Deference is not a gift

November 25, 2021 09:01
Photo: Reuters

I’ve worked with aplenty of students across debating and public speaking – but also for interview practice and higher education preparation. With Oxbridge interviews season coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my personal reflections on the way education systems, specifically ones comprising rigid hierarchies rooted in rote learning and deferential subordination, (mis)guide our students down a dangerous path of no return. The underlying thrust of my argument is simple: deference is not a gift – it is a sin.

Deference is everywhere, especially in what I term hierarchal education systems – systems with clearly delineated and identified “leaders”, with endowed and trusted “teachers”, and students with the designated role of listening to and respecting their elders. Deference crops up, most ubiquitously, in the form of self-effacement – “I must be wrong… you’re right about this”, or through the absent-minded, lethargic admission of defeat – “I don’t know… I’m sorry…” Yet it also surges and flows in subtler ways, such as the continual doubt and skepticism directed towards oneself, or the perennial Impostor Syndrome associated with disenfranchised groups and minorities, as they repeatedly come to question their own epistemic capacities.

The conventional case for deference is grounded in humility. We must be humble, the argument goes. We do not know everything there is to know, and – perhaps most aptly put by a Chinese epithet (invoked by Tony Leung in his character as Wenwu in Shang-Chi), there are many who have consumed more salt than we have taken rice. Thus we ought to respect our elders, and listen to their prescriptions, insights, and recommendations. The elders know best – defer to their judgment wherever possible.

There are several issues that arise from such a psyche. The first concerns, trivially, the fact that elders and seniors could also be fallible. It is one thing to suggest (and accept) the probabilistic claim that those who have experienced more, who are better-trained (ostensibly) in the methodologies of learning would, on balance, know better and more. It is another to attribute infallibility to these individuals, and pedestalize them in a manner that renders them unscrutinisable. In practice, if anything, the hubris and arrogance of those who are jaded, may well cost them their hard-earned expertise and abilities to judge well. Just look at those waddling along in politics – and the plethora of individuals who are so deeply entangled with their webs of bitter biases and haughty heuristics that they have come to know less over the years. To accept and recognise the importance of credentials is one; to blindly and zealously refuse to question conventional wisdom is another.

It is imperative that we do not slip into the dangerous habit of appealing to authority – especially when authority in the sphere of knowledge should, and has always been, open to contestation. The paradigms of knowledge marginalised in an era could well become, in the next, the predominant epistemes. Such paradigmatic shifts and transformations would never be possible in a world where deference crowded out any and all reasonable critique and critical thinking.

The second revolves around the dangers of an inorganic mode of thinking and learning. Even if it were the case that what one’s deferring to accept is in fact – as it turns out – veracious; even if knowing that P believes that X is an accurate proxy that tracks X’s truth, this does not mean that deference ought to be the primary modus operandi in our knowledge enquiry. As Mill puts it, living truth requires continual maintenance and updating – or else it would slip into, eventually, merely dogma. Parroted dogma, repeated dogma, and lamentably, dogma that is force-fed to us, by those accrue power through engendering our collective ignorance. There are few greater sins – from the perspective of education – than to deprive students of the opportunity to question, to challenge, to problematicise, to interrogate premises taken for granted under less rigorous circumstances. There is no greater sin on the part of a teacher, than to perpetrate systemic Un-thinking.

Finally, on communications. I’ve spoken with many a student making the bid for a university spot – including at some of the most prestigious and competitive universities around the world. It is perfectly reasonable, and indeed encouraged, that one speaks with amicable openness and cordial courtesy. Yet one should not feel compelled to engage in – and indeed, if anything, should steer oneself away from – performative deference. Saying phrases like, “Um… I don’t know much”, and “I’m so sorry for being so ignorant” wouldn’t get you very far – and wouldn’t convince the interviewer of your genuine humility, even if – ironically – you were standing on shaky grounds and looking for an extra pair of hands (or help) in your dire straits.

This is not to say that one must speak with the pomposity of a certain British Prime Minister, or, indeed, the buffoonish boisterousness of an ex-US President. But it is to say that mannerisms conveying one’s lack of confidence are, unfortunately – given the cutthroat hyper-commercial world we inhabit today – a giveaway. It gives away, perhaps inaccurately, and certainly unfairly, the conclusion that one knows not what one is talking about – now that, as much as it is a new approach to politics embraced by many – is not what one would want to come across as in a formal, competitive interview process. Nor, indeed, should one seek to be as such in life, in general.

Deference is not a gift.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review