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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rejuvenating Higher Education Institutions as Places of Greater Thought Through Student Confidence

Students don't always come into college confident of themselves, the material, or their abilities. Nevertheless, they may have something important to say even if they don't feel confident in saying it. Empowering students to take control over their academic learning experience and personalizing it to themself is important. There are some things that professors should never never do in the learning process and that includes brow beating opinions they disagree with.

Decades ago I was taking an experimental psychology course in graduate school. We were at a round table with the professor discussing issues as they relate to genetic enhancement and adjustment. Most of the conversation was around how we are now capable of impacting the genetic abilities of some people and fix some of the diseases that people suffer from.

We then began to discuss the issue of ethical and legal concerns of doing so a thought popped into my head. The professor, a polished psychologist, was adamantly advocating that ethics and morality have no place in science. I raised my hand because I saw a different point of view on the topic. She called on me to talk for a moment.

I cleared my throat and said, "I agree that it is helpful and important to change those genetic deficiencies that cause people to suffer but I'm not sure it is wise to change the genetics that don't live and die with the person receiving treatment." You can tell by her changed tone she didn't like what I said but in an attempt to "pretend" to be egalitarian she asked me to explain.

Collecting my thoughts, I stated that a few generations, or even hundreds of years down the road, we don't know the full impact of these genetic changes on the species. That as we breed and have hundreds of grand and great grand children these implanted genetic changes may cause additional problems down the road as our environment changes. There isn't a way to tell what would happen so we should not run hastily into making changes to DNA that could be passed on.

Most of the table started to agree with my beliefs but the professor seemed to get visible upset and began to be more confrontational in her discussion. The tone and demeanor switched from an open dialogue to an intellectual assault. She then challenged me further stating, "Do you have any idea what your saying, do you have any facts to support your arguments or are you just talking to talk.".

In retort, I responded that no one has facts because it hasn't happened yet. She doesn't have facts either. We can't contain everything in science and we can't control all the variables. So what I am saying is a legitimate concern. We don't know if people will die more from health issue because of the long-term genetic changes we make today, or they will turn out purple, lose pigment, or die of diabetes because we changed something today.

There is wisdom in natural selection and if we don't know the long term consequences then we should be careful about making inter-generational decisions that could impact the lives of people later on. Sure...lets make changes that solve a problem for this person but lets not make genetic changes for the next 10 generations. Genetic science was still in its infancy and it is still underdeveloped.

Because most of the students wanted an A, and view a professor as a authority figure, their viewpoints switched back to supporting the arguments of the professor. Yet, now as a professor, I realize how wrong she was and that the concerns I raised then are part of our current discussion and will likely be part of future discussion on inter-generational genetic enhancements. I walked away from that class thinking I said something terrible, but now I realized I was right for saying so.

Universities should be about empowerment people and helping students come to their own conclusions. Questions are for drawing out greater depth in knowledge but not about forcing people to adhere to a particular dogma for fear of getting a poor grade. That is called "group think" and is part of why we sometimes fail to solve important problems. Raising confidence in students and providing a solid learning environment is helpful in developing fully functional people. That lesson has taught me how even "educated" people can be limited in their thinking. Piling more layers of regurgitated information on an already warped mindset only helps people confirm a false sense of superiority. It isn't about the professor or their viewpoints. It is about the students. Bringing back higher education into a open dialogue where great ideas are pondered is part of the solution of saving higher education from becoming irrelevant as a place where higher thinking occurs.

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