I sit in a room with my friends one Friday night debating the true meaning of virginity. My roommate, an attendee of faith-based schools her entire childhood, has a hard time wading through all the different understandings of virginity that college students entertain. You can imagine all the many technicalities we threw at each other while trying to defend our own sense of honor and wholesomeness, but I won’t go into the specifics because we’re talking about social construction here. The key to this discussion is my roommate, who said, “I have to believe in absolutes. I have to believe that there’s one universal definition of virginity otherwise I’ll just collapse into a shaking huddle of confusion. Because if there aren’t any absolute truths then the world is just meaningless chaos.”
She went about solving her existential meltdown by talking with as many willing people as possible about their understanding of virginity. Over a few months, she managed to construct a Truth, capital ‘t,’ that made sense to her based on the experiences and beliefs of herself, her family, and her friends.
That’s a real life example of the kind of socially constructed knowledge that Kenneth Bruffee describes in his essay Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge.
One person, in an attempt to make sense of the world in which she lives, takes her beliefs (which have been passed down to her from the institutions she grew up in) and creates a new understanding, a new knowledge, a new truth that is relative to her current surroundings and formed by conversation with others in a social context.
For those who struggle with the idea of relative reality—one that changes based on a population’s culture, history, geographical location, and ideologies—social constructionism can provide a relief. It seems that most of our fears and uncertainties take root in our reliance on cognitive theory: the assumption that there is, somewhere deep inside everyone, an Individual—some original, unique You-ness that exists separate from everything else around it. That there are, then, timeless and changeless entities that live in vacuums. Universal absolutes that have always and will always be true and when we think about them or search for answers to any question, the discovering process is completely individual and internal. Language is merely the means by which we, as Individuals, communicate our unique ideas to everyone else.
But, as my lovely Roommate evidenced, a person can search long and hard for Truth by themselves and just end up talking themselves around in circles. Without other individuals’ beliefs to act as reference points for your own, you can’t create a firm viewpoint.
That does mean, however, that arriving at any sort of “consensus…generated by knowledge communities and used…to maintain community coherence” demands a lengthy social conversation (Bruffee 777). In other words, it’s a lot of work.
It might be easier and more efficient to say, These are the Truths that we’ve hammered out over decades of academic study. We don’t have to bother trying to find the best, right, good way to communicate because they’ve don’t it for us. So here’s the way you’ll write about the opinions you arrived at by this tried-and-true scientific method and logical reasoning. More efficient, yes. Then students can throw their ingredients into a well-oiled internal thought-processing machine and spit out an essay that fits the previously approved pattern of persuasive techniques.
But easy doesn’t always mean better. It’s easier to plagiarize. It’s easier to heat up frozen dinners that you can eat on the couch while you watch TV. It’s easier to send a break up text message than it is to have a face to face conversation. All of the above are both easier and less time-consuming and happen to be deemed unacceptable by society, so why do we consider intellectual laziness acceptable?
Donald A. McAndrews Tutoring Writing tells readers to approach each student as an individual and to tailor their tutoring techniques to that specific student’s needs and learning style. That is not easy. That means that there’s no one, universally applicable approach to tutoring, to helping someone figure out how to search for, construct, and communicate knowledge. That means a tutor will have to show up to each session fully present and ready for a challenge, for a lot of work.
If all educators took that approach, maybe we would hear fewer complaints about the millennial generation being lazy, self-interested, and apathetic. Maybe, if more educators challenged themselves to really challenge their students, there would be more metaphysical late night living room debates and more people actively involving themselves in the construction of knowledge.