The Ethics of Changing Habits of Mind

Philip A. Pecorino

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Fall, 2010

"You have no right to challenge my beliefs! I have a right to believe what I want to believe!"


The article argues against the popular notion that people have an unrestricted right to their beliefs as it advances the case that education is essentially involved with addressing, challenging and changing the minds of learners.   Genuine educational process must alter the mindsets (the beliefs and the systems of beliefs) and habits of mind of learners (the manner in which beliefs and information are obtained, organized and evaluated) in order to increase learner's intellectual resources to benefit both the individual and society. Educators, while fulfilling these professional responsibilities must be aware of the possible harm involved in such challenges and must protect learners from whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary.

Thesis:   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.

I. Introduction

If, as with all humans, educators must avoid harming others, then there are two major concerns about the "harm" education can cause and thus about the morality of educational practice.  The first concern is education itself as an "invasive" enterprise and one that causes harm as intellectual discomfort or distress to the learner, if only to produce some other more positive result, such as a mind that is "educated" and better capable of learning.   The second concern is with harm that might be produced when educators conduct the pedagogic experiments that they must do in order to advance the profession and continue improvement of the efficacy of instruction.  This latter concern is the subject of another work ( "Ethical Issues in Pedagogic Research", Community College Humanities Review, Vol. 26, No.1, Fall 2006.  Herein the focus is on the issue that education itself may be seen by learners and their families and communities as causing harm when education changes the minds of students and some of those changes are perceived as harm because they upset learners and their families and friends.  In fact, some view challenging some of the beliefs of students as unacceptable educational practice precisely because of claims and protests that beliefs are sacrosanct domains to be held aside from the meddling of educators.  Such challenges to beliefs often cause upset and even worse in students when cherished beliefs and feelings of esteem might be disturbed. 

This work presents the case that education is essentially the process of informing, challenging and changing the minds of learners.   Genuine educational process must alter the mindsets (the beliefs and the systems of beliefs) and habits of mind of learners (the manner in which beliefs and information are obtained, organized and evaluated) if there is to be an increase of their intellectual resources (knowledge and cognitive skills) to benefit both the individual learner and society. In so doing, educators, while fulfilling their professional responsibilities to learners and society, must protect learners from whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary.   In this work the notion of a habit of mind is an application of the analysis and position advanced by Charles Sanders Peirce in "The Fixation of Belief",(Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15.  This work might be read as an application of Peirce's ideas to some of the challenges, faced by educators now.

Given the professional duties of educators, 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.

The most significant ethical issues with regard to education may arise from the very nature of the act of educating someone.  Beyond that, the most significant issues arise from the social role that the institution of education is to serve. These matters are the focus of this work which will deal with the ethics of education and matters associated with changing habits of mind.

Serving the requests of clients: Tolerance

While tolerance is promoted as a value in a pluralistic society, to what degree, if any, should educators be tolerant of sets of beliefs and habits of mind that establish those beliefs?  All students, beginning with the very young, hold beliefs that are in conflict with one another and with empirical evidence.  Is education to remediate that situation?  If students object, claiming that they have a right to their beliefs, should such a claim be recognized and accepted by educators?  Must educators be tolerant of beliefs and habits of mind that present threats to individuals and to society itself?

Obligations to others beyond the student

There are times when questions arise as to the appropriateness or acceptability of a program of instruction or a mode of instruction because there was no clear indication of benefit to the learner. Who is to benefit?  Is it the individual learner, society itself, or both at once? How should the educator handle possible conflicts between on the one hand serving the interests of society by having education support the increase in human intellectual resources to be shared by all and on the other hand serving the interests of the individual learner increasing the individual's abilities to grow and to occupy a desirable position in the social order, principally through some vocation?


 II. Responsibilities of educators to change habits of mind

Learners will at times claim that they have a right to their opinions and beliefs and that they have the right to go on believing them despite what the instructor is teaching, including evidence that contradicts or disproves the learner's positions.  This claim is often made with regard to religious beliefs, but it carries over to any belief, even those beliefs about physical events and conditions expressed through empirical claims.  Too many learners believe and hope that associating any belief with religion will let them escape reflection upon and criticism of their beliefs by putting a cloak of immunity over any beliefs which they associate with their identity and take as basic to their view of life.  Such beliefs may provide them with comfort and consolation or at least the stability of the familiar and thus function to stave off what the learners perceive as a number of undesirable consequences. Such claims of immunity are sometimes made in the name not of "religious" beliefs but also for "personal” beliefs as well.

"You have no right to challenge my beliefs!"

"I have a right to believe what I want to believe!"

"These are my personal beliefs and I am entitled to hold them without having them examined or criticized."

"You have no right to force me to examine or change beliefs that I have every right to hold as I please."

Unfortunately,  there are educators who think that to some extent the learner is correct and that the educator has no right to be addressing, challenging and seeking to change beliefs that are claimed by the learner to be either highly valued and /or core or foundational beliefs.   While this concession to the claim of immunity may be fairly wide spread, it is deplorable because it is in effect a denial of some of the most important goals of education.  A mind that is unchanged by an educational program is a mind that has not been educated.  To educate is to lead or draw out of a mind what it is capable of doing and that is in fact to change that mind, to make it grow.

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

In addition to specific beliefs there are habits of mind with which the beliefs are settled into the mindsets of individuals. The habits of mind of learners are the manner in which beliefs and information are obtained, organized and evaluated. There are some, even within education, who think that there are limits to addressing, let alone attempting to change, a habit of mind when it supports some fundamental and /or religious beliefs.  While this may be a fairly common idea, it is nonetheless mistaken. It is not 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 rejects any reason for or manner in which basic habits of mind can be or should be legitimately compared, let alone evaluated. 

If students are permitted to maintain beliefs, especially inconsistent and contradictory beliefs and beliefs concerning physical/empirical claims that have been refuted or disproved by evidence, and to maintain them without challenge and without serious attempts to have students think reflectively and critically about those beliefs and to think about the habit of mind that had them accept and hold those beliefs, then granting that permission would constitute a formal failure on the part of educators.  Whatever motives such educators have, they are failing their students nonetheless.   Educators who fail to encourage and promote and support the examination of beliefs for fear of being subjected to criticism by organized groups of ideologues, dogmatists, or fundamentalists of any order are guilty of a failure to fulfill their professional responsibility as educators. The tenet of Academic Freedom rests in good part upon the need for educational institutions and their faculty to be insulated from such pressures from those outside of education to thwart the fulfillment of the professional responsibilities of educators for the pursuit of truth and knowledge and the development of critical thinkers for the sake of preservation of some state of affairs or valuations.   Those who teach science and grant permission for their learners to regard science as being a belief system akin to any other and akin to religion in particular also fail in their professional responsibility to advance their academic discipline.  Such educators undermine understanding of, respect for and valuation of science. In light of challenges by students and outside groups to what mainstream science holds as well established that portrays those findings as simply beliefs akin to any other, more than one college professor of science can be found to take the position that:

" I tell them that I don't care what you believe; all I care about is what you answer on the exams."

Educators who accept the claims of immunity or allow the learners to believe whatever they wish to believe without challenge as long as they memorize and offer back "correct" answers on exams and other forms of assessment are in a very fundamental manner failing in their professional responsibilities as educators to engage the minds of their learners in an examination of and possible alteration of the basic habits of mind through which their beliefs systems are created and maintained.   Educators who remain shy and retire from direct engagements with the actual belief systems and the habits of mind of their learners are not developing the critical thinking skills and the reasoning abilities of their learners.  They are neither encouraging reflective thought nor recognizing the need for and the methods of reviewing ideas and beliefs to determine the veracity and accuracy of empirical claims and the value of non-cognitive claims.

"In my class I teach science.  I tell them to keep their other beliefs out of this class."

Education is in a most fundamental sense all about challenging and changing minds.  Education is at its most basic level about addressing and changing habits of mind.  Educators must move or change a mind from habits and conditions which close it off and which prevent its growth. Minds that work too impulsively and reflexively are close to minds that do not work at all as they respond at the lowest levels at which humans think.  Education succeeds when the learner assimilates that process of inquiry that fosters intellectual growth. For too many people education has not succeeded well at all.   Effective educators teach subject matter and information but even more so they attempt to inculcate the skills of acquiring information and of organizing it in the most effective manner to address problems and to question, set and accomplish their goals, and the skill of challenging the received view, the facile, simplistic notions and uncritical positions.  Inculcating such skills is an essential part of what genuine education is about.  Education is about opening minds and having them grow through careful and critical thought about experience. Education functions well when it fosters inquiry that leads to continual growth.  Education does this for people of all ages.

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

There are studies indicating the under preparedness of students for college work, and we have too often seen people who have proceeded through several levels of formal education and yet are possessed of incorrect information, deficiencies in intellectual skill and debilitating habits of mind. An important aim of education is to address those conditions and to remediate them. Consequently, educators must be prepared to both change the manner in which minds operate and the contents of minds.  Habits of mind that close off a mind to inquiry and provide for false notions of certainty are the nemesis of education and a threat to social well being and advance.

There are students/learners who enter college believing that:

·         heavier things fall faster than lighter things because they are heavier

·         the sun rises and sets

·         only cold environs or exposure to drafts cause colds

·         humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs

·         the earth and universe have existed for just over 6,000 years

·         events associated with a house in Amityville in the movie, the “Amityville Horror”, are true because they were described in a movie or book

·         members of one group of people are naturally inferior/superior  to others

·         if a person believes that X exists then X does exist

·         if a person thinks that a proposition or claim is true then the claim is true

·         all opinions on all subjects are of equal value

·         the shape of planet earth can be flat and spherical at the same time

·         evolutionary theory and creationist theory are equally acceptable and effective explanations of life forms on planet earth

·         a person is entitled to believe any claim or proposition accepting it as true whether or not that claim has supporting evidence until someone else can prove that claim is not true by empirical-logical  method and not even then must a person surrender belief that the claim is true

·         there is no problem in holding beliefs that are contradictory to one another

For the rational mind educated in logic and science none of the above claims or statements is true under the most common and effective notions of what truth is.  Education needs to address the believing in or holding of such claims, and, even more importantly and most essentially, education must be involved with altering the method of thinking that led a person to hold false claims to be true.  Effective pedagogy seeks to identify such ideas that are empirical claims or logical claims as have been proven false but that are still held in the mind of students as being true and then proceed to correct or alter those beliefs that are disproven claims and to change the method of thought that led to disproven empirical or logical claims being held as true.  Education as a process has a multiplicity of desired outcomes but the one most highly valued for its utility for learner and society alike is truth.   Falsehoods may serve short term interests, but that perspective is itself born of ignorance and needs to be remedied by the same process of education that instills modes of thought by which the false is detected and the true is approached.

Many people holding beliefs making claims that have been disproven may not like being challenged to confront them and to examine their habits of mind that may not be beneficial to them and/or to the human community.  Some learners may feel threatened and may insist on their "right" to continue to hold their beliefs.  Some beliefs may be closely held because they provide comfort and protection from a sort of existential terror that can result from seriously examining a set of what would be "basic" or "fundamental" beliefs about the physical world and human life.  Beliefs can and do provide a sense of order in the midst of an otherwise harsh and chaotic universe, as well as provide identification with something greater than the individual, and a sense of belonging with others. Beliefs can keep such emotional disturbance at bay and thus the prospect of critically reviewing such beliefs creates anxiety over the possibility of having to face the world without the familiar compass and measures and meanings.  To avoid such a prospect, those who have fundamental beliefs challenged will often respond with a heightened need to maintain faith and remain loyal to the beliefs and to those who hold them.  Those who would criticize fundamental beliefs that are part of or constitute entire worldviews will be seen as the deviant other who must be resisted.  Thus students and their supporters will claim that educators "have no right" to do anything that might cause them some disruption in their thought process and beliefs. The closed minded and obstinate believer is often the person acting out of a real fear of being left to cope with reality and the disquietudes of human existence without the familiar beliefs that provide the becalming salve of certitudes.  The fear is that critical consideration of belief would threaten a disintegration of the edifice of belief that they think of as the only available remedy for the angst of facing a life without order or meaning or value.  They hold the belief that there is no habit of mind capable of providing their salvation other than that which they have been acculturated into using. 

Further, there is as well for some the real sense that they are being tempted to become "disloyal" to what they have held for so long and to those who have shared those beliefs with them.  Thus, to accept challenges to those beliefs would constitute a threat for it would tempt them to "betray" a faith in the worldview in which they were raised. 

While some may hold their beliefs to be immune to challenges, there is no such right where the relationship of the educator to the learner is concerned. There is instead the obligation of educators to assist learners to confront beliefs proven to be false and beliefs that are inconsistent with one another and their method for fixing beliefs so that learners develop methodologies to produce more accurate understanding of how things are and how knowledge of such matters is obtained and how such claims are evaluated.  This would include claims that are empirical as well as those concerning interpretations of texts and situations.  As it is the obligation of educators to teach and to provide the methods for determining truth within each discipline, then the educator is obliged to effectively recognize and remove impediments to learning and to set in place the methodologies for distinguishing truth from falsehood.

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

No learner who comes to a professional educator has a mind that is tabula rasa.  Minds come to educators filled with a great many things and even the youngest of minds arrives as tabula congesta.  The task of educators is to have learners examine what they believe as well as the methods for acquiring ideas and fixing beliefs.  To develop in learners the intellectual abilities to acquire not simply information such as what is known to be true and what is known not to be true is insufficient.  What is required is to assist and direct learners to develop and use and value the intellectual skills with which to discriminate what is true from what is not true.

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

In the Liberal Arts and Sciences, education is at its core all about changing minds.  This is what the General Education core of a curriculum is about at the level of higher education. It is not about training.  Training involves the deliberate shaping of minds in order to fit the thought and/or behavior of individuals into some set manner of relating to their environment and their fellow humans in some common enterprise. Education is all about learning how to adapt and to grow and thus to change. Education is about growth as presented by John Dewey. 

If at whatever period we choose to take a person, he is still in the process of growth, then education is not, save as a by product, a preparation for something coming later.  Getting from the present the degree and kind of growth there is in it is education. --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 184-185. 

Growth requires minds that are open to growth and thus to development and change.  Education is about fostering habits of mind that do not develop fixed notions resistant to a continuing process of inquiry but instead are open to the possibility of the need to change beliefs in the light of new information and changing circumstances.  

Societies create institutions to provide for many things necessary for their  maintenance and progress.  Among those institutions is education, offered in order to increase human intellectual resources.  This produces humans with knowledge and skills and shared values that benefit both individuals and society as it provides for social cohesion and progress.

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. All reforms which rest simply upon the law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.... But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.... Education thus conceived marks the most perfect and intimate union of science and art conceivable in human experience. --John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

When the identity of the moral process with the processes of specific growth is realized, the more conscious and formal education of childhood will be seen to be the most economical and efficient means of social advance and reorganization, and it will also be evident that the test of all the institutions of adult life is their effect in furthering continuing education.  --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 186.

Society provides for the movement of the nascent mammal, the human infant with potentiality for rationality into the conditions within which the individual can realize in an ongoing manner the freedom and support for the realization of that potential growth. Humans are ,as Aristotle phrased it, zoon politikon, social animals.  There are no individuals as human individuals without society since incorporated in those characteristics that define homo sapiens is a set of properties, skills and features that are the products of a social life: being with other humans.  What is of benefit to society is thus of benefit for the individuals within it, assisting them to realize what they are capable of being, having and doing. So then what is of benefit to individuals through education is of benefit to society as well. Consequently, society establishes and requires formal educational institutions and requirements  setting as a self serving goal the development of its members, the increase in intellectual resources of society. 

Government, business, art, religion, all social institutions have a meaning, a purpose.  That purpose is to set free and to develop the capacities of human individuals without respect to race, sex, class, or economic status.  And this is all one with saying that the test of their value is the extent to which they educate every individual into the full stature of his possibility. --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 186.

These benefits are particularly realized at the level of higher education through the study of the liberal arts and sciences more than through the training programs that prepare people for occupations.  Individuals on their own may be inclined to look to the institution of education to derive a personal benefit: an instrumental and self centered benefit rather than to obtain a portion of the public benefit, the public good serving the public interest. 

Education provides a structure for changing the lives of people through a process that can, does and should change minds, by changing the contents of minds and the manner in which minds operate: education changes habits of mind.

Professional educators have a responsibility to produce minds capable of continual growth as well as responsibilities to those they instruct that arise from sources other than their direct relationship with the learner and that extend beyond the period of instruction.   Educators are not simply providing a service for the consumers of instruction.  Professional educators, particularly in higher education, have a responsibility to their academic professions and to society to produce changed minds that continue to change as they grow.  They owe it to society to increase human intellectual resources, one of the aims of education.  They owe it to their academic and pedagogic professions to transmit their knowledge and to develop the skills of acquiring such knowledge and skills as are possessed by members of the professions for the continuation of the professions.

Society creates and sustains the institution of education for a pragmatic end: members who are capable of living peacefully with one another, supporting the common good and in joining together for common purpose and for contributing to the general advancement of society.  None of this is possible without education.

The heart of the sociality of man is in education.  --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 185.

Education is about preparing people for life, and the most important and essential aspect of that life is that it is typically lived with others:  a social life.  It is not simply preparing people to occupy a very limited and well defined location in a community of believers and a community of employees or to occupy a position in the economic order.  Education is not simply about preparing people for entering into a vocation or the labor market.  It is 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 is not about the transfer of information and the development of some limited set of skills.

Acquisition of skill, possession of knowledge, attainment of culture are not ends: they are marks of growth and means to its continuing. --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 185.

Education in the liberal arts and sciences is about examining, developing and changing mindsets (the beliefs and the systems of beliefs) and habits of mind (the manner in which beliefs and information is obtained, organized and evaluated).  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 and particularly 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. They share in a method that involves a community of inquiry continually subjecting claims to critical analysis and evaluation in the light of increasing experiences and information. The natural and social sciences are founded upon a reasoning process and habit of mind that advances knowledge and criticizes claims of knowledge.  Teaching 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 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.

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

Education is a basic activity of every human group.  It is that process through which humans develop the modes of experience that most typify the species.  It is the process through which humans develop their abilities to have experiences that are most typically those of humans. Parents, siblings and extended family, friends and neighbors provide for informal education as they instruct others in language and behavior.  Human offspring left alone without any contacts with other humans will not display the characteristics that most distinguish the human species from others.    Children who are not provided with formal education, private or public, cannot enter into those aspects of common life that most typify the level of achievement of a society as is evidenced in the arts and sciences.   Where formal schooling carries the aim of technical skill development and vocational training there may appear to be a diminished 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 which extends far beyond the workplace.  Given that humans are homo faber and that technology marks all human societies and that the technological advance is as much a sign of humanness as are the products of technology there is a need for humans to keep pace with technological development.  As the twentieth century was marked more by the dramatic change in the rate of change than by any single development in technology (first noted in A.N. Whitehead’s  observation), thus even in technical programs there is the need to have the learner be one who has learned how to learn, as Harry Harlow would express it, as technologies will continue to advance and with that a cycle of creation and expiration.  The human world does not remain fixed in any way for very long.  There is a need for people to learn how to acquire knowledge and skills needed to advance and grow along with the developments that will surround them.  Thus, to be capable of and practitioner of the sort of thinking that will best serve anyone, whether in the job setting or not, will be the mind that has acquired the habits of mind that can keep abreast of change and make contributions to it.  

Educators and educational institutions have a fiduciary responsibility to those who attend them as learners to assist the learners to gain benefits 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 responsibility 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.  Such judgments are reviewed by others so as to maintain a check against excess, insufficiencies, prejudices and ineffectiveness.  The judgments of instructors are reviewed by their peers in their profession as members of academic disciplines and in their profession as educators.  The judgments of institutions as evidenced by their programs, curricula, courses and rates of success are reviewed by institutions of the state in the form of an accreditation process.

There is a tension between educators and the general society with regard to their relative judgments as to what learners need to know and be able to do.  This would be a necessary tension that is moderated by accrediting agencies.  The faculty aim to educate students to grow in information and skills and teaching them how to continue that growth, continue to learn and to question and challenge and reflect and reason and create.  Society has an interest in meeting immediate needs and is inclined to emphasize what is popularly thought to be most needed at the present.  Society in its demands tends to be conservative as it presses for conservation of order.  Faculty tend to be liberal as they demand thought from their students that will lead to change within the learners and within society.   The emphasis for the faculty, particularly in the Arts and Sciences, is for education over training, while society wants training more than the cultivation of that which would transform it and continue progression into unknown futures with only a hope that human welfare will improve.

Accreditation agencies serve to moderate the tension.  They insist that certain criteria be met for accreditation and such criteria change over time reflecting the changing values in society.  Faculty assert what they think necessary to continue to educate and to educate in the sense of the liberal arts and sciences for the growth of individuals as well as for the benefit to society.  Accreditation agencies may insist on assessment of all classes to insure their quality for producing graduates with certain well-defined skill sets and quantities of information while faculty insist that there be no fixation or standardization of instruction and curricula allowing for them to develop the intellectual skills needed for the production of new knowledge and arts and for social reforms and changes in the priorities assigned to commonly held values.

Educators cannot allow learners who refuse to embrace rationality itself to go unchallenged.  They must have their learners reflect critically on the effectiveness of the learners’ beliefs about making judgments and about formulating and maintaining their beliefs.  Learners who want to remain unchanged do not want to learn.  If students refuse to enter into the community of informed, critical and rational thinkers, i.e. the educated community, and the more general community of rational discourse planet-wide, educators have no obligation to accept that refusal.  There is no duty on the part of educators 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.   Indeed formal education is about overcoming obstacles such refusals pose to accomplishing the goals of education.

Learners might embrace their beliefs and wish to maintain them if only to spare  themselves the labor of conducting critical reviews of beliefs and the work of overcoming  anxiety  when cherished beliefs are challenged.  Many, if not most, learners might be pleased to be left with the simple mind of a well trained person with a successful vocation.  Nonetheless it is the responsibility of educators to persist in challenging learners with their own intellectual development and with truth in the face of false beliefs in the interest of all of society that sustains itself through continual growth.

Challenging learners to confront their beliefs and their habits of formulating beliefs and organizing them and maintaining them is the duty of educators.  Such education assists individuals to fulfill their own moral responsibilities in as much as beliefs should not be held without sufficient warrant or justification.  Individuals are responsible to their communities to hold beliefs that are based on truth and supported by both reasoning and evidence.  The moral foundation for promoting the use of reason in drawing conclusions is argued 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.

The argument made by Clifford and others is that humans are best served when they do not hold beliefs that are not supported by reasoning and evidence.  Humans must base their beliefs, especially those that go beyond what they have actually observed and have evidence to support, only on what has been observed, tested and proven and what can reasonably be expected to follow consistently from that evidence.   Humans must not accept as true what is reported or claimed by others without good reasons to accept those sources as being worthy of trust as established by prior evidence.  Finally, it is wrong for humans to believe anything without sufficient evidence for that belief especially where there are good reasons to doubt.  The rational Habit of Mind is advocated by Clifford on moral grounds that humans ought to be careful and skeptical until evidence and reasoning establishes sufficient warrant for holding a belief.  Humans ought to avoid risks to their well being both individually and collectively that are born of acting on unwarranted beliefs.

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 there can be resistance to examining Habits of Mind and belief systems reinforced by fear of the unknown in the face of ignorance of alternatives.  If efforts to educate so as to develop the rational Habit of Mind are not made evident or 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."

Changing a mindset or a set of beliefs involves great mental effort along with some disturbance and emotional upset. Thus, there is the need for the educator to persist through the resistance to bring about the greater social or public good through increasing the resources of the individual learner.  If both the educator and the learner fail to appreciate the fundamental social goal of the social institution of education, that can thwart both the teaching and the learning in the deepest and most socially responsible sense.

The right to believe

It is altogether another issue as to whether people, and in particular the less well educated, less informed and those of less intellectual capacity, have a "right to believe" at least in those situations that present circumstances where decisions as to what to believe are as described by William James (The Will to Believe) , "living", "forced" and "momentous." 

There is to be no advocacy by the rational mind of any beliefs held without sufficient reason.  Those who have developed a rational mind will accept that there is a duty to attend to the evidence and to hold those positions best defended by reason and supported by evidence, at least by the preponderance of the evidence.  Rational persons are to avoid positions not supported by the preponderance of the evidence as they are the most likely to be in error or contain errors.  The "right to believe" is to be restricted to those circumstances in which there is not such a preponderance of evidence and where decisions as to what to believe are "living", "forced" and "momentous".    In such circumstance a rational minded person is justified in accepting a “hypothesis which, if true , would offer a way, more or less probably effective, of safeguarding those values , or if not, of anesthetizing him self more or less to their loss."  and further to believe that which would be a "source of comfort, courage, and strength , and an inspiration to beneficence"  (C. J. Ducasse,  A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion (New York: Ronald Press, 1953,p.166) "provided that it is not in conflict with our duty to attend to evidence and it cannot be in conflict with that duty if the there is no preponderance of the evidence.  "Causing, Perceiving and Believing: An Examination of the Philosophy of C. J. Ducasse. With Edward H. Madden. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1975. p150.) 

When there is not preponderance of the evidence , a person may in some cases use powerful techniques of suggestion which virtually preclude recognition of the relevance of any future preponderance of counter evidence.  Although, on the one hand, philosophers are mistaken who suppose that belief without adequate evidence almost invariably impairs our ability to attend to evidence, on the other hand, philosophers are equally mistaken who suppose that it is impossible or highly unlikely that belief induced when evidence is inadequate will seriously impair the ability to attend to future evidence.  All such generalizations about the benefits and dangers of suggestion and hypnosis are questionable.              Causing, Perceiving and Believing: An Examination of the Philosophy of C. J. Ducasse. With Edward H. Madden. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1975. p149.) 

Some, like C. J. Ducasse, suggest that the "vast masses of mankind" possessed of lesser intelligence might be afforded such a "right to believe" less they suffer the consequences which suspension of judgment may have for them.  (Causing, Perceiving and Believing: An Examination of the Philosophy of C. J. Ducasse. With Edward H. Madden. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1975. p153.) 

Most of those receiving formal education do not have ‘lesser’ minds. Nor, particularly in elementary and secondary education, are there circumstances where decisions as to what to believe are  "living", "forced" and "momentous" or where there is not a preponderance of the evidence.    It is a professional responsibility of educators to make known the evidence upon which their instruction is based and to inculcate the rational habit of mind and its reliance on evidence and reasoning in support of positions.  In formal education, when those circumstances where there is not a preponderance of evidence arise, there can and should be a suspension of belief and of judgment on the part of educators.  Such suspensions can furnish occasions for further education in the very process of inquiry and deliberation that leads to decisions concerning what to believe.  These decisions remain subject to continuing review in light of new evidence and experiences by minds that are open to inquiry and questioning as an essential, even quintessential, element in the life of the mind.

The habit of mind that leads people to believe what there is insufficient reason or evidence to support is a habit of mind that presents for both the believers and for others potential harm in as much as such beliefs are more likely to be incorrect and decisions based on such beliefs are more likely to lead to unsuccessful results.  People who claim a right to belief that is an unqualified right and people who practice believing without sufficient reason or evidence are thus presenting society with a challenge as they threaten both society's need for social cohesion and for progress.   Unwarranted beliefs do not lead people closer towards truth.  Such beliefs and the habits of mind that lead to unwarranted claims and beliefs being held are thus socially dangerous. 

There is no unrestricted right to believe and not have those beliefs questioned or challenged in general society and particularly within the institution of education. There is no right to beliefs immune to criticism and challenges.  Society can ill afford to permit the formation of habits of mind that settle beliefs without sufficient reason and warrant to support those beliefs.  Such habits of mind do not further either social cohesion or progress.  The fixing of beliefs without evidence to support them or in contradiction to other beliefs is the fixing of a habit of thinking that leads away from truth and away from what is needed for the resolution of conflicts through compromise and non-violent measures.  Thus, society should neither acknowledge nor promote an unqualified right to belief.  There is no such right to belief that holds that beliefs are not to be subject to review, questioning, examination and criticism.  In education the beliefs held by students are to be examined and questioned and subject to reformulation as rational thought might produce evidence counter to beliefs and reveal beliefs that are inconsistent, contradictory or incoherent.  Education should develop habits of mind that would arrive at people holding the most well formulated and defended beliefs and even then they are to be understood as subject to continuing review.  Society can ill afford the encouragement of dogmatism, ideology, and the closing of minds and so it cannot afford its members an immunity from challenges to their beliefs nor can it afford any recognition of an unlimited or unqualified right to belief.


III. The Habits of Mind

What are the basic habits of mind that confront educators?  There are those habits that create minds that are closed to inquiry and development and growth, and there is one that does not do so.  It is only the rational habit of mind that is the goal of education and in particular the liberal arts and sciences because it is a learning objective such programs of study that aim to produce a mind fully capable of critical thinking and reasoning and self reflection and arguing to the best defended positions amongst well considered and examined alternatives.  The other habits of mind either cling tenaciously to ideas and beliefs often with the claim of certainty despite evidence and reasoning to the contrary or they accept all beliefs as equivalent in worth with only the social setting upon which to settle preferences.

All educational institutions and their accreditation agencies express that graduates are to 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 are, are those who trumpet these notes at all serious about the import of such declarations? Do they make a commitment to consider and address the most basic habits of mind and belief systems of their learners?  If we take seriously how we are to achieve the general objectives for degree programs, then we would need to 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 to develop rational habits of mind must face a disturbing fact: the particular mindset or habits of mind that are characteristic of the faculty of most colleges do not match those of most of their students, even upon graduation. The alternative mindsets of students must be directly identified and addressed if they are to be moved into 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 face students that are quite heterogeneous in several ways.  The most common basis for describing these classes as diversified is the ethnic nature of the learners.  Add to that the further distinctions that of language differences and cultural differences and religious backgrounds, and one just begins to appreciate how diverse 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 one that based positions on a set of given truths or a priori truths that were usually simply 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 are 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.  This rational habit of mind is one that holds all positions as hypotheses subject to continuing review in light of new evidence, reviews of reasoning and the development of or acceptance of  new perspectives.

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 heterogeneous 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 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 with contempt but as no threat because the relativistic mind accepts and is tolerant of all views, and so the tenacious-authoritarian belief system is beyond challenge.  The tenacious-authoritarian can hold that their beliefs are better than others and expressions of the actual one and only truth and the relativistic cannot criticize them given their 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 pragmatic function of Reason provides the agency procuring the upward trend of animal evolution.--Alfred North Whitehead , The Function of Reason,, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929, p. 27

But when mentality is working at a high level, it brings novelty into the appetitions of mental experience. In this function, there is a sheer element of anarchy. But mentality now becomes self-regulative. It canalizes its own operations by its own judgments. It introduces a higher appetition which discriminates among its own anarchic productions. Reason appears. It is Reason, thus conceived, which is the subject-matter of this discussion. We have to consider the introduction of anarchy, the revolt from anarchy, the use of anarchy, and the regulation of anarchy. Reason civilizes the brute force of anarchic appetition. Apart from anarchic appetition, nature is doomed to slow descent towards nothingness. Mere repetitive experience gradually eliminates element after element and fades towards vacuity. Mere anarchic appetition accomplishes quickly the same end, reached slowly by repetition. Reason is the special embodiment in us of the disciplined counter-agency which saves the world.--Alfred North Whitehead , The Function of Reason,, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929, p.34.

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 rational mind accepts Whitehead's pronouncement that:

The rejection of any source of evidence is always treason to that ultimate rationalism which urges forward science and philosophy alike.---Alfred North Whitehead , The Function of Reason,, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929, p. 61.

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 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.  The rational mind is found in and can be developed by nearly all forms of writing.  It is in evidence in analysis and criticism of literature, film, music, the visual arts and all expressions of human creation in the arts and crafts.  The rational mind is found operating in social analysis and commentary and historical research and publications.  It is necessary to the technologies and engineering as well and to all the applied arts. 

The rational mind accepts the role of fact in its relation to the efforts of speculation and imagination. 

The basis of all authority is the supremacy of fact over thought. Yet this contrast of fact and thought can be conceived fallaciously. For thought is a factor in the fact of experience. Thus the immediate fact is what it is, partly by reason of the thought involved in it. The quality of an act of experience is largely determined by the factor of the thinking which it contains. But the thought involved in any one such act involves an analytic survey of experience beyond itself. The supremacy of fact over thought means that even the utmost flight of speculative thought should have its measure of truth. It may be the truth of art. But thought irrelevant to the wide world of experience, is unproductive.

The proper satisfaction to be derived from speculative thought is elucidation. It is for this reason that fact is supreme over thought. This supremacy is the basis of authority. We scan the world to find evidence for this elucidatory power.

Thus the supreme verification of the speculative flight is that it issues in the establishment of a practical technique for well-attested ends, and that the speculative system maintains itself as the elucidation of that technique. In this way there is the progress from thought to practice, and regress from practice to the same thought. This interplay of thought and practice is the supreme authority. It is the test by which the charlatanism of speculation is restrained.--Alfred North Whitehead , The Function of Reason,, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929, p. 80-81.

Beliefs are subjected to a critical examination by the use of reason.  The logic to be employed is as described by Whitehead, a derivation of what starts with the Greeks in the West:

The Greek logic as finally perfected by the experience of centuries provides a set of criteria to which the content of a belief should be subjected. These are:

(i) Conformity to intuitive experience:

(ii) Clarity of the propositional content:

(iii) Internal Logical consistency:

(iv) External Logical consistency:

(v) Status of a Logical scheme with,

(a) widespread conformity to experience,

 (b) no discordance with experience,

(c) coherence among its categoreal notions,

(d) methodological consequences.

The misconception which has haunted the ages of thought down to the present time is that these criteria are easy to apply.--Alfred North Whitehead , The Function of Reason,, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929, p. 67-68.

Unlike with the tenacious-authoritarian mindset and the relativistic mindset people are not acculturated into possession of the rationalist 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 the fact that many secondary institutions embrace the rational mindset as an educational goal and 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 of 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 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 mindsets 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 the acceptance by and assimilation within a group is the valued end.  This mindset rejects the goal of having 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 in determining knowledge or truth, even truth concerning such physical matters as the shape of the planet or the origins of 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 medium is as real as it can get and as authentic as 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 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. 

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 formal or intentional acts of 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.

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.

Among those challenges is the confrontation with the risks inherent in the enterprise of education involving the changing of minds, basic habits of mind and mindsets.

IV. Risks Involved in changing minds 

A risk can be taken to mean the possibility of negative outcomes.  In the relationship of the educator to the learner there are such risks of outcomes that are in opposition to the aim or purpose of the basic endeavor.  There are definite and unavoidable risks involved in the process of changing minds.  There are risks to the learner and to the educator.  These risks include the most serious of all: the failure to learn and to teach. 

The risks to the educator involve charges of being abusive or exceeding the bounds of what is proper for an educator.   There are risks of not being appreciated or even being criticized for performing the basic task of an educator to challenge beliefs and confront false ideas and foster the growth of the mind. The educator might then retreat from being provocative and evocative and from attempting to change minds.  This would amount to a failure to teach. 

In upsetting learners and causing them to fear change the instructor may receive some harsh comments and critiques from the learners and their parents who would not understand the aims of education and prefer to be left with the apparent comfort of holding to beliefs unchallenged, a comfort enjoyed by the ignorant and poorly informed. 

The risks to the learner include developing a strong resistance to the challenge to confront one’s own ideas and beliefs and habits of mind. This would be a refusal to open up the mind to the possibility of change.  This would amount to a failure to learn. 

Beyond the risks of fundamental failure are the risks of poor performance.  Instruction that aims at developing minds and changing mindsets and habits of mind can be done so poorly that the outcome may be a changed mind but not a well developed mind capable of further learning.  Poor education will not develop the rational habit of mind.  Teachers who are authoritarian will not develop critical habits of mind.   Instructors who are excessively critical and provide little that is positive in place of the belief sets that are challenged and the habit of mind that is subject to reformation might produce a habit of mind that is excessively skeptical and one that rejects the possibility of achieving any form of knowledge and of developing any manner of making effective judgments. 

V. Ethical Implications: Problems

In most social interactions there are some ethical concerns.  What are the moral responsibilities of professional educators?  How is it that educators are to go about changing minds? How far do they go?  Are there any moral prohibitions? 

A.  Do no harm  - no unnecessary and avoidable harm

A basic moral prohibition found in all societies is

Do no harm !

In the context of education that injunction needs to be modified a bit to what is more accurate.

Do no unnecessary and avoidable harm!

First and foremost and most basic and foundational for any set of obligations for a professional educator is the ethical obligation to avoid deliberate harm to another human being.  This is taken to be a fundamental and universal ethical obligation found in all human societies.  It appears as if it is a necessary feature for social life.  It is a basic principle found supported by all religious traditions.  It is also a principle that finds support being provided for it from nearly every philosophical tradition of thought in ethics.  So with this as the" given"  what sort of harms are to be avoided?

Harm can be produced through omission as well as commission of acts.  When harm occurs and it has been produced by the educator and it was foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary then there is a failure to have fulfilled an obligation that is both a professional and a moral obligation.  It would also be construed as malpractice.  It is malpractice to perform at a level below the standard set.  The standard is set to avoid whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary.  

Professionals with a fiduciary responsibility are not responsible for harms that is not foreseeable.  Such harms may not be avoidable at all.    

Professionals with a fiduciary responsibility are not responsible for harm that is not capable of being avoided by that very reason. 

Professionals with a fiduciary responsibility are not responsible for harm that is a necessary part of what they are doing for those who entrust themselves into the care of the professional. 

It is not necessary to avoid all possible harm.  There may be and often is some harm that will be caused in order to achieve the basic aim of the endeavor.  Even so if that goal, aim or purpose can be achieved without the harm then the harm should be avoided.    The harms that are avoidable and unnecessary can be distinguished from those that are necessary and unavoidable as will be seen below.  At this point the concern is on the reasoning for causing such harms as may be necessary.  What benefit justifies harming a person?

Whose benefit is to be achieved?  Most learners would look to their own benefit and that would be to realize some instrumental value for the achievement of some personal end.  Professional educators have a responsibility to not only benefit their learners but to do so in service to the greater society for which the aim is to increase human intellectual resources for social cohesion and progress.  In serving the greater society individual learners may not appreciate or accept that the professional educator will be causing some harm that is avoidable in the view of the individual learner with individual self interested goals but not avoidable if either the enrichment and empowerment (education)  of the learner or the more general social goals of improving human intellectual resources are to be realized.

In changing minds there is quite often harm caused to learners.  The task is to minimize that harm to what is absolutely necessary to produce the change and the growth of the learner.  How is harm to be envisioned and dealt with, particularly when the aims of education are not simply to provide for benefit to the individual learners but to benefit society, serve the public interest and increase the public good through educating to increase the human intellectual resources?  

As an analogy consider the role of medical provider to the person in need of such services  as compared to that of the professional educator to the persons who receive instruction.   This analogy is not to be taken as being an exact analogy nor is it to be pursued into every possible mode of comparison.  The medical model or analogy is useful up to a point as would be the psychotherapeutic model.  Either of those is more apt than the parental model as the responsibilities involved are different in kind and degree.  In common is the responsibility for the one served by the more knowledgeable other.  The difference is in exactly what the one is responsible for and to what extent. There is the therapeutic relationship in which it is the obligation of the physician to restore a person to wellness and to maintain wellness.  Does something akin to this relationship exist between the educator and the learner?

For wellness the human needs to grow in a number of ways: physical, social, intellectual and emotional. Parents assist the child in that development.  Parents can contract directly or indirectly with professional educators to assist them in the intellectual development of the child.   If the child encounters a pathology the parents seek to ameliorate, remediate or alleviate it.  Parents are responsible to provide for such as best they can. Many times parents seek professional assistance in addressing these needs to fulfill their duties to their children.   Something similar exists when focusing on the intellectual development of the child.   In performing this duty toward children most parents look for assistance from professional educators to accompany their own efforts to develop intellectual capacities and to address intellectual pathologies.

What would be an intellectual pathology to be addressed through formal education?  Given what we know from cognitive and developmental psychology, there is a range for normal development of cognitive skills and acquisition of information.  For students outside of that range the professional educator would need to address the cause of such differences in a student’s intellectual skills. What might those causes or factors be?  It might be cognitive development that was running behind the range of the normal or it might involve the actual contents of the intellect: its beliefs, information and habits of organization.   If so, what would be the pathology to be remedied, remediated, or cured?  As humans are born without the products of formal education thus the development and learning of a human cannot be viewed as a pathology.   Learning about what one does not know is not treating a pathology.  It is not ignorance so much as false beliefs and mistaken thinking that are the pathology.   So where would be the need for a cure or treatment?

Consider this analogy further.






incorrect belief


incorrect information


debilitating habit of mind





A belief held that is not supported by evidence and has counter evidence in abundance available to the believer is as a bacteria.  An educator can identify such beliefs and then attempt to remedy them if there is an available “anti-biotic” in the form of counter evidence or the presentation of other beliefs held by the learner that are inconsistent with the belief identified as incorrect in some way.

Humans also acquire viruses and some viruses remain in the human body for life but have been fought by the immune system so that the virus no longer threatens the health of the organs.  The educator deals with incorrect information as if it were viral so as to place it in proper context and provide the needed correctives and more accurate information.   The learner continues to remember the incorrect information but know recognizes it as inaccurate or incorrect in some way.

A method for organizing information and acquiring knowledge and fixing beliefs is a habit of mind that might not always be the most effective at enabling a person to make the best judgments, decisions, and evaluations.  When the predominant habit of mind is faulty it is as if an injury had occurred: a debilitating condition.  Such habits of mind can be identified by the educator and then repaired or improved upon through a program of studies and experiences intended to develop in the learner an alternative habit of mind that would better serve the student’s personal and social needs or the healthier functioning of the entire organism in the midst of the human community.

The recipients of surgical interventions submit to the surgeons and their staff  and give consent either directly or indirectly through their guardians to be subject to the surgeon and subject to the procedures trusting that the surgeon will exercise the fiduciary responsibility to benefit and not to harm the person who is ill and in need of surgery.   

Surgeons cause harm to those upon whom they operate in an effort to produce benefit.  They make incisions and expose people to infections in the process of attempting to improve their health and bodily functioning.   In an effort to produce, support or restore health there are times that harm results.  It is termed as “iatrogenic” harm or consequence as it was the result of an attempt not to harm but to benefit someone. 

The surgeon should make every attempt to avoid harm, either physical or psychological, and to minimize it wherever there must be some harm.  The patient is prepared for the surgery with explanations of the procedures and likely post operative events and experiences explained.  The environment is prepared and made as aseptic as possible.  Antiseptics, anesthetics and antibiotics are employed to deal with the threat of infections.  The surgery is as minimally intrusive and disruptive as possible to the body and the functioning of the organ systems.  

Just as a surgeon does harm in order to heal, an educator must seek to remedy pathological habits of mind and contents even if the process is in some ways painful.

There are times when the ill person may resist efforts to ameliorate the pathological condition and even deny consent for the therapies available.  If the threat of the pathology to the public health and safety is great and well substantiated then treatment may be ordered by the  authorities even over the objections of the individual.  These cases are rare enough and include situations where the threat is a physical disease that is highly infectious.  A similar case where the threat would be posed by a belief set or habit of mind would be nearly impossible to substantiate at the present time.  A person acting on such beliefs and habits of mind and deemed criminal would be dealt with after the fact and the likelihood of repeat acts would lead to separation from society.  Although in some instances the beliefs themselves have been the basis for charges and considered criminal and have led to additional incarceration such as with actions that are termed “hate crimes”.

If an individual were possessed of an infection treatable by antibiotics most effectively rendered intravenously but such person wanted to refuse an injection for fear of the pain of the needle, the medical staff would reason with the person, cajole and perhaps mollify by administering a local anesthetic upon the epidermis at the injection site for the desired delivery of the antibiotic.  The medical staff, having a professional responsibility to render effective care while avoiding whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary, would attempt to avoid abandoning the person in need as well as avoiding proceeding to invade their person or body without consent. 

A person having false beliefs, incorrect information and debilitating habits of mind that were remediable but who wanted to refuse what effective instruction was available for fear of emotional upset or fear of the unknown or of change or of threats to self esteem or of feelings of disloyalty to groups sharing those beliefs, then the instructional staff should reason with the person, cajole and perhaps mollify by administering local and temporary appeasements to secure not only consent but a sincere participation in the program of instruction. The educational staff, having a professional responsibility to render effective care while avoiding whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary would attempt to avoid abandoning the person in need as well as avoiding proceeding to invade their person without consent in a manner likely to be counterproductive to the aims of education. 

There is not a concern for the unforeseen and unintended harms as they are not within the realm of moral responsibility.   It is the harm that is foreseeable and actually foreseen and even intended where attention needs to be paid to discern when such harm may be acceptable and when they are not. 

Learners give consent either directly or indirectly through their guardians to be subject to  instruction trusting that the educator will exercise the fiduciary responsibility to benefit and not harm the learner.   

What is the variety of harm to which learners are subject?  There is the possible harm, the necessary harm and the unnecessary and the avoidable and unavoidable harm.

Possible Harm

Some types of learning create the perception and even the experience of harm.  In the changing of minds there can be distress that results as the learners may experience a variety of emotional states of discomfort:

·         Fear of the new

·         Fear of the unknown

·         Fear of loss of hope

·         Feeling threatened by the unknown and the new

·         Fear of the loss of the comfort of familiar beliefs

Necessary Harm 

Some types of learning situations that would be perceived by the learner as harmful but which are necessary experiences for the growth in knowledge, self reflection, critical thinking and growth. These “harms” would include: 

·         Loss of certainty- the creation of doubts

·         Loss of comfort- anxiety over the consequences of change and of the unknown

·         Loss of confidence-feelings of inadequacy

·         Loss of self esteem-feeling ignorant

·         Sense of disloyalty to groups

The single most important necessary harm is the arresting and divesting of the sense of certainty from the learner. Knowledge of uncertainty and of one's own ignorance is healthy and a sign of growth.  It is preliminary to and necessary for learning.  Knowledge of ignorance is not the end but the starting point for learning. 

Education is the progressive discovery of how little we know"- Will Durant

Educators must facilitate the entry of the learner into a discourse that will acknowledge and dispel ignorance.  Education aims to counter the Dogmatism of Ignorance. 

There will be necessary harm as there is the pain associated with growth.

NoPain, No Gain.

The pain and harm associated with education may be thought of as a most important part of what are commonly referred to as "growing pains".

Unnecessary Harms 

Other types of learning may produce situations that would be perceived by the learner as harmful but they are not necessary experiences for growth in knowledge, self reflection, and critical thinking. These “harms” would be gratuitous.  They include: 

·         Feeling hopeless

·         Feeling helpless

·         Feeling ashamed

Professional educators should make every effort to avoid these outcomes.  They are harmful to the learning process itself.  Interactions of educators with learners that are insulting or demeaning are to be avoided as they are both directly harmful to the learner and stultifying to the learning process and poison the relationship of learner to educator. 

A student’s feeling of being hopeless or helpless due to accepting that one is in error or that one held a false belief is not based on fact and can be both avoided and remedied if it emerges out of instruction.   Fear is natural in the face of the unknown and so if there is to be a displacement from what has been held as known and true but falsely so there should be the notion that there is an alternative to complete ignorance and beliefs that are better established and closer to the truth than those that were proven false or inconsistent or contradictory.  They can learn that we all make mistakes and that we can learn from our mistakes.  They can learn that Science learns more from disproof than from proving its conjectures.  Science learns more from that which does not prove to be so than from that which was suspected to be so and then proven to be the case and so too individuals can learn as much from revealing what is false or not the case as through discovering truth.  The recognition of the false belief is a part of the process of learning and advancing knowledge.  They can learn the process or habit of mind that continually examines what is thought to be known and to be true and learn that it is self correcting and makes progress over time.  Learners must come to understand that because not everything is known does not mean that nothing is known.  That mistakes are made does not mean that all is mistaken.  That to have made a mistake is not to be ignorant and bereft of the ability to learn.

"I know this is a stupid question but..."

"I am so dumb for thinking that..."

"I can't believe that I thought that was true! What a .. I must be."

The learner must understand and accept that to admit ignorance or a mistake is not grounds for shame but it opens the possibility for learning.

B. Paternalism

When can a professional educator cause a harm to benefit the learner and society and do so over the objection of or without informing the learner?   With what learners and to what extent is paternalism an ethically acceptable attitude and basis for action?  When is it that an educator can make decisions as to what is best for the learner without informing or involving the learner or the guardians of the learner in that decision making process?

Some educators consider themselves to have responsibility for the well being of those who come to them for assistance. They think of themselves as a parent would think in relation to their children. The term “paternalism,” literally means treating someone in a “fatherly” way.  Traditionally, this entails providing for a person’s basic needs without giving them autonomous, decision-making authority. The professional practitioner of education assuming the role of a parent will make decisions for the child (student), determine what information will be provided, and provide only as much information as the teacher thinks best for the student.  The educator might even act in ways to influence or coerce a student’s decisions or actions.  At bottom, pedagogical paternalism is the tendency of educators to act in what they believe to be in the best interest of the student, regardless of what the student actually perceives as his her own best interests.  This attitude often results in a teacher acting in a most authoritarian manner, even though the educator believes he or she is acting in the best interests of the student.

Important in the understanding of paternalistic models of education is that the profession of education, rooted as it is in the fiduciary (from the Latin fiducia – trust) has commitments of beneficence (charity, benefit, kindness), and thus has an intrinsically paternalistic dimension.  All teachers make decisions regarding course content and pedagogical methodology.  This means that teachers are deciding what students should know, what sorts of criteria for assessing that knowledge, the format for inquiry and discussion, and the normative claim that this knowledge will benefit them.

Educational paternalism occurs on many different levels.  First and foremost, education is paternalistic in the sense that students (or their parents) have implicit trust that we, as educators, will teach them things that will benefit them in the future.  However, the paternalistic implications of pedagogy are not consistent over time.  As Ronald Dworkin argues, children are not autonomous, and we are justified in making decision for them in their own best interest because they “…lack some of the emotional and cognitive capacities in order to make fully rational decisions.”  It is a mistake to assume first-graders, for example, will make informed decisions regarding their education, and so we, as adults, structure their education in ways that we think will benefit them in the long run, and to best provide for the development of autonomous decision-making in the future.  As students age, their choices become more informed, and so they are allowed to make more and more significant choices regarding their education.

Adult learners, while in possession of the emotional and cognitive capacities that allow for informed consent and autonomy, may still lack the intellectual capacity to decide the content of their studies .  A student might make autonomous decisions regarding their career path and major field of study, but most students are ill-equipped to make decisions concerning course content. ( Of course students in upper-level and graduate courses often do make these sorts of content decisions in independent studies, senior projects, and thesis projects and yet these are simply another result of growing academic autonomy of advanced learners.)  In making the informed choice to attend college, students are implicitly giving institutions the right to determine curricular programs and standards, and giving individual faculty members the right to set content and methodology in the classroom.  This tacit “approval” of paternalistic treatment given to colleges by students carries with it a set of reciprocal obligations on the part of administration and faculty.  All individuals involved in post secondary education must constantly evaluate, and where necessary, modify, their curricula and courses to meet these fiduciary obligations.  The right of faculty and institutions to make decisions on behalf of those they serve is not sacrosanct.  The decisions made by both faculty acting individually and collectively are subject to review.  Individual faculty members have their decisions reviewed by peers and the collective is reviewed by agencies that conduct periodic reviews of programs, courses, and curricula.

At its most basic level the relationship of the educator to the learner is paternalistic.  The basic responsibilities that individuals have to respect the autonomy of others are radically transformed in the context of the teacher/student relationship.  Educators, in their professional roles as teachers, encounter a new set of responsibilities akin to that of parents.  The professional responsibilities of the educator are also dictated by the educator's social role.  The educator is in a covenantial role with society and with the individual learners.  The educator is, in John Dewey's view, not simply the transmitter of some well defined set of skills or body of knowledge.  For Dewey, education prepares people for fulfilling lives not only by simply providing them with the information and the skills they need for professional success but also by providing the instrumentalities, the skills and the habits of mind for continual learning and growth.  Education is, in this ense, like life itself.  Education is preparation for continual growth, learning and development.  And so one of the crucial functions of education is preparing people for a lifetime of learning.  This is all the more evident and made necessary in cultures in which change and the rate of change are characteristics of the culture itself.  

Like it or not, the educator plays a central role in shaping the decisions of students, both academic and personal.  In giving bad grades or performance ratings, for instance, an educator can close off entire avenues of professional development.  And on these grounds, an educator is not only responsible for student learning , but in one sense functions as society's "last line of defense" with regard to the maintenance of accepted standards for personal achievement and professional development. 

The educator must determine for each student:

·         what potential for academic, professional, and personal growth the learner has

·         what is known and still unknown and yet to be known

·         what there is to be accomplished by the learner

·         how knowledge and skills can be used 

The educator serves in loco parentis in the development or growth of the child and as parents nurture and support the growth of their children, educators must produce changes in their students, else they suffer the death of intellect for lack of intellectual change known as intellectual growth.  Students left untaught will not prosper in the social setting or even long survive as involved in social life in any positive sense.  The ignorant and uneducated burden us all to bear their physical survival on the outskirts of society and often times outside of the accepted norms of behavior. Educators must attend to the needs of their learners before such needs are even understood or appreciated by their students.  Educators, at least those who attempt to be responsible educators, must make their best judgments as to how to best serve the needs of their students for physical and intellectual development or growth. So educators, having entered into this fiduciary relationship and its incumbent duties of their own accord, are actually obliged to produce changes in their students.  Educators have the fiduciary relationship. This set of duties are based on an actual contract that explicates the duties of the educator and through the general covenant between the educator and the community of learners.

Throughout life people grow in the capacity for autonomy or a "generative autonomy " on the part of children as children in their role as students and thus as they do so there is a tendency for paternalism to decrease with the least evidence of paternalistic behavior exhibited in graduate and post graduate education.  In later life there are sometimes conditions that lead to a "degenerative autonomy" whereby children often need to exercise a paternalism in their relationship to their aging and ailing parent , a "reverse paternalism" that has adult offspring "enrolling" their parents in education programs aimed at assisting them with adapting to circumstances of their aging. 

 Most mature adults do not want to be treated as if they were children: they want to maintain their autonomy and right of self-determination. The law supports the rights of individuals to make their own decisions and their right to the information needed to make good decisions.  This paternalistic model may work well with small children and those lacking full intellectual capacity as autonomous moral agents capable of responsible decision- making.  Paternalism does not work well as children mature into adults and certainly becomes most problematic, if not downright insulting, when used with adults. Nonetheless, in education the relationship involving the educator and the learner is always one where the parties are not equal in knowledge or skills, and so there is often need for the learner to surrender decision-making authority to the educator, who assumes the fiduciary responsibility for decisions on behalf of the learner that must aim to both benefit the learners and protect the learner from harm.

C. Whose Benefit?

Necessary Harm for the Benefit of Society 

A harm to a learner may be regarded as a necessary harm over the complaint of the learner if the professional educator is to achieve the fulfillment of the responsibility all professional educators have to the more general public they serve in producing an increase in human intellectual resources needed for social cohesion and progress. But in this case the harm is one that is warranted out of a sense of  paternalism.

"Dworkin does not draw a sharp distinction between weak and strong paternalism - and perhaps there is no sharp distinction to be drawn - he does argue that Mill was mistaken to reject paternalism. According to Dworkin, Gerald Dworkin, Paternalism, The Monist, La Salle, IL., Vol. 56, No. 1.

 the wager view by which Mill justifies paternalism with respect to children can be extended to adults.

The Wager View: It is morally permissible to restrict the autonomy of children for their benefit since they are not fully rational and we bet (wager) that if they were, they would concur with our decisions.

But extending the wager view to adults requires that we assume that, if the adult were fully rational, the adult would concur with our restrictions on his or her autonomy. What this implies is that

1.      Those who would restrict an individual's autonomy bear the burden of proof-i.e., they must demonstrate that paternalism is justified. It is not required that the individual justify that paternalism is wrong, since paternalism is presumptively wrong.

2.      In cases were paternalism can be adequately justified, the alternative which least restricts autonomy should be adopted over any other alternative.

Given these restrictions on paternalism, it is astonishing to realize the extent of unjustified paternalism on the part of the Federal and State Governments. For example, the so-called 'War on Drugs' and the prohibition of drugs for recreational use is morally illicit, since the government has clearly failed to adopt the alternatives which least restrict autonomy, even assuming it has borne the burden of proof to justify the prohibition, which, to be sure, it has not." - - Don Berkich of University of Massachusetts-

As an example of such a harm requiring an act of strong paternalism on the part of the social institution of education consider the case of those who hold ideas and beliefs supportive of bigotry, prejudices, stereotypes, and racial hatred.  The belief systems of racial supremacists need to be challenged despite the potential harm to their self-esteem and self-image.  It matters not how hard such people might protest the attempts to change their minds on this matter or the harm they claim are being done them by those attempts.  What does matter is that the debilitating habits of mind be effectively addressed and that these people become better educated and relieved of those mindsets that impair their intellectual growth and threaten social cohesiveness.  A person with an infection that was highly communicable and dangerous to the well being of others would be required to undergo treatment for the benefit of themselves and for that of society or be isolated. Treatments need to be rendered against the protests of the infected.  Such people might need to be observed undergoing the treatment to insure that they received it and even physically confined as long as they were a threat to the general well being of society.  This is more controversially true of rendering educational efforts to those in need for the benefit of themselves and the greater whole.

It must be noted that there are important ways in which the institution of education can not be compared to that of medicine in so far as treatment of the abnormal or pathological is concerned.   In education there are many people who are in the sense above infected in some way with a remediable pathology who may feel good about their condition as they do not perceive any pain or harm caused by their ignorance or lack of skill.  They remain a danger to society nonetheless and should be treated while in formal educational institutions for the benefit of both the individuals and the general society.  In education the "patient" must be an active participant in the process of intellectual development if educational efforts are to succeed.   There is labor, effort or work to be done and this is often perceived as disruptive, painful, costly and unnecessary by learners whereas in medicine it can be the case that a remedy can be delivered effectively while the recipient remains in a passive role.

There are times when dealing with learners that questions arise as to the appropriateness or acceptability of a program of instruction or a lesson or a mode of instruction and those questions result from there not being a clear indication of what benefit there is to the learner. Who benefits? The individual learner? Society itself? Both at once? How is it that the educator handles the conflict between serving the interests of society in having education support the increase in human intellectual resources to be shared by all in society and serving the interests of the individual learner in increasing the individual's abilities to grow and to occupy a certain desirable position in the social order, principally through some vocation?

It would be a professional responsibility of an educator to make it clear to the learner the reasons why the educational program and experiences and exercises are what they are.  This mitigates unnecessary harm. 

D. Tolerance

People have a right to believe what they wish, but that is not an absolute right and, in particular and most acutely, that is not a right to be recognized in educational institutions. Whatever is its status in popular culture, tolerance as an absolute value is not a value within the institution of education.  Tolerance and education are at odds with one another when tolerance is taken as acceptance of beliefs no matter their content or implications.

To tolerate some person or behavior or rule or regulation is not to accept it and embrace it or support it.  In tolerating something there is the idea that there is some aspect of it that is undesirable or troubling else it would not be tolerated but some other relationship would obtain such as endorsement, acceptance or celebration.  When the undesirable aspect of what is being tolerated reaches a point that it is harmful to the person or institution that is tolerating it, then what had been tolerated would be tolerated no longer.  Parents can tolerate certain behaviors of their children up to a point.  When that point is reached there is an end to the toleration. 

"Alright buster, now you have done it.  Now you have gone too far."


In educational institutions unsupported beliefs about the physical universe including the human species and its history and varied cultures cannot be given any protection from being challenged and being made the object of careful examination.  Behaviors and beliefs that interfere with instruction or thwart education cannot  be tolerated in an educational institution.

For example the following notions or behaviors (mental) should not be tolerated in the sense of being accepted and approved or followed:

"Where I come from we believe that :" or "My personal belief is that:"

Blacks are grossly inferior to other peoples and should be treated as property and made into beasts of burden.

Women are not the equal of men and ought not to be allowed into commerce or into the same rooms as men in schools.

The belief that the earth is flat is to be challenged and changed by education.  The belief that women are inferior to men is to be challenged and changed by education.  The belief that the cure for AIDS is to have sex with a virgin(the latest appearance of the centuries’ old  myth of the virgin cure ) is to be challenged and changed by education.  The belief that one group of people by virtue of skin color is superior or inferior to another is to be challenged and changed by education.  Claiming that these beliefs are part of one’s religion or culture or are personal to one's self and thus not to be subject to examination or challenge or the effort to have them removed from the mind of the believer is a claim that should not be respected in any educational institution and not in civilized societies.   This has grave implications for the practice of allowing religious organizations to teach basic subject matter.    “Separate but equal” is as near impossible with religious schools being separate from public schools as it was for schools that were for what were thought to be different races.  The religious habit of mind is not that which is developed in public education through a study of math and science and other forms of rational thought.  A curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences is a curriculum to develop critical thinking and the appraisal of empirical claims by the careful review of the physical evidence in support of these claims. Such a curriculum is not the same as and in some ways antithetical to a program of religious instruction that would foster a habit of mind that is authoritarian or tenacious.  To encourage the fixing of beliefs on blind faith or acceptance of authorities either individual or institutional is to encourage that which liberal arts education is to be set against.  The tension between inculcating the tenacious mind and the rational mind is difficult to resolve in the environment of religious education. 

The habit of mind that accepts what authorities have claimed as true without asking for support for those claims is to be challenged by education.  Every effort should be made within the educational institution to change minds from being formed and informed by habits of mind that are closed to inquiry and testing and evaluation into minds that are open to inquiry: from the willing believer into the skeptical inquirer seeking the best possible positions supported by reasoning and evidence.  Minds should be challenged to grow and realize their potential.  Such growth would be supported by insistence upon respect for individual expression and participation within every form of social association.  The education of such minds has been and will be a civilizing force. 

Humans progress when they do not believe that the earth is flat but learn through experience and minds open to experience that the earth is an oblate spheroid. Humans progress when they do not believe that disease is an unavoidable condition resulting from some supernatural cause but learn that disease results from bacteria and viruses.  Humans progress when they do not believe that people are superior or inferior to one another because of their sex or skin color but learn of the fundamental similarities and the valuable differences amongst humans. Humans progress when their simple-minded and false beliefs are displaced by learning that develops minds open to inquiry and knowledge and a notion of truth that tempers the impulse to jump to conclusions and for prejudgment and for violence.

Tolerance has as its root meaning "to endure".  Recent events are making it increasingly clear that the celebration of tolerance as a high value is something that needs to be rethought.  Endurance of behaviors that are threatening to civilization itself is no longer desirable.  In the assault upon innocent lives and the core values that mark civilization itself, the idea of unqualified tolerance and the practice of permitting people to maintain their beliefs and habits of mind unchallenged by education are no longer to be tolerated.

It was never a very good idea to make tolerance so important or to identify it as a cardinal virtue for a liberal or democratic society.  Unlimited tolerance could never serve as part of some universal bedrock for society or culture let alone for civilization.  Tolerance as an absolute could not be promoted if it would mean to tolerate the intolerant.  That is a self defeating notion. Those who hold beliefs that are intolerant of those not sharing those beliefs are a danger to those desiring to be tolerant.  The fanatic believers often want all others to join with them in their beliefs or to remove the non-believers altogether: convert or die.  Tolerating killers is not a good idea.  Tolerating that which produces, supports and encourages killers is also not a good idea.

Tolerance has always implied a temporary state of affairs.  It has always indicated that what was to be tolerated was not altogether to be accepted and certainly not promoted or valued highly: it was to be simply put up with, but up to a point.  The toleration of belief systems that support the destruction of the social fabric through deliberate acts of homicide and homicidal acts targeting the innocent and children and the needy has now reached that point where tolerance can be tolerated no longer.

What exactly is no longer to be tolerated?  Acts of violence have never been tolerated.  So, the ideas, the beliefs, and the belief systems that lead to and support and celebrate those acts of violence are not to be tolerated.  The belief systems that threaten human life and civilization itself cannot be tolerated. Mental process and beliefs set against humans being civil towards one another and advancing their interests, their abilities to realize their values are not to be tolerated. Such beliefs need to be challenged and they need to be changed.  The minds that possess the ideas, beliefs, sets of beliefs and habits of mind that oppose civil lives need to be changed.  Education is the institution that serves societies in changing the minds of its members in a fashion that promotes the development of individuals and provides for the social cohesion and progress needed for the social life.  Educational institutions that offer mere vocational training and permit simple-minded holding of beliefs fail to produce minds that are open to ideas and that insist on the critical examination, review and evaluation of ideas before holding them to be true and acting upon them.  Such genuinely uneducated minds are the target of attack by those possessed of the opposite: minds that are programmed to refuse careful examination of beliefs. 

This is not so much a clash of cultures or a culture war.  It is an assault on civilization itself.  Those who commit the violent acts against innocent people, children, the aged, and those who disagree with them or who do not share their views or values attack not so much people as the very way of life and the values supporting that way of life of those who are respectful of persons and tolerant in a positive qualified sense, that is,  as supporting the open exploration of ideas and the progress of thought and of institutions following upon such thought and that way of life is one identified with being civilized.   Those who organize to commit violence against those of a different mind do not simply act out against freedom and materialism or any particular listing of the attributes of the enemy they despise and would eliminate, they act against the values placed on human life: the idea that innocent people are not to be harmed and other ideas that mark being civilized, support civility and permit the process of civilization.

Civilization is represented in those who are compassionate to those in need.  Civilization is represented in the idea that children are not to be killed or offered up in sacrifice in the service of some ideal, and particularly not in service of some political cause.

Those who commit these acts are barbarians in the sense of being truly foreign or outside of the culture of civilization itself as they hold different values from those who cherish civilized life and value its continued progression.

What is it that advances the process of civilization?  It is the process of educating people that develops human potential by development of minds capable of critical thought and evaluation.  It is a process of intellectual growth that moves beyond basing human action on beliefs alone.  Civilization advances not on belief but on knowledge.  It is knowledge of the cause of disease that leads to their curtailment or elimination.  It is knowledge of the plight of the other that can develop effective feelings of empathy and sympathy. 

Belief can serve for a time as a basis for social unity and identification.  Belief can help humans to form groups and deal with one another and the environment.  But beliefs can and do lead to some most horrible atrocities as people come to hold the continuation of their beliefs as more important than life itself.  This occurs when beliefs are challenged by experiences that contradict those beliefs.  Then some, fearing loss of all identity and value, might react to remove the perceived threats to those beliefs even to the point of lethal violence.  In the defense of such beliefs, particularly those supporting intolerance, humans are killed.  Innocent humans are killed, children are killed, and the injured and needy and incapable of defense are killed.  

Before the killing of humans there must be the killing of knowledge and truth and value for human life that would stand in the way of the decisions to do violence. This destruction of openness of thought, critical thinking, a process of inclusion of the widest range of considerations occurs when education becomes indoctrination and training.  The ability of the mind to reason from premises to conclusions and to examine the conclusions reached and to have them tested again by thought is found in many disciplines but it is the basic stuff of mathematics and science.  When mathematics and science are forbidden or reduced to simple belief systems there is surrender to simple beliefs and a flight from beliefs that are to be tested by reason and evidence.  The Taliban presented us with what education becomes in the service of ideology and what education becomes when there is a need for the production of suicide bombers.  Education becomes indoctrination with only one truth to be memorized and the authority conveyed upon the transmitters of that truth to be considered as absolute authority.

Against this is the teaching that develops minds capable of making judgments about beliefs using reasoning and evidence.  Such habits of minds must be deliberately developed beyond the earliest habits of mind that emerge in the young who must accept what authorities provide and quickly if they are to survive. The educated mind is a mind that is distrustful of ideology and indoctrination.  The educated mind is a mind that is open to inquiry and wants evidence to support or falsify claims and theories.

E.  Focus: learner or content

It happens at times that physicians focus more on the disease entity or illness or the infected or injured organ system than on the person who is ill, the patient.  This has been commented on often in the fields of medicine and medical ethics as this situation brought attention to itself through the resultant set of problems generated in the realm of interpersonal relationships and respect of basic human rights and sensibilities that becomes lessened when the focus is not on the person. There are ongoing attempts to address this through medical school curricula incorporating more humanities instruction and legislative measures setting out basic rights for recipients of medical care.   Likewise in education a professional educator can become more focused on the curriculum or the discipline and its cognitive contents than on the people being educated.  When this occurs, educators can lessen the emphasis on the growth process of individuals as they attend to the development and delivery of course content.  Some attempts to address this are now in evidence as there is a rapid rise in centers for excellence in teaching and learning and the move towards learner- centered education.  The current literature or scholarship of teaching and learning is replete with materials urging a focus on the learner.

The contrast between focusing on the content of the curriculum rather than on the development and growth of the learner is revealed in discussions on the relative importance of depth as compared to the breadth of the instructional program or class.  It is also in evidence in the nearly perennial debate amongst those in higher education that pits instruction in the liberal arts and sciences against vocational and professional training.  For the professional educator the obligation to benefit the individual learner cannot be supplanted by the obligation to serve the public good or the advancement of the academic discipline.

VI. Conclusion: Responsibility with Sensitivity

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.

Changing the contents and the habits of mind of learners is the object of education.  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 thinking.  Such an objective must be approached by professional educators with not only an ethical awareness and sensitivity to the needs and rights of the learners as human beings who entrust themselves to the educators for presumed benefit but also an awareness of the obligations that professional educators have to their disciplines and to society that entrust educators with their professional responsibilities.  Educators seek to increase the intellectual resources of their learners; their knowledge, skills and habits of mind.  Educators should then avoid causing their learners whatever harm is foreseeable, avoidable and unnecessary.   Professional educators must think about those harms.   Professional programs that prepare educators should address the ethical obligations of professional educators to their disciplines, their society and their learners along with their rights as educators while never losing focus on the primary tasks of education to foster the intellectual growth of learners for their own benefit as well as in the service of the social need for cohesion and the progress of civilization resting both on the sensitive and compassionate and the careful and critical use of reason.


1) This presentation is a development upon another work: Pedagogy and Habits of Mind: Learners, their  Mindsets and  General Education Objectives

Available at 

2) This presentation has been greatly assisted by Shannon Kincaid, Jay Mullin and Deleri Springer. Special thanks to Bob Brain, Louise Triano, and Mike Fitzgerald who assisted with more felicitous phrasings.

last revised 10-4-10                                                               send comments to ppecorino@qcc.cuny