Posted by: Heather | October 28, 2009

Is It Possible to Prove Any Important Thing?

Rob Weir in an article called “Let’s Review” in Inside Higher Ed asks in a parenthetical note, “Is it really possible to prove that the Democratic Party is better than the Republican Party; or that Buddhism is superior to Judaism?” He states it as an example of an argument that is not particularly academic, but if it’s not, such exclusion is a great loss to the university. Weir asks it as if it were a question that is impossible to answer with reason, logic, and a careful examination of evidence. I don’t think that’s true at all. It is the most important mental work one can do in a lifetime to distinguish between the right and wrong, the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, the holy and the common. I’ll admit my position is informed by Richard Mitchell’s The Gift of Fire, but have we not been given our highest mental faculties for the purpose of using them figure out difficult questions, such as if Buddhism is superior to Judaism or if it is inferior?

But Weir is correct in the sense that we ought not write an exam that has this on it:

Question 30. Buddhism is superior to Judaism.
A. True
B. False

Such a question would be ideological abuse, of course. But there is another form of exam in the university, the essay, in which prejudices are challenged, evidence examined, and ideas (and ideologies) weighed. Consider this question:

Is Buddhism superior to Judaism, or is Judaism superior to Buddhism? Use facts and reason to defend the superior system against the inferior system in a coherent essay. You will be graded on the accuracy of the information you provide (a test of historical knowledge), the validity of your logical argument (a test of philosophical knowledge), and the control you exhibit over the structure of your essay (a test of rhetorical knowledge).

To answer that essay question, a student needs more than Google, as powerful as it is; more than “findings” from a thousand reports; more than the almighty Wikipedia. Instead, the student must walk a painful path of evidence and argument, the path of higher education.

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