March 6, 2005

Elbow: "The Doubting Game and the Believing Game"

In response to some academics' claims that his "Teacherless Classroom" is anti-intellectual, Peter Elbow, in his "The Doubting Game and the Believing Game--An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise," justifies his practices on a theoretical level. Elbow claims that most intellectuals in our culture strive to find the truth through what he calls the "doubting game," but here he encourages the use of the "believing game"--an equally valid, yet less valued path to the truth.

The doubting game, Elbow says, seeks the truth by seeking error. Truth is found by being logical, rational, and skeptical (e.g. the experimental method). The believing game, on the other hand, seeks truth by believing, by sharing perception and having the "experience of meaning" (e.g. group therapy, Quaker groups, juries). Elbow defines the doubting game as a "dialectic of proposition," and the believing game as a "dialectic of experience."

Where the doubting game attempts to weed out the self as much as possible, the believing game knows the self cannot be removed and encourages it to try to see through others' lenses. Where the doubting game expressly guards against "projection"--finding only what we expect to happen, the believing game accepts that we do project and spends much effort getting the mind to see what's different. Finally, where the doubting game seeks precision (sometimes, Elbow points out, to the point of being too fastidious and finding no truth), the believing game is satisfied with what it calls "the dirty truth."

Elbow says the rigidity of the doubting game may work better in fields such as math since there, meaning is fixed. But this is not true in language studies where meanings are transformable. The New Critics, for example, wanted to find the one, true, fixed meaning in a text. The problem with that, Elbow states, is that finding any one meaning in a text doesn't prove that any other reading is wrong--there is no way to identify false assertions. Because of this, Elbow states that the model of the believing game is "the only process for getting to the truth in areas of word-interpretation." He also says his Teacherless Classroom is an ideal place to use the believing game.

According to Elbow, the believing game has many advantages over the doubting game. Because it is cooperative, it keeps people willing to play, even when the game breaks down. Because it is communal, it gives "the little man" a voice, and power, as the majority tries to hear and believe him. Finally, because it is flexible, it allows for and encourages people to change their minds if a better idea comes along. The believing game ultimately results in an "aha moment," a gestalt shift. According to Elbow, it "makes people more perceptive...more intelligent" and "reinforces characteristics which our culture badly needs."

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I agree with Elbow that the believing game is the best way to the truth in language studies. It reminds me of the example of the term "married bachelor." The doubting game would try to understand it in a literal way, and would conclude based on the definitions of each word that it is impossible, nonsense. The believing game, though, would understand this term in a metaphorical way and could easily imagine a person like this. For literary critics, certainly, the believing game is a better path to understanding. Because you can't really "prove" any reading of a text (even the author's own interpretation) is "right" or "wrong," the doubting game just shrugs and asks what's the point of looking? The believing game, though, knows there is value in looking. It is also comfortable with the fact that just because one can do a feminist reading and make certain conclusions about a text, that doesn't mean it is the only valid reading of the text. It's important to remember, I think, that the believing game doesn't insist all readings are equal; instead, it encourages us to believe two or more readings and then decide which is better.

Elbow might have pointed out that the believing game has been utilized effectively in fields such as science and math as well. Take the platypus, for example. It is not exactly a mammal, not exactly a reptile, not exactly a bird. If biologists relied solely on the doubting game, they would not be able to classify it anywhere. Instead, they chose to turn to the believing game. They decided to accept the "dirty truth" (that is: "close enough") so they could classify the animal in a useful way. In math, too, there are many theorems that cannot be proven by the doubting game, but instead of dismissing them, mathematicians do play the believing game, accept that they are true--even without proof--because they are useful. Where the doubting game finds only dead ends, the believing game can help us keep going, keep discovering, keep learning.

Just because environments like Elbow's teacherless classroom are places where students' ideas can be as valid as the instructors', where knowledge is gained through discussion instead of lecture, where "rules" are heuristics instead of algorithms, it doesn't mean that they aren't academic, that they aren't intellectual. I agree wholeheartedly with Elbow when he says that playing the believing game actually makes you smarter. There is a place for the doubting game, yes. It is important to question, important to doubt, important to reject ideas that are wrong or harmful. But, I also believe that the ability to see, understand and even believe multiple truths is not only true intelligence, it is an absolutely crucial skill we must develop if there is any hope of working together effectively in a classroom, and, indeed, living together peacefully in this world.

Posted by gust0124 at March 6, 2005 9:06 PM