Learning to Like What We Do Not Like (bootstrapping preferences)

Sometimes, we just like what we like. Our preferences have real costs (and benefits, to be sure). If we don’t like a subject in school, at any level, we struggle to find what typically counts as success. It feels difficult, and so we struggle. At least, I do. In grade school and high school, I did not like history. I liked some aspects of it, but I couldn’t remember much of what my teachers told me. I didn’t much care that I didn’t care, either. But it was costing me. I had a similar experience in college, and I found myself dropping classes (I think I dropped two or three courses that I just couldn’t see my way to liking). I remember thinking: If I were to just like these stupid classes, I might do better. But I couldn’t see anything about them to like. I’ve been seeing this in students over the last ten years, and I see it from a different perspective now. I’d like to help them find something about the subjects to like – in fact, I’d like to help them find how to convince themselves to like what they don’t like. They’d do better, after all, just as I would have done better with my subjects of disinterest.

There’s this puzzle in academic philosophy that goes like this: Our beliefs are what they are, and they’re often determined by what we understand as the truth (or they shape what we take to be the truth). It continues: We cannot will ourselves to have a belief that we (at the time of the willing) see ourselves as having no reason to have, given what we believe in the here and now. Philosophers put it like this: We cannot bootstrap new beliefs that contradict our current beliefs – we can’t just decide to attach beliefs to our repository of beliefs irrespective of what we already believe. We can’t will ourselves to want something we have no reason to want. By extension, I’ll wager these same folks would argue – if they take a preference to be a kind of belief – that we cannot will ourselves to like what we do not currently like.

I’ll submit there’s a way around this for certain cases, as long as they’re broad enough. I’ll restate and clarify what I said above. It’s my goal as a teacher to help a student to like history when they come to me actively disliking history, what I might be trying to do is to bootstrap a new preference on top of or to replace an existing preference.

I said a thing to a friend a few months back. He was frustrated that things weren’t going his way, as he saw it at the time, in his love life. He was continuously frustrated that he wasn’t getting what he wanted from it – a problem we’ve all had, maybe. I came up with a brilliant suggestion that was completely worthless. Are you ready for it? Want something else. There’s a hint of Buddhism in this. It was useless at the time because I didn’t know how to suggest how this friend was supposed to go about changing what he wanted.

And above, I said that I wanted students to like things they don’t like when they arrive in my classroom. It’s a bit imprecise, though, because it’s too broadly put. What I ought to be looking for are aspects of the subject that do appeal to whatever existing preferences the student has. We don’t need a reversal of opinion, however. There’s no need to bootstrap anything. Rather, we need only attach new ideas to those old ones. No need for a complete reversal.

Consider this. What I was most bad at was memorizing dates and names. I’m sure some of my students would have the same problem, were I to require them to attempt that foolishness. I believed that I hated history as a field of study. But I didn’t know all that belonged to that category. I had luck in two ways, though, that changed me round without changing my beliefs much. First, I was lucky enough to want to learn. I didn’t even want to learn about history as such, but I wanted to know more generally. Secondly, I was lucky to be turned toward aspects of history to which I had hitherto not been exposed. In Mike Duncan’s History of Rome and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, I got stories about people to whom I could relate, to dramatic circumstances – of war, of love, of poisonings… I had no context for the stories at first, but then I listened to a lot of them. They came to be interconnected. I related one emperor’s rise to power to another’s. I realized that a general in battle made a choice that I might have made. I was shocked by the brutality of the First World War. I connected with those stories. And I realized: Hey! Now I like history.

The truth is that I never really disliked history (as I understand it today as a field of study). I only disliked when someone told me that I had to memorize historical details absent of context. (What a stupid exercise, honestly.) So I didn’t need to learn to like something I didn’t like after all. I only learned enough about the subject to realize that I wasn’t aware of all of the aspects of the broad field of history.

It doesn’t matter how much money you’ll offer to pay me tomorrow at noon to drink a toxin I do not want to drink right now – I’m not going to want genuinely to drink the toxin now. But if you tell me more about the toxin – perhaps there’s a character-building attribute of becoming violently ill, for instance – if I learn more about the toxin – perhaps then I’ll find something to like about it.

So I suppose this is where I’ve landed. Learning about history is a little like drinking poison – but a character-building poison.

When a student comes to me who doesn’t like history, I can honestly tell the student that I have had the same feelings of distaste. But then I can broaden the picture. We can find some aspect of history that is interesting to the student. History is a very broad field, after all – just like all of the rest. We just have to find what we like about the field. We have only to keep looking until we find it.

Hopefully I’ve got a little luck to spare my students.

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007)
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One Response to Learning to Like What We Do Not Like (bootstrapping preferences)

  1. aploplexy says:

    Scott and I were just talking about this exact thing yesterday. I never liked history and never did as well in history classes as everything else owing to the date-place tedium you mentioned. But when I started reading history later in life and putting pieces together relative to one another I got hooked big time.

    Wish I had a teacher like you in school!

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