A tale of two candidates

A tale of two candidates

I have been an examiner for a number of doctoral dissertations and the pattern is pretty standard:

The academic candidate presents an idea, a thesis, that they seek to prove. Your job is to test them as to whether they have employed strict logic throughout, fully understood and interacted with all the key literature on the subject and been respectful and fair to those with whom they disagree. In their original contribution to the area, they must have been careful and accurate in use of evidence after properly assessing its value, accepting its complexity and not claiming an inch more than they can beyond reasonable doubt.

It is also your job to question them closely as to weak points – where they don’t match up to these standards – and the candidate cannot change the subject or try to divert your question but answer fully and truthfully in a carefully nuanced way, not with soundbites or emotion.

I also read the papers, listen to the radio and watch the TV, as political candidates present themselves. Again, the pattern is pretty standard. The political candidate often conducts him or herself as follows:

They present an idea, but rarely seek to prove it. They give a few emotional soundbites, often ignore evidence which is out there and regularly are as economical with the truth as they can get away with. A trick they sometimes employ is to create “enemies” they can unfairly attack. Their sources are occasionally the most scurrilous newspapers or TV channels. Often, they push a small truth too far and deliberately ignore a competing big truth in the presentation of their idea. Sometimes, they appeal to the prejudices of their listeners not their thinking and so re-enforce those prejudices.

Questioning them effectively is not possible since they have been trained in how not to answer questions, but rather deflect them on to ground where they are more comfortable. Of course, there are honest political candidates seeking to be fair and right in their writing and speeches, but, even for them, the system seems to include these practices in their job description. Like you, I guess, I would love to get the worst offenders into a viva voce examination room in the university and question them under proper academic rules!

Now there are also real weaknesses in the academic system, it can become a game, even a support for wrong. Academics are as sinful as everyone else. As Anthony Beevor points out in his recent book on the second World war, at the January 1942 Wannsee conference in Germany called by Heydrich to plan the extermination of the Jews, “just over half of the participants had doctorates” (Beevor 2012, 294).

However, the academic enterprise as a desire to seek fairness and truth rather than simply advantage for self, to use the mind God gave us in a correct, careful and honest way, all this is a fairer reflection of the world as God wants it to be than much of the political debate of today.

Our job as theological educators? To teach to our students right, careful academic method in the study and presentation of ideas as a recognition that God is concerned about truth, fairness, justice, and a correct understanding of reality. And remind them that these can be the starting points for understanding grace.

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3 Comments on “A tale of two candidates”

  1. austamassocs Says:

    Well said, Graham! So true…. Pat Harrison

    ________________________________A widespread Yahoo breach years ago means spam emails using my name & weird addresses still sometimes go in batches to my contacts, as address lists are sold on. Sorry I can’t prevent this, but the security of  our correspondence is not affected. The fake emails should do no harm if you delete them & never click on the links!  I never send emails with unexplained links or sob stories begging for money! My personal email addresses don’t contain my name in any form. If unsure about an attachment, just check with me before opening it.

  2. Drew Gibson Says:

    I’m with you on this, Graham, with one nuance perhaps. Is it appropriate to present truth holistically, addressing our emotions as well as our minds? Some information ought to make us angry or joyful but are any of us always sensitively alert enough to respond appropriately without some help? You are right about the two different styles but the simple truth is that the politicians’ approach works. I am by no means suggesting that we stoop to the level of evasion, half truths and outright lies, but soundbites can be helpful and graphic word pictures can be educational because they touch our emotions and act with more than cool detached logic.

    It’s interesting that the prophet Nathan told King David a wee story that made him angry rather than expounding the appropriate parts of the Law.

    • Hi Drew, yes, agreed. Applying the rules of a doctoral viva to preaching for instance would be a disaster where we need carefulness with the truth spoken with due emotion, drama and narrative skill.

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