Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Challenging Assumptions

Originally posted on October 29, 2013

The new President of our local Southwestern University, Professor Edward Burger , was written up in the college’s magazine. He had also recently given a guest lecture to my class at Senior University Georgetown, our local lifelong learning program. My series has been about “Thinking about Thinking,” and his talk was about effective thinking. He was taking off on a book he’d co-written titled The Five Elements of Effective Thinking . In the article I read, at one point Dr. Burger suggested that students should be taught and encouraged to “challenge assumptions.”

This is radical: To challenge assumptions goes against millennia of traditionalism in which assumptions must never be challenged, for to do so would be to challenge God’s spokespersons, or their commentators. To do so would be akin to challenging God. It would mix taboo, blasphemy, heresy, and all sorts of other unthinkable sins.

Digging into psychodynamics, to challenge assumptions upends the basis of most repression, the double whammy that we must not only suppress dissent and disloyalty in the name of solidarity, but must suppress to the point of forgetting the very idea that we have suppressed it all. We end up feeling mildly bewildered, saying in an irritated and innocent voice, “What are you talking about?!” The unconscious is powerful enough to cover this so we sense no cognitive dissonance. We feel no shame because the whole activity is out of mind, and why, after all, go there and make trouble? There are enough other things to think about, such as the latest ball game and how else it might have been played.

Thus, an educational approach that builds in the challenging of assumptions is transgressive, it strikes at the roots of conventional morality. It is by no means immoral or amoral, but rather invites us to take responsibility for our choice of values. To question assumptions implicitly encourages people to think. Indeed, they are invited to dare go beyond thinking the forbidden: They begin to wonder why their respected teachers have avoided thinking about what, on thinking about it, is really obvious!

I’m suggesting that folks—even educated folks—don’t like to challenge assumptions. They don’t like to even identify assumptions, because those assumptions seem (operative word: seem) true, absolute, obvious, duh, of course, how dare you? But there’s an edge, like, “What are you so annoyed about? That I brought up this question?”

Politics and religion are often kept in these boxes, as well as social norms and questions less awkward—but still plenty awkward—such as the amount of money going into college sports that might better be spent in other activities.

So, that’s the impression that I get: Having taken off the outer cover of Pandora’s Box, Professor Burger’s invitation to challenge assumptions figuratively begins to peel off the aluminum foil covering to this uber-can-of-worms.

Personally, I’m all for this, let me be frank. It’s a game I play in my life. But I find that folks don’t like to think. And there is a category of faculty and fairly bright student who similarly have not dedicated themselves to the thrill of being mistaken and enjoying re-thinking. Rather, they have accumulated ideas and degrees and sell these as products that are good because of the height of the accumulation.

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