29.3.17

TEACH THE CONTROVERSIES.

Rob Jenkins of The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal suggests that college graduates still can't think because they haven't been taught how to think.
Traditionally, the “critical” part of the term “critical thinking” has referred not to the act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective. “Critical,” in this context, means “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence. It means being “analytical,” breaking an issue down into its component parts and examining each in relation to the whole.

Above all, it means “dispassionate,” recognizing when and how emotions influence judgment and having the mental discipline to distinguish between subjective feelings and objective reason—then prioritizing the latter over the former.

I wrote about all this in a recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, mostly as background for a larger point I was trying to make. I assumed that virtually all the readers would agree with this definition of critical thinking—the definition I was taught as a student in the 1980s and which I continue to use with my own students.

To my surprise, that turned out not to be the case. Several readers took me to task for being “cold” and “emotionless,” suggesting that my understanding of critical thinking, which I had always taken to be almost universal, was mistaken.

I found that puzzling, until one helpful reader clued me in: “I share your view of what critical thinking should mean,” he wrote. “But a quite different operative definition has a strong hold in academia. In this view, the key characteristic of critical thinking is opposition to the existing ‘system,’ encompassing political, economic, and social orders, deemed to privilege some and penalize others. In essence, critical thinking is equated with political, economic, and social critique.”
That "critique" is a tell. Lefties like using it. In its place, it's useful. Too often, though, advocates of presenting only the dissenting point of view take it for granted that people who grew up in the mainstream of political, economic, or social orders understand the intellectual foundations for that order.  Which they don't.  Here's Professor Jenkins, at The Chronicle, on why not.  "[W]e live in a society that increasingly makes it easy for people to get through the day without having to think very much."  That's as it should be.  But being conversant with the possible reasons the way things currently are is they conferred evolutionary advantage on adherents and adopters alike might not be sufficient either.  Yes, understanding that argument can be a basis for responding to, perhaps even refuting, dubious critiques.  But understanding only that argument makes for a weak teacher of the controversies.  Here's Western Ontario's John "Eclect Econ" Palmer to that point.
I believe that I never really learned to think critically.

Most of us do not think critically. Most of us do not question and examine things most of the time. My reflecting on the article that Otis sent helped me realize this fact. Well, at least it is a fact from my own biased perspective.

What helped me begin to think critically the most was being subjected to arguments, both in person and in print, from very smart people who had different views from my own. Only when this happened did I approach the possibility of thinking critically; it happened only when I was challenged in fundamental ways.
Which left him in a bad place if a disciple of deconstructionist Marxist humanist socionomology asked a question in class.
I expect we are no different from our deconstructionist marxist humanist socionomologist elitist interventionist colleagues. We all have our own versions of (or approaches to) truth; we all want students to challenge and think critically about views other than our own. ... with one set of exceptions: they may question and criticize us so long as they accept and believe our answers and rebuttals.
Better, that they be able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their opening position, and of the rebuttals.  (But perhaps a red diaper baby is at the same disadvantage dealing with a cultural conservative that a whitebread suburban kid is dealing with a cultural deconstructionist: neither have ever had to check their premises.)

What better setting, then, than a college or university, to play with ideas without someone problematizing things.
I wonder if the best way to teach critical thinking to university and college students is to subject them to the very best thinking, writing, speaking, and debating on many topics: The very best from all perspectives.

Perhaps that was one thing my education at Carleton College did for me. We had numerous outside speakers who presented various critical and different views about many different topics, and we were required to attend seven out of ten of these presentations (called "convocations") during each ten-week term. I don't remember much from those presentations, but they must have contributed to the overall tone of criticism, exposure, exploration, and questioning.
But there's a trap academic departments fall into, that in which "fit" leads to a form of epistemic closure in which, for instance, a Carleton economics department becomes a salt-water department on a smaller scale, while a George Mason or Clemson become fresh-water outposts on the coast.  But if the department and the ethos of the college, let alone a university of colleges, comprise a larger epistemic closure, students still lose out on the opportunities to test their wits.

Perhaps, as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman suggests, the universities ought engage in joint ventures so as to spice up the bull sessions.
Although right-wing pundits love to bash American colleges as bastions of left-wing political correctness, the PC problem is restricted to a handful of highly selective institutions. Most of the 4,000 post-secondary schools in the United States echo the broad spectrum of national opinion, not the die-hard liberalism of the elite colleges.

So it might surprise you to learn that the majority of American undergraduates describe themselves as "moderate," not liberal (or conservative). And when we look more closely, we find that they often don't fit our standard political categories at all. More than half of self-identified liberal students support capital punishment, for example, while nearly half of conservatives back gun control and abortion rights. And in 2011, several years before Trump proposed building a wall along the Mexican border, 42 percent of American college students favored a fence or wall to control illegal immigration.

That's not a sentiment you'll hear openly voiced at Penn, of course. The only way we could discuss it - or anything else involving Trump, really - was by partnering with another institution.
That's something Yale, the hothouse of snowflakes, to mix a metaphor, didn't know how to do when Rigoberta Menchu showed up to give a talk at Southern Connecticut State, on the other side of the New Haven tracks!

That might also be a reason to consider the land-grants and the mid-majors.  The students might have other things to do, and they might have pragmatic objections to the usual deconstructionist cultural stuff.  That doesn't stop Student Affairs from indoctrinating.

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