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Plumbline: Worldview really does make a difference in everyday living

By Dr. Sherri B. Lantinga, Professor of psychology

My Social Psychology students are often dismayed that their first assignment-due on the second day of class- is to not only read the textbook's first chapter but to analyze its assumptions and write a short paper. I stole this idea from Business Department colleague Gary Vander Plaats a few years ago, and it has been a critical part of my teaching ever since.

Students, like the rest of us, tend to mindlessly accept whatever experts say. We listen to people dressed in uniforms, people with expensive cars or clothes, people who write books-especially textbooks. But what if those presumed experts have perspectives on the world that are different from our own? What if those people are wrong or even malicious? Most of us don't take the time to assess underlying perspectives or how the ideas built upon them may be faulty ones. We tend instead just to go along with their ideas and the implications without much thought. Does this matter? Is this important?

Dr. Sherri B. Lantinga

Dr. Sherri B. Lantinga

Long ago, philosophers Descartes and Spinoza had different ideas about how people think about information. Descartes believed that people first understand a message and then need to expend effort to either accept or to reject it. Spinoza believed that as people understand a message they automatically believe it; we only expend effort to reject the message. In other words, if we don't have the time or motivation to actively consider and reject a message, we have already accepted it. Social psychologists put these two ideas to the test and found that Spinoza was right. Seeing persuasive ads on TV or reading a textbook without taking the time or energy to actively think about the message means that we mindlessly accept it.

Now, this mindless acceptance might be fine if the message is relatively harmless (e.g., Coke is better than Pepsi) or if we can trust that the authority has the same fundamental beliefs we do (e.g., my pastor). But what if the message, or its underlying assumptions, are not harmless but have implications for how we understand the world?

I use a Social Psychology textbook that is written from an evolutionary psychology perspective because I want students to understand the arguments to better engage the culture around us. After evaluating the authors' basic assumptions, students often comment that they had never thought to critique text authors before. After all, authors are very well educated and smart enough to write a whole book that reviews the discipline! If students had not explicitly evaluated the underlying perspective and its conflicts with a Christian perspective, to what degree would they implicitly believe the authors' frequent statements that people are (and should be) truly motivated by self-serving desires to get ahead of others?

My goal for this assignment and others like it is to help students realize that they have basic beliefs-worldviews-that influence how they see and interact with the world. Their worldview, like everyone else's, answers basic questions about the nature of reality, about who people are, what causes human problems, and how to solve those problems. We can use this worldview approach to evaluate textbooks, personality theories, or historical shifts. Sigmund Freud had a lot of wrong ideas from both a Christian and scientific perspective, but we can agree with him on some things, like the fact that people are pretty rotten at the core. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner got a lot wrong, too, but he correctly emphasized that our physical and social context strongly influences our everyday behavior. Thus, students are encouraged to use a basic framework for comparing their own basic beliefs with those of others to assess common ground and areas of fundamental disagreement.

On the philosophical end, I try to help students actively rather than mindlessly consider assumptions and their implications. On the concrete application side, I also try to help students see that what they are learning matters for their everyday lives as servants. Students do not just learn about the scientific research on causes of aggression and anger; students also observe their own anger and aggression for a few days, analyze its causes, and learn healthier ways of dealing with anger that are more consistent with God's anger against injustice. We don't just learn about research on helping behavior; small groups of students conduct ten-minute studies on campus to observe how helpful people are under different conditions-and quickly discover how unhelpful we are because we're too caught up in our own lives. We don't just talk about the many contributors to heart disease, accident risk, and alcoholism. Students interview family members, sketch their social and medical health histories for 3 or more generations, assess what factors place themselves at risk for health problems, and describe ways that they can decrease their risks. If students can see how the academic material fits into a larger picture of the world they live in, they are more motivated to do the readings, to participate in class, and to use the information as they serve in the Kingdom.

Students have a worldview and have tasks in the kingdom today -not just after graduation. Our basic beliefs about people as relational, responsible, physical, and fallen creatures actually matter as we evaluate information and respond faithfully in our classrooms, dorm rooms, and places of work. Helping students understand that fact is the greatest contribution I can make as a teacher at Dordt College.