Dogmatism: To what extent are we trapped within mental boxes?

Leading thinkers in multiple academic disciplines have argued that dogmatism (rigid, narrow-minded, shortsighted, superficial thinking) is at least partially responsible for some of our most serious problems (e.g., rigid adherence to a particular inquiry paradigm or theory; unscrupulous exploitation of others; favoritism of our own identity group to the extent that we will tolerate or even participate in ethnic conflict and genocide; to name just a few).

In addition, some leading thinkers have said that a high level of intelligence does not make one immune to dogmatic insularity. To what extent are faculty at our university responsible for combating dogmatism? To what extent are we prone to it ourselves?


Can academics help society deal with "macroproblems"?


Here's another reason to combat academic dogmatism. I've recently written about “macroproblems,” which are high-impact, global, long-term, transdisciplinary difficulties that can harm or even devastate the lives of billions around the world. They are global because they span international boundaries and cannot be solved from within the borders of a single nation. They are long term because they derive from dogmatic thinking, neglect, and often corruption over years, decades, or even centuries and, consequently, will take long periods of time to solve. They are transdisciplinary because no single discipline encompasses sufficient expertise to address them fully so their solution will require collaboration across disciplines. Examples of macroproblems include climate change; looming resource shortages; the erosion of democracy; and severe inequality in a globalized economy. Is it reasonable to expect academics in various disciplines to concern themselves with macroproblems? Is it reasonable to expect them to combat the dogmatism of disciplinary insularity in attempts to establish the interdisciplinary collaboration necessary to understand macroproblems? Or, are macroproblem simply too large for us to address?

Re: Research agendas

Building on Trevor's post, I think there are some real challenges, but also opportunities, with interdisciplinary research, particularly at smaller universities.  Since faculty at predominately teaching universities have generally less time for research, it becomes all the more important to focus on a particular research path that will lead to a high probability of publications prior to tenure.  If one pursues interdisciplinary research, then you may find yourself tackling projects that are less well defined or potentially less coherent as a scholarly body.  However, this path also can lead to some creative insights that benefit both teaching and research.  In the classroom, an interdisciplinary scholar becomes a better resource and instructor for undergraduate students because one has a greater command of multiple disciplines.  Thus, one may be able to more effectively teach a broader range of courses.  In research, the ability to see a broader picture encompassing multiple disciplines enables one to apply insights from one field that may not have been fully recognized in another.  In some ways, faculty at smaller universities are better positioned to make those insights because we are more likely to be interacting with faculty outside our immediate subject areas.  I don't know Trevor's research in detail, but I like how you're combining organizational behavior and mental health counseling.  Sounds like that could lead to some creative research.

Are We Prone to Dogmatism?

Most academics have, at some point in their educational careers, been exposed to what might be called a broad liberal education. However, in order to advance in their fields, they were encouraged, perhaps required, to specialize—in many cases, profoundly so.  So, to rephrase Don’s question: Does profound specialization make one prone to dogmatism? I suspect that most people would answer that question in the affirmative. Would specialists agree? I am less confident of the answer to that question.

Profound specialization

I share your lack of confidence Tim. A few hundred years ago Renaissance scholars existed because the limited knowledge bases of their "disciplines" allowed them to think broadly. Later, the exponential growth of knowledge made it much more difficult to work in transdisciplinary ways. But maybe there is room for specialists AND global thinkers? Maybe we NEED both? Maybe we need to find ways for leaders in disciplines to value interdisciplinary exploration instead of just rewarding hyper-specialists? This likely will be easier in some disciplines than in others. Some time ago, an interesting edited book showed some ways in which the structure and dynamics of academic disciplines can differ. Some disciplines are "unified, insular, and firmly policed" while others are "fragmented, porous, and contested." An insular discipline punishes anyone who tries to borrow ideas from outside disciplines. Reference – Bender, T., & Schorske, C. E. (Eds.). (1997). American academic culture in transformation: Fifty years, four disciplines. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dogmatism and False Dichotomies

I think dogmatism can be fueled by false dichotomies.  Problems often are approached unnecessarily as "either/or" scenarios.  As a result, positions are defended against the “other” leading to entrenched beliefs, cyclical argumentation, and intellectual paralysis.  Faculty should encourage students to search for “both/and” solutions when possible.  Even if those shades of gray are not discovered/created, the process itself can be tremendously valuable for developing deep and rich understanding.  

Tackling false dichotomies

Thanks for the great insights Jonathan. I think the problem of false dichotomy is a good friend of dogmatism and an archenemy of higher-order thinking. There is a teaching strategy that can help students break free of dogmatic, either-or thinking. Known as the “jurisprudential” model (inspired by an idealistic vision of the legal profession), it operates as follows: An instructor confronts a class with a controversial issue and some exploration of the issue ensues. Students determine two opposing positions on the issue. They give position A a name and put it in the left-hand column of a 3-column table. Evidence and arguments in support of position A go in that column under the name. They do the same for position B in column 3. The creative part is establishing position C, which goes in the middle column. Position C has to be a compromise between A and B. It cannot grossly violate either A or B but can lean somewhat toward one or the other. The middle column is filled in the same way as the two side columns, with the name of position C at the top and arguments and evidence in support of position C underneath. That's one way to attack this form of dogmatism. Likely are others. Thanks again.

Research agendas

This is a very interesting topic, Don, particularly as we are considering revisions to the Grad Ed. departmental criteria for P&T. Our criteria for promotion speak to the importance of a "coherent scholarly agenda." It made me wonder about the extent to which professors can engage in interdisciplinary work and, at the same time, articulate a "coherent agenda." In my own work, I've applied constructs from organizational behavior to an ongoing line of research in mental health counseling. That might be one way to put the two together, but other interdiscliplinary work could lead in a new and different direction.

Thanks for the insightful

Thanks for the insightful comments Trevor, Jonathan. The issue of a “coherent scholarly agenda” certainly has plenty of room for interpretation and it can be damaging if a narrow conception ends up handcuffing a promising new faculty member. This needs further exploration. Tim's comment about specialization are on target. A related question – "Isn't there room for both narrow specialists who drill deep holes into single knotholes in a single tree? (aworthy endeavor), and for panoramic thinkers who back away from a single tree to look at the forest, and possibly multiple forests? (an equally worthy endeavor). 

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