emphasis on the teaching and learning that contributes to achieving those general objectives has need to be concerned with just who are their learners and what do they bring to the community of learning and to the process of learning itself.   It is presented herein that the most popular set of outcomes of a general education program are those associated with a particular mindset or habits of mind that are characteristic of the faculty of most colleges but not of their students.  The alternative mindsets must be directly identified and addressed if they are to be moved into the that of the rationalist mindset consonant with the aims of general education.

Heterogeneous Groups 

It is more and more the case that educators at all levels, and most particularly at community colleges in urban settings, realize that the groups of learners found in classrooms are typified by heterogeneity.  In fact, there is heterogeneity of heterogeneity. In the major cities of the United States to observe that students come together in classes that are characterized as heterogeneous is pure understatement.  The most common basis for describing these classes as being diversified is based on the ethnic nature of the learners.  Add to that the further distinctions that can be made based on language differences and cultural differences and religious backgrounds and one just begins to appreciate how diverse a group each group of learners in a single class can be. 

But what are the distinctions that matter most for the enterprise at hand: teaching and learning?  The diversity that matters for learning comes into focus beyond that of culture, language, and ethnicity.  The learners have different learning styles that need to be taken into effective consideration by instructors who want to insure as best they can that the learners achieve the objectives of the learning experiences being formulated for them.   And, of course, one of the most obvious of differences for educators is that the learners have different knowledge backgrounds and different levels of basic skills attainment. 

Habits of Mind or Mindsets

Beyond the differences in learning styles and background knowledge there are the even more fundamental differences in the most basic habits of mind.  These include the most basic ways in which the learners gather and receive information and deal with it, the background against which new experiences are interpreted, with which they are valued and to which responses are formulated.  There are at least three basic habits of mind that instructors in a multi-cultural environment need to be mindful of when designing programs of instruction.  These habits of mind or mindsets may be described in different ways.  One might be to characterize them in a temporal ordering such as: Pre Modern, Modern, and Post Modern in an effort to link them with those periods where the mindsets predominate within the modes of discourse shaping the culture.  This terminology might also be viewed as polemical and so it will not be used here.  Another might be to describe them as fundamentalist, scientific and relativist to use terms popular in contemporary discourse.  These would be both pejorative and misleading as they would introduce terms that are value laden for many.  In this work the terms used will be a combination of those cited and those used by Charles Sanders Peirce in "The Fixation of Belief", Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15.

Peirce identified four ways in which people fix their beliefs: tenacity, authority, a priori and science.  In this work the three basic habits of mind being described will be termed:  the tenacious-authoritarian, the rational, and the relativistic.   I am combining the first two methods for fixing beliefs as described by Peirce and associating it with a popular and most basic mindset that is herein termed the "tenacious-authoritarian".   I am associating what Peirce termed as  the "a priori" method with the "relativistic" mindset as Peirce recognized that this mindset or method for fixing beliefs was ultimately based on the most popular ideas of the time.

It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest. - Charles Sanders Peirce in The Fixation of Belief.

Finally, I rename his fourth and preferred method with the more general descriptive: "rationalist" as reasoning and critical thinking is what it emphasizes and what most distinguishes it from the other methods for fixing beliefs, habits of mind and mindsets.  It is not to be identified with science as science is but one manifestation of this habit of mind through which positions taken are arrived at and defended using thought process that involve reflective and critical thinking that is considerate of alternatives and insistent upon well formulated and defended positions.

The use of the terms, "rational" or  "rationalist" or rationalistic" is not to be associated with the meaning of rationalism as in the long history of that term in philosophy that links it with thinkers from Plato on through Descartes and others who held that knowledge was contained in the mind or soul and could be recognized or achieved without experiences involving the senses, the community of inquirers or the external world. 

To attempt a single manner of approaching learners in a group with these different habits of mind is bound for failure for the learners for whom the single approach is without meaning or value.  Instructors have these manners of approach that are based on their own habits of mind.  To operate out of ignorance of the mismatch between the habits of mind of the instructor with sub groups of learners in the class is a method that will leave some learners with little real learning and more likely with some form of failure. 

The instructional staff is nearly exclusively populated by those with the rational mindset placing high value on reasoning and critical thinking and the need to support claims with evidence and reasoning.   

The student body in our ethnically diverse urban community colleges is composed of learners with different mindsets: the tenacious-authoritarian, the rational, and the relativistic.

The Tenacious-Authoritarian Habit of Mind 

The tenacious-authoritarian students come from cultures in which there is high value placed on respect for authorities and official texts.  They are literalists and unfamiliar with and anxious about multiple interpretations of texts and information and history.  They are also inexperienced with diversity and find it difficult to accommodate with the pluralistic society they find in the country and on campus and in their classes and with the faculty.   People are acculturated into possession of this mindset with little conscious effort on their part.  The perception would be that this habit of mind is simply the way people think within their culture or their cultural groups.

At this moment this mindset is oft times described as “fundamentalist” when those so characterizing it want to identify the set of religious beliefs that are a part of this mindset as being the defining characteristic of it.  This may be historically and socially relevant but in terms of the cognitive or psychological processes it is not.  The mindset is a deeper formation that accepts a particular form of religious life but is not constituted by that. With this habit of mind faith is generated by a basic need for order and order at any cost.  Faith can be set against reason as a result of satisfying a basic drive, perhaps rooted in a genetic disposition (a "god gene"), that results in a belief system conveyed through story that provides order or "cosmos" for the believer. Such faith is held tenaciously and all the more so when reinforced by its endorsement and promulgation by a variety of social institutions each carrying the weight of authority. 

The tenacious-authoritarian mindset would view the rational mindset as a threat to disturb the order of things as held in the belief system that was uncritically acquired. 

The tenacious-authoritarian mind would likely view the relativistic mindset as no threat to persons of the tenacious-authoritarian mindset as the relativistic accepts and is tolerant of all views and so the tenacious-authoritarian belief system and its habits of mind are not capable of being challenged.  The tenacious-authoritarian can hold that their beliefs are better than others and expressions of the actual one and only truth and there is not a way the relativistic can criticize them given the relativistic claims of relativity with its denials of  absolutes, trans-cultural universals, objective knowledge, and objective truth. 

The Rational Habit of Mind 

The characteristics or the rational mindset are those found in the outcomes of the typical general education component of the Liberal Arts and Sciences core of any degree program.  This mindset places a high value on reason and believes in the possibility of human progress through the use of reason.  This habit of mind is characterized by critical thinking skills and reflective thinking.  Those with such a mindset accept science and technology and place trust in reasoning and experimentation and fact gathering and testing of hypotheses and ideas. They are willing to offer and ask for reasons and evidence in support of claims that are made and in defense of positions taken on issues.  The critical use of reasoning or rationality itself is applied across disciplines.  Science is but one form of thinking in which reasoning is an essential method for arriving at conclusions and for defending positions using evidence in support of claims and for the verification of hypotheses.  The rationalistic habit of mind is developed by Mathematics as a form of thinking that develops appreciation for methodology and for systemic knowledge along with reliance on logical analysis and inference. The rational mindset is not one that embraces the philosophical tradition of rationalism with its holding for innate ideas or for truths that are realizable through thought alone.  The rational mindset values science but does not make it either the summum bonum or establish science on a pedestal of faith.  The rational habit of thinking is far more likely to interpret and analyze religion as a social phenomena and religious beliefs as expressions of values than to accept religious claims as literal truth or unquestionable claims.

Unlike with the tenacious-authoritarian mindset and the relativistic mindset people are not acculturated into possession of this mindset with little conscious effort on their part. This habit of mind is the result of effort and self reflective thought.  It is not perceived of as simply the way people think within their culture or their cultural groups. It is the result of education, whether formal or informal.  It is not an innate habit of mind.  Neither is it often the mindset typical of most groups within which people develop and from which they learn. It is the mindset of professional scholars and researchers and people of letters and others who are themselves products of formal education.

Despite it being the case that the rational mindset is the goal of General Education, students with the rational mindset are nearly always in the minority of those entering colleges in this country at this time, particularly in large urban settings with a multicultural setting and a multicultural student body-a stated desire of many colleges.  Students with the rational mindset are both native born and immigrants.  They share much in common with faculty and find it relatively easy to perform well on all forms of assessments prepared by a faculty with rational mindsets as their own. 

With this habit of mind faith is the result of what reason holds and supports and faith is maintained for the sake of hope.  Belief systems must adhere to the rational criteria of coherency and consistency.  This is so even for religious belief systems and they are held as sources of value and as the reservoir for hope.  Religious language is operative as expressive of axiological positions rather than empirical claims.

The rational views the tenacious-authoritarian as uncritical and even irrational and in need of further education or development into the rational.   

The rational views the relativistic as riddled with inconsistencies and self refutations and in need of reform that incorporates the core values of the rational. 

The Relativistic Habit of Mind 

There are a large number of students with the relativistic mindset.  In the main they are products of European and American cultures that are post religious and post modern.  For them all opinions are of equal worth and entitled to equal respect and protection.  For them there is no position that is privileged except through power of some form.  The power that establishes the preferred or privileged position or sets out the criteria for judgments and sets out the values to be held is not the power of tradition nor of authorities as established by tradition or by some divine act as with the tenacious-authoritarian mindset.  It is the authority or power of the social group or institution.  It is a power that rests on the most common or most popular beliefs. The learners who are relativists will accept as a correct answer that evolution is the best explanation for the development of life forms on the planet earth in order to get credit for the preferred answer of the empowered instructor but many of them will maintain that creationism is also true or even more true or true because they believe it to be true and are so entitled to believe it to be such.   

As with the tenacious-authoritarian mindset people are acculturated into possession of this mindset with little conscious effort on their part.  Again the perception would be that this habit of mind is simply the way people think within their culture or their cultural groups.  This habit of mind is the consequence of a series of historical events and movements that challenged the assumptions and operations of those engaged in the disciplines that marked the rise of the "modern age".  The presence of this habit of mind in individuals is not likely to be accompanied by an awareness of itself or of the historical dimensions of the development or popularizing of this mindset. This mindset as with the tenacious-authoritarian mindset is arrived at through an unquestioned acceptance of both the habit of mind and its attendant and resultant set of beliefs.

The relativistic views the tenacious-authoritarian as one of many possible mind sets that are equally acceptable.   The relativistic views the rational as being intolerant and outmoded with sets of values and criteria for evaluations and judgments that are not absolute or universal or objective and , worst of all, not popular.

For the relativistic mind acceptance by and assimilation within a group is the valued end This mindset rejects as its goal to be possessed of the most well founded position on an issue or the best hypothesis as supported by reasoning and evidence.  Science is no better than any other way to arrive at a position, belief or thought for the relativistic mindset.  It is the popularity of the position that matters.  The criteria for accepting a belief has become for this group whether or not the holders of the belief have a community within which they feel comfortable and accepted.  The distinction between fact and opinion and the real and the simulated has broken down for the post modern and relativistic learner. 

With this habit of mind faith is a form of discourse and is akin to any other in its basic social foundation and functioning. A religious set of beliefs is as valued as its social setting has determined. Beliefs based on faith need not adhere to any criteria external to the group discourse nor be subject to any review by those outside the group of faithful that the adherents to that faith need accept.

The relativistic mind has moved beyond science and reason as having diminished in their importance and any position of privilege that they might occupy in the determination of knowledge or truth, even truth concerning such physical matters as the shape of the planet or the origins of illness and disease or the process through which life forms. 

The relativistic mindset is post historical and focuses on the eternal “now” with no value placed on historical perspective.  The past matters little as an aid to understanding because all thinking about the past is just discourse or opinion and all opinions have equal status. 

The relativistic mindset flourishes in what is an age of simulation.  The simulation is no longer opposed to the real or the authentic.  The distinctions are not respected.  They have no effective meaning for the relativistic mindset.  The distinction of the real from the fake or the representation or simulation is meaningless.  The real is whatever is perceived.  “Reality TV” no matter how prearranged and orchestrated is reality.  What is seen on television or through any other media is as real as it can get and as authentic as with any other mode of receiving information.  If it has been on TV or in the movies it is real and genuine and as accurate as any other report or depiction or interpretation.  There are no criteria for determining authenticity or accuracy that are objective so, anything goes! 

For many of the young with the relativistic mindset fame is real and fame, no matter how achieved, is the value. All fame is equal and is itself what matters.  Opinion polls no matter how conducted and how influenced by media reporting are the indication of the real and the genuine, no matter how produced or measured. 

So there are people who arrive in college with minds that are developed enough to have accomplished college admittance and yet they hold beliefs that are not rational in the sense of not having been arrived at through processes involving careful and critical thought and some beliefs that are even anti-rational in the sense of being inconsistent with or in contradiction to other beliefs that are also held with equal fervor.

In taking college classes the basic mindsets can remain submerged from view as much formal instruction does not reach down to the level of the basic manner in which ideas and information are processed and beliefs are fixed in the learners.  In teaching some subjects such as Philosophy the basic mindsets are exposed.   Over a number of years students in Philosophy classes have admitted to or spontaneously made claims to many or all of the following beliefs and many continue to hold them throughout their time at the college as they are not effectively challenged to do otherwise: 

If a person believes that "X" is true then "X" is true.

If a person believes that "X" is real then "X" is real.

There can be one god, many gods and no gods all at the same time.

A physical object can be a flat disk and a sphere at the same time.

Astrology and astronomy are just different ways of knowing things but equally valuable.

Evolutionary Theory and Creation Theory are equally acceptable explanations for life forms on planet earth.

John Edwards talks to and hears dead people. (cold reading trick)

David Blaine can actually levitate his body. (the Balducci levitation illusion)

Science is no more than a special type of opinion.

All opinions are of equal worth.

There is no objective knowledge or objective truth about anything.

There is no real problem in holding beliefs that are contradictory.

They are concerned with being “politically correct” or socially correct or popular and accepted  rather than accepting that there may be criteria for determining the correctness of beliefs that have been established in ways that all peoples may share in regardless of culture, class, religion, age, or any other consideration that may be relative. 

The student with a relativistic mindset is more concerned with appearance than what might be under or beyond that appearance.  They mistakenly accept that “perception is reality” and arrive at conclusions that there are multiple realities that exists simultaneously even when “reality” is defined to be "the sum total of all that is real". They are as indifferent to equivocations as they are to other mental machinations that would be termed "fallacies" by those possessed of the rational mindset.

Tenacious-Authoritarian to Relativistic Habit of Mind 

The tenacious-authoritarian mindset that arrives at college is more inclined to go to or relate to or fit in with the relativistic mindset when confronted with a pluralistic society that has great cultural diversity and a range of mindsets and habits of mind.  As the tenacious-authoritarian mindset believes in a “truth” even as a sacred or unquestionable “truth” and does not want to subject that truth to examination let alone to possible revision or rejection.  The tenacious-authoritarian mindset thus accepts the relativistic mindset’s celebration of the equality of all truth claims and all claims of privilege.  In this manner, the tenacious-authoritarian mindset can maintain that their traditional dogmas and doctrines and received truths go on as such even in the midst of contrary and contradictory claims by those who are possessed of the rational  mindset and its mechanism for establishing truth and for determining which would be the best defended of all hypotheses and positions and beliefs. 

Since all positions are afforded equal entitlements within their social settings in the post rational or relativist mindset, so it is that the tenacious-authoritarian mindset can feel that their "official" or received  beliefs are just as important and to be just as valued as with any other set of beliefs or claims or practices, for that matter.   This explains how what would appear as conflicting mindsets can coexist in a pluralist society.  There is the appearance of respectful tolerance and peaceful coexistence.  The frictions that lead to violence in a pluralist society are not likely to be those of the rationalist mindset with either of the other two mindsets but of the tenacious-authoritarian with the relativistic because lurking under this surface appearance of peaceful coexistence there are still the deeply held beliefs and intolerant mindset of the tenacious-authoritarian mind that can act against others if threatened or if the ability to resist being "converted' is feared to be weakening.  In contemporary times this is evidenced by fear of the challenges to the belief systems of the various orthodoxies being made by the materialism and wantonness of the "infidels" of relativism. 

A pluralistic society holding pluralism as a value based on conclusions arrived at by the rational habit of mind is much more secure than that resting on the relativist habit of mind.  This is so because it would not hold for uncritical acceptance of all belief systems nor for an unqualified celebration of tolerance. 

The “genetic”  base for Habits of Mind 

Mindsets are the product of habits of mind and they are composed of ideas that are foundational or most basic.  Such ideas are inherited from the previous generation.  They are known as “replicators”.  Genes and memes make for replicators. Memes are a unit of cultural transmission in the thought of Richard Dawkins. (note 1) Memes are units of imitation.  They include ideas and beliefs and belief systems and in this case, mindsets or habits of mind.  memes propagate in the gene pool by transmission from brain to brain through communication and imitation. Replicators are passed from one generation to another as physical constituents that characterize physical aspects of the brain or as ideas that have had survival value within the culture.  Replicators that enhance survival are thereby transmitted to the next generation. Early replicators for humans included an enlarged brain with capacity for creation of symbolic representation, thought, language and abstraction.  Those with the ability to organize the overwhelming diversity of sensory inputs had enhanced survival potential.  Brains that could organize chaos into cosmos were better able to note change and particularly changes in the sensory input against the the pattern stored in memory of the physical environment that might be indications of danger. 

Given the tremendous amount of apparent disorder in the changing physical environment -the weather and movements of animals of all types - the mind that supplied an order through abstraction held a survival advantage.  Ideas of supernatural forces emerged as organizing tools by minds that sought order.  The ideas of deities and the order of deities provided a cosmos to the environmental chaos.   The idea of an afterlife for those who held a life expectancy not much past 25 years of age provided not just order but consolation and hope.  Order, consolation and hope are needed for human enterprise and that held a survival advantage for those who participated in that belief system that was set on foundational beliefs as the source of order that became imbued with value as well and functioned to provide for a great deal.  Upon the set of foundational beliefs rests ideas of the self in the grand scheme of things and ideas of the importance of things and the generative engine for hope. 

When a person has their foundational beliefs called into question they react in ways that do not appear to be rational.  The explanation is that the discourse that has threatened the foundations has moved from one involving a cognitive use of language employing reason and examining empirical claims to one that threatens self identity, group membership and identity:  the basic sense of order needed for making sense of the world and having hope for the future in either this physical realm or in some other supernatural and spiritual realm.

 The earliest mindset or habit of mind that rests on acceptance of the foundational beliefs and respect for the authoritarian sources of those beliefs is not open to considering change or the possibility that the foundational beliefs may be wrong. Acceptance of authority without question had a survival advantage as in earliest times for humans as homo sapiens the young needed to be taught by their elders. 

Today other mindsets have evolved that enable enhanced survival potential.  The rational mindset with its desire for examining beliefs and testing hypotheses and valuation for increased knowledge has produced survival of greater numbers of humans and for longer periods of time and with increase in goods and services available to them.

Confrontations of the rational mindset with the early authoritarian mindset are fraught with difficulties.  Two different mindsets can at times produce two different uses for the same language occurring simultaneously. The rational mind attempts to point out problems with the belief set of the earliest mindset.  Pointing out contradiction in beliefs or noting that there is no support for a belief and that there is empirical support for the contradictory claim will not be accepted as a serious occasion for reflective thought but instead it will be treated as a serious threat to what makes for the sense of self and all that is held as being most important.

 Refuge will be taken by the believers who think that they are being attacked by the users of reason and empirical evidence: refuge into claims of mystery and defensive assertions of their right to believe what they want to believe.  It is more a case of what they believe that they must believe for fear of chaos or damnation.  They will make immunological claims that their beliefs are not to subject to critical examination and held open to rational analysis and empirical verification.  They do this as a form of self defense, not so much defending any claims about truth but instead defending their self identities and values.

 Such minds are not open to change and resistant to education at both its highest and deepest levels.  Formal instruction is put up with as educators and educational institutions are seen as necessary experiences to endure on a path to some desired goal requiring a credential.  Teachers are gate keepers.  Teachers are for the most part members of the realm of reason and critical thought and the open mind looking for support for claims and mindful on inconsistencies and contradictions and the closed mind will pay the coin of the realm of reason but be unaffected by the experiences at any meaningful level as the pass through the doors and gates of the academe on their way to better paying jobs and careers.

 At the most meaningful level the closed mind of the pre-rational authoritarian is incapable of education.  Unless and until that mind is opened there is not possibility of change. Education is about change.  The development of critical thinking skills and evaluative judgments and increase in knowledge and the value of knowledge and reason are what education is about. If there are such minds enrolled in colleges they may achieve the credits required for a degree but they will not be moved.  They will not be changed.  They will continue to hold the foundational beliefs despite evidence to the contrary and defend their doing so with the claims of a tolerant and pluralistic society resting on relativistic habits of mind:

 "I have a right to my beliefs.  I can believe whatever I want to believe."

" You have no right to try to change my beliefs I have my beliefs and you have yours."

 " Let's just respect one another's beliefs."

The survival potential of the tenacious-authoritarian mindset is not as high as with the rational mindset.  The rational have increased the survival potential of the tenacious-authoritarian population with the medicines and technologies that are some of the productions of the rationalistic mindset.

 The relativistic mindsets have brought about some conflicts and endangerments as they hold for the possibility of coexistence of all mindsets and beliefs systems without evaluative judgments: a universal equality of mindsets and beliefs.  Such a mindset sees no rational method for the resolution of conflicts.  Power and physical domination are accepted as the effective method for the settlement of disputes between cultures and belief systems as their are no trans-cultural or objective criteria for evaluation or for the criticism of belief systems.

The relativistic mindsets do not have the same values as the tenacious-authoritarian mindset nor the rationalistic mindsets.   They do not have an idea of knowledge that is critical. They are also resistant to education at the most meaningful levels as they do not hold that changes in beliefs or in habits of mind are necessary or in any way an improvement on whatever is the "given" and is operative within a social group.  They, as relativists, are opposed to any universal or objective schema and criteria for measurement of any claims, regardless of contexts and modes of discourse.

The relativistic mindset defends the non-critical stance and positions based upon their foundational beliefs with their own immunological claims.

            You have your beliefs and we have ours.

What is right for you may not be right for me. So, let us be.

They blur the distinction of cognitive use of language from the non cognitive and the axiological use with its ethical and aesthetical claims and judgments.  All beliefs despite content are relegated by the relativistic mindset into the realm of subjectivism and relativity.

For the tenacious-authoritarian mindset and the relativistic mindset education is very problematic.  For the tenacious-authoritarian mindset there are many opinions and there is also the truth that they already possess so all other belief systems and claims have no effective consequence for them.  The other non orthodox claims and theories are not to be considered seriously for they are presumed to be false and worse still paying serious attention to them might be confusing or threatening.  For the relativistic mindset all beliefs and claims are opinions and all opinions are equal.  Some people who have opinions also have power and that is a distinction worthy of note and what is to be respected.  The educator/teacher is a grade and credit dispenser who guards the gate to the credential they seek and so they are afforded the very practical and temporary respect one gives to the holder of power over one’s condition and future.

The Ethics of Changing a Habit of Mind

There are some, even within education, who may think that there are limits to addressing let alone attempting to change a fundamental habit of mind as it includes some fundamental beliefs and some of them are related to religious beliefs or belief systems.   While this may be a fairly common idea it is nonetheless fundamentally mistaken as to what education has been and is and will continue to be all about.  It is an idea that is itself a product of a relativistic mindset that holds for no manner in which basic habits of mind can be or should be legitimately compared let alone evaluated. 

The whole object of education develop the mind. The mind should be a thing that works. -Sherwood Anderson 

Education is about changing minds.  Education is at its most basic level about addressing and changing habits of mind.  Educators teach subject matter and information but even more so they attempt to inculcate the skills of acquiring information and knowledge and of organizing such in the most effective manner for humans to address problems and to question, set and accomplish their goals.   

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher. -Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

Education is also directive as it attempts to foster growth of learners in both the acquisition of information and knowledge and in the abilities to think critically and to organize information effectively in order to form the most well founded beliefs upon which to make decisions and formulate judgments concerning actions.

Educators have a fiduciary responsibility towards those whom they teach to both do them no harm but also and most fundamental to the relationship of teacher to learner to assist the learner to gain benefit to the learner through the acquisition of information, knowledge and intellectual skills. 

Educational institutions have a fiduciary responsibility to those who attend them as learners to assist the learners to gain benefits to the learners through the acquisition of information, knowledge and intellectual skills.  Such institutions have as part of that basic responsibility the subsequent responsibility to hire and retain and further develop educators who fulfill their responsibilities to educate and thus to most effectively address the task of developing the basic intellectual skills of their students.

Education: Being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't. It's knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it's knowing how to use the information once you get it. -  William Feather

Learners and their parents place trust in educational institutions and in individual members of the profession to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities.

Both educational institutions and their instructional staff have a fiduciary relationship with their learners as they need to protect and advance the interests of the learners and in so doing to make the best judgment about what is in the interest of learners. 

Education is about teaching people how to think and the foundation of the academic enterprise is suffused with reasoning, the value of reasoning and the hope that reasoning will be accepted as the corrective to much that is wrong with some thinking. 

Educators can not allow learners who refuse to embrace rationality itself to go unchallenged as to the efficacy of their beliefs about making judgments and about formulating and maintaining their beliefs.  Learners who want to remain unchanged do not want to learn.  If the learners refuse to enter into the community of learners and the more general community of rational discourse amongst members of the human species planet-wide, there is no obligation to accept that refusal nor to respect the claim that there is no need to reason nor to change fundamental beliefs about how claims of knowledge are to be analyzed, criticized and reviewed.  

The moral foundation for promoting the use of reason in drawing conclusions is argued in In The Ethics of Belief (1877) ( Originally published in Contemporary Review, 1877) wherein  William K. Clifford  concludes that :

We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.

We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.

It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.

For explanations of the resistance of learners to the changing of their habit of mind, their basic mindsets and systems of beliefs, if only to conduct a critical examination of them, there are a variety of factors to be considered.  There is in nearly all humans a desire for a stable and secure world and environment in which to live.  This includes the belief system with which the world is experienced and ordered. There is the desire for a cosmos and avoidance of chaos.  The questioning of the tenacious-authoritarian habits of mind and the relativistic habit of mind is seen as threatening to the sense of comfort  enjoying by those possessed of such mindsets.  If critical examination and questioning and consideration of alternatives and measuring or weighing of such is perceived as potentially threatening to displace the familiar beliefs with no ready replacement immediately perceived as capable of providing and preserving the essential components of mental life that rest upon the previous belief systems then resistance to such efforts to encourage or even require serious critical thinking is the likely result.  There is fear of the unknown and fear of having the known and familiar and the safe being removed.

In resistance to examining ones own habits of mind and belief systems there is also the lack of motivation to do so, as long as the current set of beliefs and habits of mind are providing all that the thinker/learner wants or considers as valued or relevant.  If efforts to educate so as to develop the rational habit of mind are not made evident as relevant or to be valued in some way, learners are likely to resist, dismiss or minimize any effort to enter into experiences that might cause a change in the basic habit of mind.

"What do I need to know this for?"

"What has this to do with me?"

"This is not needed for my major."

With little or no motivation to change there is likely to be little effort to change.  Changing a mindset or a set of beliefs involves a good deal of mental effort or work and the tendency to avoid doing what is not absolutely necessary and what involves great effort likely wins out over curiosity.

Education and the Habits of Mind

Education is, in its most genuine sense, the effort to develop the rational habit of mind.  People born into cultures in which the other habits of mind are predominant and even linked with popularity and success simply acquire those habits of mind through acculturation.  Only the rational habit of mind results from education.  The self reflective and careful and critical thinking that mark the rational habit of mind are not innate but are the products of a series of interactions with others who model that behavior and encourage and recognize and reward it in others.  In the perspective set out herein the rational mindset is the basic goal of education.

Education is about preparing people for life and not simply preparing people to occupy a very limited and well defined location in a community of believers and a community of employees.  Education is not simply about preparing people for entering into a vocation or the labor market and not about assisting people to learn how to learn and how to reflect and criticize and enter into the exploration of the wider range of experiences in order to derive a greater amount of the potential of those experiences offered. 

Education: Being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't. It's knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it's knowing how to use the information once you get it. - William Feather

Education is not about the transfer of information and the development of some limited set of skills.

The things taught in colleges and schools are not an education, but the means of education. - Ralph Waldo Emerson .

Education in the liberal arts and sciences is about examining, developing and changing habits of mind.  It is about moving people from a closed to an open mental posture that will enable continued growth, more efficacious thinking and an expansion in the range of human experience of that which is valued.  Rationality and the need for evidence and supporting reasons are common to the disciplines of science and the liberal arts.  The natural and social sciences are founded upon a reasoning process and habit of mind that advances knowledge and criticizes claims of knowledge.  To teach science effectively is not possible without every effort to develop the rational mindset and habit of mind.  To teach History or Philosophy also requires the inculcation of reasoning as a habit of mind, and so it is likewise with Literature and an exploration of the Arts.  The aims of any General Education Program, once enunciated, are the litany of the components of what has been described herein as the rational habit of mind.

Education is a radical activity as it is most basic.  It is that through which humans develop the modes of experience that typify the species.  It is the process through which humans develop their abilities to have experiences as humans.

Even where formal schooling carries the aim of technical skill development and vocational training there may appear to be less a need for the mental skills set of the rational mind but that is a conclusion drawn by considering the human only as an employee and technician and not in the fullness of the human experience with the roles occupied by any and all humans beyond those of the workplace.  Even in technical schools or programs there is the need to have the learner be a learner and thus to be capable of and practitioner of the sort of thinking that will best serve any human whether in the job setting or not.

Not only is it ethically or morally appropriate and correct to address and seek to remediate habits of mind but it is also a fundamental responsibility of professional educators to do so.


When the instructional staff that is of the rational mindset or habit of mind confronts a student body that is diverse in mindsets and diverse in habits of mind and in their associated values there results a tremendous challenge to bring the diverse group of learners into the rational mindset or to have them achieve the outcomes of the typical general education component of the Liberal Arts and Sciences core of any degree program.

Given the tremendous and complex heterogeneity of the learners there can be no single effective approach to teaching and learning that will work with all of them.  Some factors in successful teaching are known and they can be and should be widely known and demonstrated in the instructional designs of classes.  There is a large body of research on the factors that contribute to effective teaching and learning.  There would be a significant contribution to that research if  there were an examination in a systematic way of what works with the heterogeneous student body that are typical of classes at a diversified campus that takes into account their various learning styles and habits of mind or mind sets.



A QCC Colleague, Bob Rogers , responds to this idea of the multiple mindsets with these comments that focus on the need to have a serious regard for the acculturation process and what the attempt to change a mindset represents to the learner. Mindsets or habits of mind might serve their possessors in positive ways within certain environments or communities from which they stem and within which they, at least in some manner, flourish.

This raises the larger question of enculturation in general and intellectual enculturation in particular.  It could be argued, I think, that both of these other "minds" are adaptive within their own Darwinian cultural niches. The tenacious-authoritarian mind is adaptive to a religiously society where people genuinely believe that their salvation depends upon the adherence to rules set forth by a deity.  The relativistic mind is ideally suited for a consumer-oriented society where a population of consumer/producers serves an economic engine in which psychological value (as opposed to labor and material) drives wealth.    Everything is marketable.  Every lifestyle and value system is but a niche to be colonized. I think one could make a case that civil rights in America took a significant leap when it was discovered that minorities represented a significant market, and as I recall part of the civil rights strategy from the beginning was an economic boycott.  To that extent political correctness is motivated by economic as well moral concerns.

The question then becomes, Of what value is the Rational Mind going to have for people who are being prepared on every level other than the classroom, to participate in the relativistic world, and to what extent is (and has been) rational thinking based on scientific principles, historically an activity of an intellectual elite?   Clearly everybody benefited from the discovery of penicillin, but not everyone with an infection is capable of discovering it, let alone understanding enough of the principles of pharmacology not to use it against viral infections.  The same can be said of the Constitution.

I think that the intellectual bias of this discussion might be made a part of the question.  Where do we, who like to think of ourselves (to varying degrees) as possessors of Modern Minds, fit into a world where we are the clear minority?  (Adlai Stevenson was approached by a supporter who said, "Mr. Stevenson, you have the vote of every thinking American." To which he replied. "I'm afraid that won't be enough.  I need a majority."

So the core question then is, given this diversity and the tendency for students (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s opinion of America in general) to go from intellectual “barbarism to decadence without ever having had a civilization,” how do we develop an approach to education that acknowledges this diversity of minds as well as encourages students to develop the “Rational Mind”?

I think what you are looking at is both interesting and important, not only for the questions it raises about how we should organize or teaching and even our institution, but as to the kind of society we are preparing our students for.  The first question I have is to what extent can we in fact shift the kind of mind in a student if they have not already begun to question it or their intellectual history and orientation on their own?  In other words, if the kind of thinking you are concerned about (pre/post) is not to some extent distonic already, e.g., the student has on their own already begun to feel the need for new answers, what effect can we have on their thinking?  As you observe, the relativistic mind is particularly pernicious, in that whatever we say is deflected as simply another point of view and as a result no real intellectual purchase can be gained to challenge their thinking. 

The more sinister (or cynical) question for me is to what extent do the major curricula of the school—Electrical Technology, Nursing, Business, etc. actually prefer or even nurture the tenacious-authoritarian or relativistic minds of our students.  We could argue that many aspects of modern medicine do not encourage independent thinking but rather merely adherence to a set of canonical procedures that are to be followed without question. Many modern business practices are set forth with similar certainty along with the idea that anything that works (as long as you’re not caught) to promote a profit is acceptable (very relativistic). 

What kind of life does a “Rational Mind” in fact prepare students for?  Will a pedagogy that develops it actually “produce graduates better able to deal with the contemporary world.”  I am reminded of the speech by the Captain in” Fahrenheit 451 when goes through the secret library and trashes all the reasons for writing books—biographies, histories, philosophies, etc.—mostly organized around the unhappiness the ideas they contain bring to their owners and the social discontent they generate in the larger society.   

I think that the Rational mind you espouse is one that questions the world it encounters in ways that often challenge the status quo and as a result such minds are, in fact, less able to accept contemporary world views.  Galileo springs to mind.  A pre/post -modern mind would be much more comfortable on academic committees and dealing with the administration, for example, than some of the more rational ones I know. 

With regard to the arts, that’s also an interesting question.  All students of whatever “mind” are possessed of a creative unconscious, and in my experience, it is accessible to varying degrees.  I have students from all backgrounds who are able to understand the aesthetic principle behind photography and become excellent practitioners.  One particularly brilliant student was born in a tin shed in Jamaica. Talk about culture shock!   Other students from third world cultures and fundamentalist societies all have traditions of art that they bring with them to varying extents and it finds expression in their work.  The oriental students grasp aspects of design more readily as their everyday world is organized around aesthetic principles as part of their heritage.  The Japanese in particular exhibit this tendency.  I also had a orthodox Jew from Iran who made images of tessellated designs (the tradition of Islamic art) for the longest time until he started to understand that the material world could be represented photographically as well.  But the “Mind” being tapped here is the Right Brain, not the left, so I would postulate that a different set of problem arises for the teachers in these areas than those you are concerned with in you discussions.

I think one of the problems may be general cultural orientation.  I have long maintained, (and even once proposed formally) that there be a cultural remediation course required for entering students, exactly to provide students with the historical and social context for the kind of world view on which the “Rational Mind” is based.  I find in teaching the creative arts that although students come with an innate potential for creativity, they often possess no social context in which to perceive the arts as valuable, or to see themselves in the role of an artist in society.  So although they have an impulse to create, they don’t know how to place it meaningfully within their lives.  In my Photo 2 class I try to address this by a series of discussion organized around films such as Fahrenheit 451, The Horses Mouth, and reading from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, etc., as a way of giving them some cultural reference for their creativity. 

I think this kind of orientation would be helpful for addressing the problem you so clearly described.

The other problem, (and I am in danger of being relativistic, here myself) is that the pre and postmodern minds are adaptive within some cultural context.  I believe that students from these worldviews will tend to find and/or recreate lives for themselves where these worldviews still function.  In other words, rather than develop Rational Minds they will find or recreate new cultural/social/ environments in which their current ways of thinking continue to be useful.  As I mentioned in my first note, this leads to the problem that unless they are already questioning their own worldview/mindset on their own, it is hard to shift their thinking from a “standing start”.


Thanks are due to a number of my colleagues at Queensborough Community College who have offered suggestions and criticisms. Among them are: Jay Mullin, Matt Trachman, Shannon Kincaid, and Belle Gironda.

1. Richard Dawkins, ``The Selfish Gene'' Chapter 11  [ First published 1976; 1989 edition: Oxford University Press,ISBN,0-19-286092-5(paperback)]available-at (

send comments to