Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Challenge yourself.

Challenge yourself. | by SchierlChallenge your preconceived notions. We hear that a lot at Whitman, and in many respects, we students do it everyday, from the politics class that questions the foundations of the global North’s domination of the South to the physics class which questions our understanding of the fundamental particles of matter. Underlying this constant reappraisal is the ancient understanding that we cannot attain new knowledge without breaking through the dams of assumption and prejudice. In Plato’s allegory of the Cave, the Philosopher escapes the murky cave and beholds the awesome sun, imbuing him with understanding of the true principles which bind all things. His return to the cave is met with revulsion, those still entrenched in its darkness reject his knowledge and call for the death of the agitator. However, all the while, only the philosopher, the sole voice of reason, understands the truth, while the cave-dwellers are bound with chains to ignorance and intolerance. Challenge your preconceived notions. At Whitman, we all acknowledge the importance of freeing oneself from the bonds that hold back intellectual discourse. However, the act of challenging one’s own presuppositions and foundations is far more difficult. The only bond we refuse to throw off is that which ties us to our own ideas. We readily turn our critical eye outward, but we avoid its inward gaze, fearful of its piercing indictment. This is our challenge.

Whitman College ranks in Princeton Review’s top 5 “happiest students” list. Clearly, an abiding sense of happiness and contentment gently cushions our lives here, and who could blame us? Whitman is a little patch of heaven: charming little town, green grass, hypnotically rolling wheat fields. Granted, people take action within the community and stay up to date with current events, but for the most part nothing touches us. The ugly voice of politics is but a mere echo in the quiet bliss of Whitman life.

However, what we fail to realize is that current events are not the only possible source of discontentment. Looking at the Whitman psyche, one notices an overwhelming sense of docility and satisfaction with the status quo. It is not a liberal or conservative issue, a rather pointless issue to debate (yes, Whitman is incredibly liberal and our obstinacy towards offending each other will make sure it remains such). Rather, this status quo we are guilty of upholding goes lies with our own stagnant set of ideas. This stagnation is precisely what has allowed us to reduce the complexity of the world into mere convenient ideology, and form our beloved “bubble”.

But aren’t we too young for that? This should be our time to grapple with the most difficult and problematic issues. This is our time to complicate the world. This should be the winter of our discontent! But what prevents us from this complication, by what force have we made up our minds already? The answer goes hand-in-hand with our aversion to offending people: we do not want to examine our ideologies critically, especially if those ideas are about the things most important to us.

Herein lies our dilemma: the very thing which will allow us to form fully developed opinions, which can weather all counter-arguments, is that which threatens our Princeton Review rated happiness. If we allow ourselves to be challenged: if we offend ourselves by contesting the very presuppositions that enforce our entire way of thinking: we will be discontent.

But discontent needn’t be our enemy. Our growth as responsible, engaged adults is a blossoming, not a static, dead thing. Contentment results from honoring stability, a principle that can surely protect, extend, and deepen happiness, but which can also lead to stagnation. Once contentment ceases to be an active rejoicing in fresh revelations and new growth, it becomes backwards-facing and torpid. It is only too easy for contentment to slide odiously into complacency.

Nowhere is it easier to see this unacceptable transition than in those things that we tell ourselves most often and hold most dear. It is the easiest of all criticisms to question the positions and arguments of those with whom we disagree, but is a much more difficult matter to approach the arguments of our intellectual allies with the same sort of rigor. Hardest of all, though, is to maintain the same insight and skeptical force regarding our own opinions.

The force of habit and the influence of history build great inertia in our own ideas. The opinions most difficult to question are those held the longest. Often, we even forget to ever question our opinions on the most basic of our views, and thus relegate those opinions to indisputable truths. In this, though, we do enormous violence to one of the most basic of all human qualities: our power to change and adapt ourselves in accordance with our changing understanding of the world. It is not enough merely to question ourselves regarding those life principles that we are in the process of achieving; we have to question also those principles held long and deep.

In truth, to question those deepest principles is the most important of all critical examinations. We can build the higher and more recent levels of our understanding to the most rigorous of standards, but an unstable foundation will surely cause the entire structure to fail. The Cartestian principle still stands: one can only discover truth by first “eradicating from [one’s] mind all the erroneous opinions [accepted] up to that moment” (Discourse, Part 2).

Oftentimes, many of the opinions we fail to thoroughly question are those that we are conditioned to believe early in our lives. Despite the enormous intellectual and emotional growth that each of us have undergone since, say, fifth grade, we often continue to blindly adhere to the same opinions of politics, religion, social mores, and an array of other opinions that we learned even before we were capable of understanding their true import. The test case is simple and lies within each of us: have you significantly changed your position on gun control, or abortion, or dogmatic patriotism, or the existence of a deity in the last year? The last five? Ten? Ever?

Ultimately, the constant questioning of opposing views tends to strengthen our own conceptions of the world. So long as our own ideas are securely rooted in a critically examined truth, this can be a rewarding and beneficial process. If our own positions are riddled with untruths, however, and have not been adequately (or ever) examined with the same sort of incisive criticism that we level at contrary views, the already difficult process of removing our personal intellectual and moral weaknesses is greatly hindered. So in the coming months, as the authors of this column ask difficult questions about the foundations of sundry issues, we ask that you do not merely reject these questions offhandedly. To truly grapple with them will at worst make you more sure of the truth of your own opinions, and will at best help to resituate your moral foundations on sturdier ground. And that’s something we can legitimately be happy about.

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