Brainwashing and the Liberal Arts
Musings of a post-Trump era
In my sophomore year of college, my Roman History professor posed the following question:
According to the diplomatic approach of Polybius, were the Carthaginians justified in initiating the Second Punic War?
The catch: respond in one-page, double-spaced.
Our professor kindly assured us that the page limit would be no easy feat. He was right. I could not write a succinct response without a deep understanding of the text. So I read and re-read, picking apart Polybius’s words in search of a yes or no answer.
I could not find one. Perhaps Polybius was as diplomatic in his answer as he had been in his approach. Based on this theory, I decided that whether the Carthaginians were justified depended on who had ultimately caused the war. (The Romans believed the Carthaginians caused the war, the Carthaginians believed the Romans caused it.) In other words, I thought Polybius had left it up to interpretation and this was a trick question.
So I argued my paper based on this hypothesis. I spent more time on this one page essay than I had on 4-5 page essays. I followed my professor’s grammatical guidelines and edited everything down to a page (yes, he gave us a grammatical guidelines handout.) I was very happy with the paper I handed in.
I’m sure you can guess the result. My answer was wrong. My professor’s grade was, of course, diplomatic: 89%.
An 89?! How could my answer have been wrong? I had worked so hard! I still received a very good grade, but I overlooked that because I was so sure I was right.
My professor’s critique pointed to a specific section of the text for me to re-read. I re-read it and was not convinced. I went to his office hours.
Suddenly, in the middle of his explanation I realized he was right. Even worse, my paper hadn’t really answered the question. I was embarrassed.
We’ve all been in this boat before: we’re in a heated argument, maybe with a sibling or a parent, and suddenly our logic gets turned on its head. We can all relate to the embarrassment of losing an argument.
What happens when we argue about politics? For some reason, humility gets thrown out the window. We approach these arguments with outrage that the other person is blind to our sound facts and logic. Indeed, the political arguments I’ve entertained on Facebook never end well. They usually dissolve into name-calling or the dismissive “I’ll never believe you, so leave me alone.” I’m often told that I went to a brainwashing school.
Unlike the other Fox News taunts, like “snowflake,” “sheep” or “demon rats,” “brainwashed” confounds me. Is the brainwashing in reference to my school’s academics, or my school’s community?
Let’s suppose it’s in reference to academics. I was a Classics major. The most challenging (and most rewarding) courses I took were always in the Classics department. The Roman History class I mentioned above was one of the most difficult classes I’d ever taken, but also one of my favorites. I learned a great deal about hard work and how to analyze sophisticated texts. (Although, I never did well during a cold-call. My brain would freeze. But that’s another story.) If anything, the courses I took in college taught me to challenge what I already knew and to look for deeper meaning. I learned to be critical.
Let’s suppose it’s in reference to community. The college I attended is small and relatively far from any major city. People of color make up roughly 18 percent of the student body. In comparison to the diversity scores of other schools, my school’s diversity score is slightly above the national average, but it isn’t great. I believe this limits how much a student can learn from her peers, given that most of her peers will be white.
Still, my peers challenged me to listen to new perspectives. Before college, I didn’t know the difference between sex and gender. It was the first time I used they/them pronouns on a daily basis. Without even realizing it myself, my friends had checked my privilege.
What was the motivation for change? I was not only learning a new perspective, but immersing myself in that new perspective. I developed friendships with people who did not identify as male or female. They were cool. They were kind. They were good friends. They treated me with respect. Respecting their pronouns was the least I could do. Embracing them was better. And I wanted to embrace them, because I wanted to maintain those friendships. A new environment improved my way of thinking.
Does embracing a new perspective count as brainwashing? Maybe, if it becomes your only perspective. It’s more likely that it will enrich your life. How can we be critical thinkers if we accept just one perspective—the one that agrees with what we already know? How can we evolve if we do not challenge our notions of right and wrong?
It is difficult to embrace perspectives that go against our belief systems. It is difficult to acknowledge implicit biases because they expose something dirty. No one ever wants to seem biased or uneducated or wrong. It’s embarrassing.
However, if we want to be critical thinkers, we must be open-minded. Sometimes, we have to accept the embarrassment and move forward. The most dangerous perspective is the one that tells you everyone else is lying.
It is up to each and every one of us to learn as much as we can and think critically about the information we learn. Are you constantly surrounded by like-minded thinkers? Are you listening to only one perspective? It might be time for a new environment.
As my Roman History assignment proved, sometimes the truth is embarrassing. It reveals the facts we’ve overlooked. Sometimes the truth requires more work.
It’s still worth your time.
About the author
Writer with words in Woman's World & The List. Favorite books? Smoke and Mirrors (Neil Gaiman), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Wild (Cheryl Strayed). Favorite non-writing activity? Singing to her dog Eva in the hopes that she'll howl along.