Writing like a commie, or what the teacher wants to hear vs what you actually believe

Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.
Shakti Gawain

I recently re-watched a great presentation by Ben Shapiro (“Truth is a Microaggression“). He makes very good points, e.g. regarding having an honest argument. And yup, his arguments are well-made, no matter how you stand to his political views or values.

And personally, I see this whole microaggression/safe-space/etc. stuff as being incompatible with education — and as devastating to creativity. Colleges/universities should create competent individuals, not produce censor-happy neurotics.

However, what if you find that your views are in opposition to the current zeitgeist at universities (or in school)? One really interesting moment was the question whether to stand true to ones values in college when your position is not accepted. For example, when presented with loaded questions in class/an exam, which determines the entire grade. The example given was “How has white privilege affected marginalized groups of people throughout history?”. It’s about 51 minutes in and I agree with the questioner — it’s a loaded question.

Shapiro’s advice was not to sacrifice your career for what you believe in. He mentioned his own behavior — to question/criticize ideas in class, and then write like a commie in the (anonymous) exams. He was adamant about it when another person criticized him and who advocated for being true to oneself, not to legitimize the system and instead walk away (about 1 hour and 9 minutes in).

I totally agree with Shapiro’s answer, both because I have been in a similar situation years ago(*), and because I think it does not conflict with one’s inner values. In fact, I would recommend this behavior no matter in which school you are or what the subject is (science, art, or anything else).

The reason is quite simple: It’s a school, every student, including every college/university student, has a clear job description: Learn (whether for the tests or for life is another question). The job description is not to commit oneself to one set of values. No one can force you to do that. Shapiro makes the point that you learn more in a college which does not share your political views — you learn how the other side thinks.

But what if you have to write something you don’t believe in? Doesn’t that obliterate your integrity? Prevents you from having a clear conscience?

No, it does not. Because it is within a school/college/university. I think a helpful mindset is seeing the exam not as writing your own position, but writing what the “educator” thinks, how this person does argue and what this person sees as correct. (I put “educator” in quotation marks here, because I think that a good educator gives you the tools to think, but doesn’t tell you what to think (Christina Hoff Sommers makes this point very well). Education and indoctrination share a couple of letters, but they are diametrically opposed.)

Thus, the grade in the exam will tell you how well you have understood what the “educator” thinks (= representative of the other side). By writing how the world looks from the position of the other side, you haven’t committed yourself to that position.

(Of course, if someone reads your text, it will be very hard to convince the person — or the public — that this is not your position. There’s a nice study in which students were assigned to write pro-Castro or contra-Castro essays, and the fact that the students had no choice regarding their position made no difference whether the students themselves were seen as pro- or contra-Castro. Plus, some people will claim that you sold your soul or supported a corrupt system.)

Personally, I’d just call it opposition research.

And the good grades actually show that you have understood their position, their point of view. Consider how devastating these grades (or rather: the knowledge) are when you (later) argue against that position. The other side cannot claim that you have no idea what you are talking about, or that you should “educate yourself”. Nor can they proclaim the course to be worthless — they’d be hacking at their own roots.

(BTW, this strategy should also work in art. For example, show that you are able to play classical music or paint naturalistic scenes when you go for a different (deceptively?) easy style (Mondrian anyone?) — or vice versa. Just compare people who can do both to those “artists” who cannot carry a tune or draw a straight line and claim their … hmmm … is art.)

Of course, there is the risk that this strategy corrupts what you actually believe in via cognitive dissonance. If you were to see it as a free choice situation, in which nothing is at stake, in which you have no (good) reason to act this way, you might become convinced by your “exam-position”. But the reason that you would otherwise receive very bad grades is exactly what you need not to fall prey to this effect. It’s not a free choice situation, and you don’t do it to change your position, but to test whether you have understood the opposing position. Just imagine a “The ‘teacher’ thinks that …” above the exam text and an a well-reasoned “and here’s why this is bullshit: 1. …, 2. …, 3. …”) below it.

How far can you go?

Personally, I think that depends on the circumstances. I would draw the line when it comes to a lack of respect. It’s one thing to argue for an opposing position, quite another to ignore the humanity we share and just bash. There’s also a difference between an exam and, e.g., a public debate. In an exam, your goal is to get great grades, but in a public debate, your goal is to sway the audience. And there’s no sense in trying to sway the audience to accept something you do not believe in. Of course, an exam could make participation in a public discussion as a requirement. If that every happens, it would be a reason for me to leave the course. Not sure whether university courses have fallen this low. So far, I have seen this only with religious sects(**). And yup, I think any attempt to enforce a public commitment from students (e.g., go to protests as course requirement) is absolutely unethical of the “educator”. The goal is not to learn, but to make students publicly commit to a specific position (pretty sure a sign with “I protest because it’s a course requirement” isn’t helpful). Well, if that does happen … that class would have completely moved into the cult/sect like indoctrination area.

But yeah, there’s the question whether it makes sense to be in a course in which the “educator” is not able to handle opposing positions(***). Or what value a class has where you cannot debate positions. Well, that has to be one hell of a stepping stone.

So, all in all, I don’t think you sacrifice your integrity when you write what you do not believe in, in order to get the grades you need, to work more effectively for the world you do believe in.


(*) Let’s just say that school isn’t the best place to become an atheist/agnostic, esp. when you have a devout “holier-than-thou” type of religious education teacher. Also, being a teenager did not help. Still, it did feel good to write what I thought, even though my grade went down 3 steps. If that had happened a year later I could have kissed psychology good-bye (you need a really good average grade to be able to study it).

(**) No kidding. Saw a group on a crowded marketplace, one person on a stepladder admitting to have sinned to the whole crowd. I doubt it was for recruitment purposes. Most likely, it was to keep members tied to the group. After that kind of public commitment (“outing”), it would be hard for the person to walk away. At least, unless she sees it was “I was young and stupid, was duped, got smart, had the courage to let go and leave.”

(***) I’m glad I did study a science. Psychology might not be considered to be a “hard science”, but a science it is. Actually, it’s a bit like “democratic”, if the term is in the name — with “democratic” of a country, with “science” of a subject —  it likely isn’t. Even a clash of positions in an oral exam whether altruism exists or not did not cost me my excellent grade. The educator (no quotation marks here, she really was one) argued that altruism does exist, I was adamant that only pro-social behavior exists, but not altruism. She ended that segment of the exam that we would have to agree to disagree and gave me the top mark. It helped to know the arguments for altruism and I’d go completely evaluativistic here — knowledge is constructed, we don’t know “the truth”, but positions can be evaluated by evidence and arguments. And yup, there’s a difference between personal opinions and scientific positions.