As an educator, I’ve never been comfortable presenting historical facts and social scientific research as “the final word.” This can be difficult, especially since most students look to their teachers as experts who’ve mastered their field of study. They don’t want wishy washy, tentative expressions of truth. Student hunger for the reassurance that comes from facts stated clearly and authoritatively. They need anchors in their quest for truth.
Mathematics, engineering, and the hard sciences can and should be taught as definitive disciplines. But as Aristotle noted over 2,300 years ago, we should not expect precision in other fields of study, particularly those that attempt to describe human experience.
The social sciences provide theories and constructs to help us make sense out of human behavior, social movements, and political activities. These include abstract concepts such as race, culture, technology, and the desire for power. As we navigate interpersonal relationships, we learn to describe our feelings and experiences using terms such as love, happiness, loyalty, trust, compatibility, reciprocity, forgiveness, and emotional intelligence.
But personal experience can never be reduced to either empirical facts or abstract concepts. While these conceptual tools allow us to communicate rationally with each other, they can never plumb the depths of actual, lived experience.
In his 1972 book, The Present Revelation, Roman Catholic theologian Gabriel Moran observes: “The more intently one tries, the more one might set up an obstacle to getting at the full range of experience. It might be that people are not so desirous as they think they are to experience life. It may be safer to use one’s head all the time than to drop one’s guard and let experience flow in and out.”
As we interact with friends and family, as we encounter strangers and political opponents, it’s always a challenge to consider new concepts and opposing viewpoints. But we would also do well to simply open our hearts and minds a bit more to the mystery of human experience.