The Null Hypothesis

The students ask the questions on Tuesdays in my freshmen honors seminar. I split the class into groups and each group has a day when it's responsible for posing questions for the rest of us to gnaw on. There are a few ground rules for this exercise, too. First, the person asking the question is not allowed to speak during the following discussion unless its in the form of another question. Second, all questions must be text-focused.

In other words, they must lead us back into the text to construct a good answer. It is perfectly permissible, for example, to ask a question like this: "On page 63 Aristotle says we enter the world with an equal potential for realizing our full potential for human excellence. What reasons does he offer to support this view and how does he differ from Plato in this respect?" I discourage questions like "What would Aristotle say to B.F. Skinner?" or "Do you agree with Aristotle that people form their character through habit?" Interesting as these questions are, they don't help us to make sense of the text sitting in front of us.

As you might imagine, there can be some sleepy fumbling around with the book and a lot of long pauses after a question is asked, and sometimes a student's question is so ill-formed that it takes us down the wrong path. I find, however, that if I can keep my yap shut, the students will eventually stumble toward a deeper and more accurate understanding. Sometimes, too, students will ask questions that are more profound than they realize.

Yesterday, for instance, a student asked about an early section in the Nichomachean Ethics where Aristotle notes that it makes a difference if we are arguing from or to first principles. His subject in the Nichomachean Ethics is an examination of what makes a good human being, and he wants to make it clear that his approach will be to look at observable human behavior and see where the evidence leads him. The exact line in the text is this:

Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to first principles. For Plato also was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, "Are we on the way from or to the first principles?"
Yes indeedy-oh, there's a difference, a great big fat one. Are we starting with the first principle that human beings are good, rational, made in the image of God, here for a reason, top of the pops and cream of the crop on this divinely-ordained terrestrial plain? And is our next step casting about for whatever confirmatory evidence is at hand? Or shall we go another route, start from null, assume nothing and just see where a careful examination of human behavior takes us? No preconceptions, just a hard, clear-eyed, gut-sucking look at human beings as we find them and not how we assume them to be?

Now I don't expect that the student who asked about this passage had any idea what a landmine she had stepped on, but she will by the seminar's end because almost every first principle assumption that my students made in their initial position papers on human nature will be challenged by the authors we'll read in the next few weeks. We are about to move beyond a lot of residual medieval notons about human nature and smack dab into problematic modernity. Very soon the intellectual action will switch from the deduction of particulars to a single, all-encompassing truth to that unsettling induction from particulars.

And that's the thing about freshmen honors seminar. It always starts well, but along the way some first principles about human nature come in for some pretty rough handling. I actually feel a sense of dread in my stomach early on in the course, especially when a student throws out a question like the one yesterday. They just don't know what's coming.

But I do.


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