The point of teaching is to clarify, to bring the truth to light so that the student might understand it. Unless the truth is not that something is , only something that might be . In this case, the teacher might seek to “complicate,” “contextualize,” “relativize,” or otherwise obfuscate the subject at hand. Russell Jacoby has a nice piece on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he addresses this current academic mode, and the way it fails in the practical world:
To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium. It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld, but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic. Binary logic structures the very computers on which most attacks on binary logic are composed. Some binary distinctions are worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death. Others are at least worth noticing for example, that between a red and a green light. You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be “complicated”?
Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous. Already in the 19th century, the historian Jacob Burckhardt feared that “terribles simplificateurs” would descend upon “poor old Europe.” They did descend upon the rest of the world as well with facile ideas about nation and religion. We should indeed distrust them, but not by rote. Complexity for its own sake is no virtue. More turrets are not necessarily better than fewer. Perhaps it is time to return to Ockham’s principle of parsimony, his so-called razor: “Plurality is not to be posited without necessity.” Instead we have gone in the opposite direction. The cult of complication has led to alter a phrase of Hegel’s to a fog in which all cows are gray.
Jacoby’s final point is a valid one. Many times we examine a subject or a question more closely only to find that it is more complicated than we thought it to be. But complication is not the final truth. When we find a topic more puzzling than we had envisioned, we acknowledge the puzzle and continue on to solve it. There may be fog surrounding it, but in the end, the cow is not relative.