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Who am I to Judge? Thinking Critically

by Rodney Heisler, 2000 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer

Language is basic to the very essence of what it means to be human. We use words and gestures to express ideas and emotions and to relate the stories of our lives. But language evolves and primary word meanings change as current usage reflects societal change. Some words are no longer available to express their "original" meaning because they now carry a new context which may retain very little of the old meaning. Is it possible that we have also lost the concepts previously expressed by those words, and has this impoverished our culture and weakened our educational process? Some educators diagnose a "dumbing down" of the educational experience. Could this be the result of lost meanings for words critical to discriminating thought and behavior?

Language is imperfect at best as it reflects more evolution than design. English is a good example of this. Two words may sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings. Like "there" and "their" or "hear" and "here." Some words have two or more contrary meanings, like "cite." It can be either good or bad to be cited, but it is always one or the other, not both. Then there is "site," which sounds the same but is spelled differently and has an entirely different meaning.

Sometimes a generation or a cause will change the context of a word and bend it to its own purpose with little or no objection from others who might like to use that word for its original meaning. I hear "cool" and "bad" used as adjectives, which may or may not be flattering, depending on who is using them.

Multiple-meaning words have been around for a long time. They have been used in writing to great effect. Take the word "fear," for example. In a Biblical context the word fear comes from two different Hebrew words meaning to be afraid or to tremble. In the New Testament the Greek word translated fear is "phobos," from which we get phobia. Two contrasting meanings are found extensively in Biblical texts. They can be illustrated by example. In Isaiah we read, "fear thou not, I am with thee." The context here is clearly fright. In Psalms we read, "they that fear Thee will be glad." The context here is reverence, respect and awe. While words with multiple meanings cause havoc with computer analysis or translation of text, the human mind quickly understands the intended meaning from the context.

When I was a beginning teacher at Walla Walla College, the chair of the English department said to me, "When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean." This frustrated me at the time because we were in the middle of an argument and I went from winning to losing with a quick change in word meaning! Definitions in science may be abstract but they don't shift on us in this way. As a young engineering teacher, I thought that each word had a meaning and it was our obligation to be aware of that meaning and use the word properly. I'm still reeling from President Clinton's defense against the charge of perjury with his infamous retort, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

Shakespeare could use the word "gay" and have it mean something joyous. In his play A Comedy of Errors, the suspicious and nagging Adriana, commenting on her husband's lateness for dinner, asks the rhetorical question, "Do their gay vestments his affection bait?" Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote those great lyrics, "I feel so gay in a melancholy way, that it might as well be spring." That was 1964, and the context of gay was only just beginning to change. In the year 2000, gay equates with homosexuality, and there is not a ready substitute for the "forgotten " meaning of gay. "Excitedly merry" comes close, but loses something poetically. How then shall we describe a gay disposition? I don't often have occasion to use the word "gay," but when I do, I'd like it to be there. I feel robbed by its present context.

Another word with evolving context is "discrimination." To be accused of "discriminating" is not usually a complement, but on the other hand, we would not like to be known as "indiscriminate."

I surmise there is a practical need for continually updating dictionaries to reflect the current usage of words. America has an insatiable appetite for new ideas, new products, and new life-styles and there is a necessity for words to describe them. Often we use the secondary meaning of an existing word, and over time, this new usage becomes the primary meaning. "Discrimination" is a good example.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), 1969, defines discrimination: "To distinguish (as objects, ideas, or qualities) by discerning or exposing their differences (discriminate good from evil ways). Distinguish accurately (as fact from fancy). To use discernment or good judgment."

By 1993, the definition of "discrimination" had shifted. While briefly retaining some of the positive sense of the word, the primary emphasis was now placed on the negative application, "to distinguish by class or category without regard to individual merit; show preference or prejudice." This change in emphasis was made to more accurately reflect current usage.

Another word that is commonly maligned in current usage but critical to scholarship is the word "critical." The most common usage is negative: "inclined to criticize severely and unfavorably; given to noticing faults and imperfections; hard to please." Less common usage comes at the end of the definition, "exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation; indispensable for the weathering, the solution, or the outcome of a crisis; essential." We do not generally want to be thought of as being critical, but it could be a compliment. In fact, it is an important skill in right thinking. Without criticism, there can be no true education or scholarship. Teachers are essential to the educational process as they instruct, mentor and exercise judicious evaluation, i.e., criticize student work.

Cultural and political climates infuse meaning to a word or phrase. Current thought will influence the context in which it is used. To a physical scientist the word relativity immediately conjures up Albert Einstein and his general theory of relativity. But to a social scientist the context is quite different, and different yet to a philosopher.

In modern cultural application, relativism is expressed as the relative nature of truth ("What's true for you is not necessarily true for me, but that's all right if it works for you"). Relativism is the theoretical basis for the practice of openness and acceptance. As used today, we mean something more than tolerance and understanding in the word acceptance. It is more like "I respect and accept your ideas, or your faith, or your lifestyle to be as valid as my own."

This kind of acceptance is a pervasive value in today's culture, especially among the young. It is pervasive in all forms of popular entertainment, and in social and business relationships.

"Openness" is another word whose meaning has evolved over the last few decades. To Christians and secularists alike, it once meant a willingness to search for knowledge and certitude by examining history, culture, and the physical and natural sciences. For the Christian, this would be done in light of inspired scripture.

By contrast, in modern American culture, openness is akin to indifference, giving justification to the notion that the individual should be whatever he wants to be ("I accept who you are. If you are going to do drugs please accept these vitamins and sterile syringes" or " if you are going to be sexually active, please help yourself to these condoms"). This has been the approach of most modern social programs, indifferent to value system or lifestyle, but caring for the individual. Moreover, this openness to other values, or even the lack of values, is considered by many to be the virtue of modern humanity. There is hardly a standard, other than not to disrupt the corporate good, or at least not too much.

We hardly notice the sexually explicit lyrics in popular music played as background in public offices. Words that I might wish to hear from my wife are not welcome lyrics in the company of my dentist. The "Hip Hop" culture and its medium of "Rap" have pushed the limits of acceptability for even the most open minded of us with its explicit promotion of violence and denigration of women. Nearly every TV sitcom makes us laugh at jokes or situations that would have made us blush only a generation ago. With the possible exception of PBS, and a very few other networks, nearly every TV network challenges the limits of our ability to be open minded and accepting; accepting of nearly naked models posing in Jockey underwear, accepting of explicit sexual jokes, accepting of instant and brief sexual relationships. Gay situations are the rage on TV sit-coms, and Victoria's Secret is not a secret anymore. What the hippie generation failed to sell mainstream America as "free love," commercial TV and the theater have marketed to us based on our new willingness to be open minded and accepting. There seems to be no limit as to how far post-modern society will go for a laugh or a sale.

In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom asserts that relativism is "the only virtue which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating." He further states that "the relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate."

Every educational system has a moral goal about which its curriculum is structured. For Christian institutions this goal is to inculcate Christian principles in the individual and to make each person an ambassador for the good. For Walla Walla College this goal is embodied in its mission statement, a document agreed upon by the faculty, the staff, and the Board of Trustees. For public institutions, mission statements are generally noble in nature and consistently include words like "the university strives to prepare students to be thinkers and leaders and productive members of society." But that aside, the underlying value taught by general studies faculty at most universities is relativism or acceptance of other people and their ideas as being of equal value to our own. Western values are not superior to Asian values. Christianity is no more noble or valid than Islam. We should look for the good in other cultures and religions so that we might adopt it as our own. This has a good ring to it because we have become more accepting; accepting, as opposed to understanding and tolerant. But then, tolerance is another word that is under evolutionary attack. I refer here to the old meaning of tolerance were we can disagree on an issue but still respect one another, as opposed to what is currently described as the "new tolerance," which is akin to acceptance.

In most countries, higher education is an honor earned by hard work and good grades. In some cases, entrance to college is granted based on political, social or economic position. I'm happy to live in a country where access to a college education is an assumed right of all without regard to race, status, or religion. Unfortunately, many institutions have tacitly added to this list "without regard to ability or performance in secondary school." As a result, many colleges are teaching high-school level and, in some cases, junior-high level subjects. These include arithmetic (fractions, percentages, area and volume, etc.), algebra, geometry, and remedial reading and writing. In some cases, these courses are granted college credit. We can't send these students back to high school because they are already graduated, so we repeat these subjects at greater cost financially and greater cost to the academic program. Normally prepared students appear as standouts. The result is grade inflation.

As if this were not problematic enough, most universities have diluted their general education requirements as a concession to the new relativism. Gone are requirements for classic literature, history and philosophy (particularly that philosophy that would expose students to the issue of reason versus revelation that one would get from a reading of Descartes and Pascal). General education has, in many cases, become a smorgasbord of courses chosen by students based on ease of completion so that time can be spent on more important courses in the major for which there is a ready market in the world of work.

An organization promoting liberal education recently gave an American History exam to a group of 556 randomly selected university seniors from 55 institutions, including most of the Ivy League schools. The average score on this 34-question multiple-choice exam was a failing 53 percent. One student amazingly got them all right. The questions were generally described as high-school level. Many questions could be answered with an intelligent guess, for example, placing the civil war in the correct half century. It is no coincidence that none of the universities and colleges represented in the study required a course in American History. The two highest scores were on contemporary questions that required one to know that Beavis and Butthead are television cartoon characters and Snoop Doggy Dog is a rap singer. The scores on these two questions were 98 and 99 percent, respectively.

As a member of the engineering faculty, I believe in the importance of higher education in preparing students for professional careers. But part of that preparation must include a core of liberal arts courses, including religion, to provide a moral basis to prompt how we live and work. These courses should be taught at sufficient depth to do justice to the topics, to make us part of the very essence of the thought and discussion. We cannot concede general education requirements to ease, or to causes, or for that matter to "turf battles." Within the context of history, literature, philosophy, religion, and science we must be inclusive of the contributions of men and women of all races. It should not be necessary to take a course in Black Studies in order to learn of the many contributions of African Americans, else most of us would not learn of them. Furthermore, by relegating these topics to separate courses, we unintentionally diminish their importance and remove them from the mainstream of history. Likewise, we cannot discard Dickens from our literature courses because he was a racist or rewrite the Bible in non-sexist language if it is not inherent in the text. To do so would be to rewrite history and blind us to the historical and cultural context of the writings.

We who participate in Christian education are fortunate to have a great Book of inspired writers to prompt our endeavors. While our students may have limited exposure to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, they are influenced by the writings of Abraham (an Old Testament Jew), and Paul and John (New Testament Christians). This is something with which to guide our lives. I am not suggesting that we should not require the study of other great secular and religious writers. On the contrary, to my thinking it is a shame that we have such limited access to these studies in our requirements. One of our sister colleges has a course called Great Books. It seems to me that this would be a wonderful way to include great classical and contemporary works in our curriculum. Our religious training embellishes our lives with important traditions, but this "is not the only means to furnish our minds." (Bloom, 60) Other works can inform and enlighten us on subjects not the exclusive domain of religion.

At every level of the SDA educational system, with the possible exception of graduate programs, religion courses are required. Unfortunately, quantity of religious training does not imply advanced understanding or piety. Sometimes the opposite is true. Much of our religious studies could be classified as devotional or apologetic. This does not lead to a deep understanding of God's working in the world. Much of our worship is mere religious entertainment and requires little intellectual involvement. Attention is almost too much to expect. So much religious discussion centers on the question, "what do you think?" What I think is worthy of consideration only to the extent that my opinion is informed. Through elementary school, high school and college the most required courses are in the areas of religion, English and mathematics. In each case, there is scant evidence that we have succeeded beyond the most basic level. We assume too little of our students in these important subjects.

Occasionally, I have opportunity to hear students in a group setting talking about their classes. May I tell you what some of our good students say in these sessions? A June graduate recently told of his experience on a writing assignment. He admitted that he had procrastinated on the assignment and wrote a terrible paper the night before it was due. He turned it in with feelings of guilt and was not surprised at the teacher's comments to the class when the papers were returned. The teacher scolded the class with the comment that these papers were the worst examples of writing he had ever received from a college class. Can you imagine this student's shock when he saw an "A" grade on his paper? He could only guess what the other papers were like. He told the group that this level of work would never have passed at the high school he attended. Another student told of a class where no one opened the textbook, there was no need to. Day after day the teacher lectured right out of the book and told the students what would be on the exams. This comment brought a lot of concurrence from others in the group, because they had had similar experiences. I don't know how common such experiences are. I do know that we have some very fine students because I have the honor of teaching them. I also know that we have many fine teachers, because students tell stories on them as well, and with a great deal of affection and pride.

Educational horror stories abound at other universities as well. We are not unique. A young woman I know well was critical of poor writers when she worked in the writing center on this campus, but after she transferred to the University of Washington she took a course in marine fisheries to avoid a science class, and logic to avoid a math class. Did she have a good exposure to math and science? Of course not, she took these courses specifically to avoid math and science because she was "challenged" in these areas.

Among my advisees I regularly hear comments about the irrelevance of general education requirements. Such courses, they claim, detract from technical requirements that are more pertinent to their engineering careers. My friends in the humanities will be relieved to know that I have a standard sermon for these students. Similarly, I hope my colleagues in the liberal arts have a ready response for their students who malign math, science and engineering and the students who study these subjects, a response that calls for respect and understanding. Liberal education should include math and science at a level commensurate to our expectations in history and literature. Thinking back to that American History exam earlier, how would those same students have performed on a test covering math and science? Not better, I'm certain, and probably a lot worse. If there has been a "softening" of requirements in the liberal arts, the situation is no better for math and science. I refer here not to Calculus, but to high-school level math and science. Periodically, we hear from the media how poorly American students compare on standardized math and science tests with students from other developed nations. I have no difficulty believing this, seeing how avidly students try to avoid serious contact with these subjects.

We can test this assertion with a quick math quiz of this college-educated audience. Here are ten simple questions that cover only through ninth grade math. Ten questions will make it easy to keep track of your score, but I won't ask you to reveal it. Are you ready? Ok, here we go:

* What is the square root of 144?
* What is the equation of a circle of radius r?
* What is the definition of a prime number?
* What are the roots of the quadratic equation
* Pi is the ratio of what two geometric dimensions.
* If an item is reduced in price from $50 to $30, what is the percent saving?
* If floor covering cost $2.00 per square foot, what is the price per square yard?
* 100 km/hr is equivalent to what speed in miles/hr?
* What is the decimal equivalent of 2/3?
* Express the number 1000 in scientific notation.

How did you do? Most of us don't like this kind of stuff. How important is it, anyway? We cope quite adequately without it. I expect that many go through life just fine having failed this quiz. And similarly, we may do quite well not knowing a single line of Shakespeare. But how well, and with what quality?

A sign on a coke machine tells us not to attempt to get a free can of pop by tipping the dispensing machine, as this "may result in injury or death." Presumably, without this sign Coca Cola would be liable for both compensatory and punitive damages resulting from injury to someone attempting to defraud the vendor. Does this stretch the limits of credibility? Do you remember the million-dollar jury award to a woman burned by spilled coffee from a cup she placed between her legs as she drove away from the drive-up window at a McDonald's restaurant? A sign on a ferryboat tells us that the item on the wall next to it is an ax. The sign is, of course, an international sign, which means that it is an abstract drawing of a hatchet! It does seem that if we could recognize the sign as an ax we might also recognize the ax for what it is! Both signs are complying with the law, but what level of intelligence is being assumed of the most educated nation in the world?

To participate in the basic knowledge of life does not require a college degree. It does require an inquisitive and observing mind. College should do no less than promote and hone these attributes. College is the place to develop critical thinking skills, to analyze and question, to be creative, to understand events in the context of the whole, to develop descriptive language skills, and last, but not least, to develop a passion for quality work.

The world seems to be moving towards a least common denominator expectation of its citizens. Could this be true at Walla Walla College? Do we accept ideas, behaviors, or performances at a substandard level on the assumption that it is our students' best effort? Are we loath to give or receive criticism? This, after all, is a haven for our young people, where we shelter them from the influences and dangers of the "world." Do we also shelter our students from bad grades? Last fall quarter, over half of the grades given by this faculty were A's. Some departments awarded more than 75 percent A's, while the least cooperative department in promoting grade inflation favored only 28 percent of its students with A's. Can we assume from this that the department that gave the most A grades had brighter students than the one who granted the least?

I fear that we may also expect too little of our faculty. We should expect organization and thoughtful, up-to-date content in every lecture. We should expect the faculty to challenge their students to learn abstract concepts and to rewrite papers for content and form. Do we need to be told that it is important to know the bulletin requirements for our majors and for general education? Do we need to be told that it is important to return graded student work promptly? Do we need to be told that scholarship and writing are essential parts of an academic career? Do we need to be told not to tip the coke machine?

I don't know of a single case where a faculty on this campus has not been promoted to the rank of professor for lack of scholarship. I'm not saying we don't have good teachers at this college. Likewise, we have some very fine scholarship happening here. But these are not apparent expectations, nor are they rewarded. Faculty are remunerated based, not on merit, but on degrees and years of service. The good and the bad get basically the same paycheck. The salary itself reflects a low expectation. A full professor on this campus is paid about $10,000 per year less than a non-union truck driver. After a few years at this salary, a teacher subconsciously comes to believe that this is what he is worth.

Recently I was discussing teaching loads with an engineering professor from Germany (that part of Germany previously known as East Germany). She shared with me that her teaching load for this term is six hours of lecturing, and for the second term, she has nine hours of lab supervision. I told her that this was exactly my teaching load for one term! I further shared with her the comment of one constituent who, after adding this up to 15 hours, asked what I did with the rest of my time. "Research," she all but screamed. At this point I felt guilt creeping into my mind, because it's been a long time since I had the luxury of research time. I have become content to ignore this responsibility to myself and to my profession. It was at this point that I both wondered and worried about my teaching colleagues at the college. Hence, the short questionnaire you got from me last month. Here is what I learned about us from your responses, and I emphasize that these numbers are self-reported.

The average workweek for a teacher at Walla Walla College is about 52 hours. The numbers range from a low of 27 to a high of 80. The 52-hour week is broken down between our various responsibilities thusly:
Class and laboratory preparation 14 hrs or 26%
In class lecturing 12 hrs or 24%
or
In laboratories teaching or supervising 
Advising and helping students 6 hrs or 13%
or
Other forms of student supervision and evaluation 
Grading papers and exams 7 hrs or 13%
On committee assignments 7 hrs or 13%
or
Other administrative responsibilities 
Scholarship in discipline to 
Enhance our knowledge (not including reading class texts) 3 hrs or 6%
Advance the profession through research and writing 2 hrs or 4%

Summarizing this table, roughly 75 percent of our time (or 40 hours/week) is spent on the direct aspects of teaching. Thirteen percent (or 7 hours/week) goes to administrative tasks (remember, this data includes chairs and deans). Lastly, what is left over, or 10 percent, is applied to all forms of scholarship other than reading the textbooks for the classes we teach. The amount of time reported for scholarship is greatly buoyed up by the research efforts of three individuals. If we remove them from the data, the average drops dramatically. Many faculty reported no time devoted to scholarship.

Several conclusions are apparent from this data. The most obvious is that we work too much. We should better model our Christian responsibility by spending more time with our families and in nourishing our souls. Professionally, the most significant observation is that we are not spending nearly enough time at scholarly activities to fulfill our responsibility to stay current in our discipline or research area. This raises questions about the value of a research degree for teaching in this setting, if we are not going to continue using this professional skill. Our performance in this area, if not our expectation, is more consistent with a community college than with a university. This makes us full-time teachers, not professionals. Professionals nourish and enhance their knowledge through continued study.

I challenge all of us who love and care about Walla Walla College as an educational institution to achieve our potential as a scholarly community. This is not to diminish our role as a Christian community. Speaking to the Board of Trustees; you have a responsibility to staff this faculty with the best, and to provide the substance for them to support their families and to grow professionally as scholars. In the next ten years nearly 40 percent of this faculty will retire, including me. This is in addition to the normal yearly turnover. How will you replace us? The present generation has very different expectations for remuneration and work assignment. Several strategically important programs are or will be in jeopardy unless something is done to improve the salary scale and to provide, not just opportunity, but an expectation of scholarship. Faculty salaries cannot continue to be a discretionary item in the budget. Your presence on this board is your badge of commitment to do what is best for this institution.

Speaking to my colleagues on the faculty, I know you feel a deep commitment to your students, so do I. But we must accept an increased commitment to our professions, whether we be an engineer or a poet. Under the present circumstances, this is very difficult because there is neither time nor incentive. But I'm prophesying that, just as the retirement program has changed for all of us, so too will the expectation for scholarship. It must if this college is to thrive as a university into the next century. It may not happen in the next five years, but it will happen during the careers of many of you, and you may feel betrayed by this new requirement just as many faculty did recently at La Sierra University. Finding time and opportunity for scholarship will likely require compromises with other responsibilities, but if you do not expect to retire in the next ten years, you had better find a way. A careful look at the data suggests that, with the exception of the three "superstars," young faculty spend less time in scholarship than the group about to retire. This is not encouraging. I had hoped that it would be the other way around.

Back, now, to definitions and to the less common usage of discrimination? "to distinguish (as objects, ideas, or qualities) by discerning or exposing their differences (as good from evil ways): distinguish accurately as between fact and fancy: to use discernment or good judgement." And the less common usage of criticize? "exercise careful judgment or judicious evaluation."

It may not be culturally correct, in current usage, to "discriminate" and "criticize," but this is our responsibility as scholars and teachers. We had better not lose the capacity to discern between good and bad scholarship. We had better not lose the capacity to evaluate judiciously our own performance, and the work of our students. We have a responsibility to nurture excellence in ourselves and our students. We don't do that by giving cheap A's or unwarranted accolades. We don't do it with "turf battles" over general education requirements or by "watering down" this component of our program. I challenge us to be discerning about our responsibilities both to our students and to our professions. This is ultimately best for us as teacher-scholars and for Walla Walla College.

From inauspicious beginnings in 1892, Walla Walla College has had a great history of serving the educational needs of Adventists in the Pacific Northwest. But our mission is not over, and the challenges of the future are greater than the accomplishments of the past. More is required of an institution of higher learning today. Teaching is not enough. We must also participate in the development of that knowledge we teach. By God's grace, we will make this institution a university that models His highest ideals of honest inquiry. We will honor His expectation to be "thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men's thoughts," and we will teach our students to do likewise. Pray that God will give us the passion for discriminating thought and action, and that He will enlighten our trustees, as they meet tomorrow, to find ways to enable this institution to meet its professional responsibilities in both teaching and scholarship.

About the Author

Dr. Rodney Heisler began teaching in the WWC School of Engineering in 1970. During his 30-year tenure, he also served as vice president for academic administration from 1983 to 1986 and Dean of the School of Engineering from 1987 to 1997.

His professional highlights include six research appointments with NASA and the Naval Research Laboratories and three major grant proposals as well as personal contacts to raise funds for the new Chan Shun Pavilion. In 1998, he received the Zapara Award for Teaching Excellence and the Outstanding Engineering Teacher Award. In addition to teaching, he serves as an accreditation evaluator for the Commission on Colleges of the Northwestern Association of Schools and Colleges. He also evaluates grant proposals on occasion for a major Northwest charitable trust.

Rod graduated from WWC with a bachelor of science in engineering in 1965. Afterwards he went to Washington State University where he completed a master of science in electrical engineering in 1967 and a doctor of philosophy in engineering science in 1970.

Rod and his wife Liz have three children. Donald, a graduate of the University of Washington, lives in Seattle where he works as senior manager for the public accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche. Jon and his wife Nicole are both WWC grads and live in Cleveland, Ohio, where he is a pilot for Continental Airlines and she is a professional civil engineer. Their youngest, Tamara, currently a sophomore business major at WWC, recently returned from student mission service in Palau.

Rod, with Tamara as his crew, spends a month each summer commercial fishing in Alaska. He also enjoys lake and stream fishing and hunting for fossils.

Last update on May 27, 2015