David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
The Easy Narrative

September 26, 2017

The greatest challenge for education today, especially higher education, is to train people to resist the easy narrative.

I was struck by this watching the hoopla about the National Anthem and pro football teams, kneeling, not standing, standing but locked in arms, etc., over the last two days.  Within minutes, a hero of the patriot (not with a capital P as in those dang cheaters in Foxboro) cause seemed to have emerged in the form of Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villaneuva, who stood alone outside of the stadium tunnel, hand over heart, for the Star-Spangled Banner, while his teammates stayed in the tunnel/locker room.

As I watched the media frenzy exploding around that 1:00 start time on Sunday, I saw and heard what many people saw and heard from Steelers' Head Coach, Mike Tomlin, who stated that the Pittsburgh decision was less about a stance on the National Anthem, and more about the need "to remove [themselves] from the circumstance."  "People shouldn't have to choose," Tomlin went on to say, "a guy . . . shouldn't have to choose sides. . .[but] to focus on football." (Steeler Nation almost certainly will question his team's ability to do that after an embarrassing spectacle against the Bears.)

And then one of his players chooses a side?  Media was quick to point out that Villaneuva was an army veteran, implying that his service must have dictated that he had to choose to come out for the anthem.  Villaneuva had said nothing, but many of us were primed and ready to speak for him, speak the too-easy narrative.  However, it made no sense given what Tomlin had said minutes earlier.

The uneasy narrative that has emerged since then was that Villaneuva accidentally ended up on the field and thus felt he had to stay out there.  It's a narrative that doesn't exactly fit with the patriot stance nor with the protestor stance.  And it's the most accurate narrative, just not the most tied-to-an-idealism narrative. 

Occam's Razor, the pithy problem-solving philosophy dating back to the 14th century, posited that hypotheses that are the simplest, with the fewest assumptions, are the hypotheses that should be tested.  The most common translation: "More things should not be used than are necessary." In today's world, that idea of "testing the simplest hypothesis" has been lost to a message that Occam's Razor is about accepting the explanation that is the easiest (to understand, to come to, to accept).  Hence, it too has become a victim of the easy narrative, especially with a populace more wired to Twitter and Facebook than to peer review journals or scholarly conferences.

This problem persists in all corners of our society, especially within college campuses.  This last weekend, controversial far-right speaker Milo Yianopoulos appeared at University of California, Berkeley, as part of a "free speech week" that clearly was never intended as a week to promote free speech, at least as reported by Inside Higher Ed.  But that was not the easy narrative in the weeks leading up to this inauspicious event.

What we need is the contrary Occam's Resister: "Use more to necessarily understand things."

Not surprisingly, this all puts me in a poetic mode:

Occam's Resister

Resist the easy narrative,

Revile the deus ex machine.

Sometimes KISS is too quick,

When the way is way too thick.

A cigar is often more than a cigar,

A blunt can be something much more subtle.

To think is to reach new heights,

Not to settle on what might.

To accept without exception

Is to permit a superficial expectation

That neither advances us

Nor enhances us

Simply romances us

To the simplicity of belief.

For everything you think you understand

There is much more underneath;

For everything on which you stand

Must withstand the intense high heat

That accompanies the critical thinking

That our brains were bequeathed.