Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Sisyphus is a Happy Man

I’m grading final exams this week, always a depressing experience.

Teaching is a Sisyphean experience at best: each semester, there we are at the bottom of the hill in the grim dark underworld, and we labor to shove that rock upwards. Each semester, that sucker careens back down again, despite all we can do. Camus says Sisyphus is a happy man, and mostly, you know, we are, we professors. It’s deeply engaging, deeply hopeless work, and we really love it.

Only not so much during exam week, when we see how badly we have failed.

I made the mistake of asking my American Lit students to define Worldview Conflict on their exams. I knew it was a mistake when I did it, too.

We all have worldview conflicts, as I’m sure you all know: these occur when we believe two mutually exclusive things. Which we all do.

American Christians, for instance, to take a fairly obvious example, believe both that they should not worship wealth (because it says so right there in the Bible: You cannot serve both God and Mammon; and a rich man cannot enter the kingdom of heaven; and so forth); and that they should be capitalists, who do worship wealth.

American Christians have no problem living with this worldview conflict – they have no trouble driving their Hummers to church on Sunday, as I have often observed.

Or – to use the example we noted in class – American Quakers, back in the early 19th century, had no problem both believing that slavery was wrong and that they should sell slaves. That was a worldview conflict, but one they had no trouble dealing with. Worldview one: slavery is wrong. Worldview two: It is right to make a profit, and slavery is profitable.

Anyway, I ask the students, on these exams, to define the terms and to give examples.

They absolutely refuse to define worldview conflict as “holding two conflicting worldviews at the same time.” No: they insist upon defining it as “when someone goes against what he believes.”

So it’s not the guy believes X and he believes Y at the same time and those things conflict; no, it’s the guy believes X but then he goes ahead and does Y.

Even though this is manifestly not the case in the examples we have studied, or in the examples they then go ahead and give me.

Why? Because that would be to admit that such a thing is possible – that people could think two ways at once. And these students, at least half of them, don’t want that to be true.

Why does this bother them?

I’ve been trying to figure that one out for a while now. I think it’s attached to their love of code ethics, and their desire for simplicity.

Which makes sense, when we look at the rhetoric of the Red-Staters. (And the students who refuse to define the term correctly are, in fact, the conservative students in the class.) They want this Simple Worldview. They adhere to the Nuance-is-for-Girls way of thinking. They love the code-ethic way of dealing with situations.

It doesn’t match reality, true – but that is, apparently, a price they are willing to live with.

Reality not being, after all, a commodity they are much interested in dealing with.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure most of the holdouts will get past their bout of cognitive dissonance. You planted the seed - they will admit it to themselves later - when they can handle it. Every once in awhile, I think of a professor idea's (which I heard 20 years ago - I'm a slow learner) and I say, "ahhh!"

Anonymous said...

That was me, Dianna

Anonymous said...

So, just to clarify, one example of a worldview conflict might be claiming to embrace diversity while still steriotyping or "othering" groups to whom one does not hold membership, right? You know the sweeping generalities that lump all the "thems" together and mark any individual as just another member of "those people", e.g. "those homosexuals" or "those liberals" or "those African-Americans" or, oh yeah, even "those Christians". You know how THEY are, right? All the same...

zelda1 said...

I don't think saying "they" to a group of which a person doesn't belong is the same as having world conflict. Because, we are all not in the same groups and for one person to qualify a group they are not a member of by saying "they" only serves to seperate that group from another and not in a negative way. On the other hand, having extreme fundalmentalists who say, "abortion is wrong and those people who give or take abortions are going to hell" yet "those" same people see nothing wrong in taking birth control pills which as we all know are abortigents. Or another example is saying that you love your husband but give him really really fatty food when he already has heart disease. Actually, that one isn't a good example because knowing and believing are two different things. My point is, that world view conflict has more to do with beliefs than identifying a group with they or those even if you are a really cool person who tries really hard not to form opinions about people who are different than you, but you still have to qualify them with a pronoun. So those and they are really great ones to use!

delagar said...

Anonymous -- I'm not exactly following your point there, but I did say we all had worldview conflicts.

That set "all" would, then, include "me," yes.