The decline of thinking
Posted: April 3, 2017 at 2:21 a.m.
A recent Martin Center essay by Rob Jenkins, "Why College Graduates Still Can't Think," addresses a contradiction--the claim by colleges that they go to great lengths to instill "critical thinking" in their students and a growing number of research studies and employer surveys suggesting that the diplomas they award no longer certify the acquisition of that ability.
Either colleges are trying to cultivate critical thinking in their charges and failing, or they aren't trying and then fibbing about it. Jenkins believes the latter.
Those of us who have taught in various institutions of higher education for some time often complain (more among ourselves than publicly) that the quality of student writing has declined precipitously. Less frequently noted is the connection--that to write clearly one has to first think clearly. The spread of bad writing is thus a symptom of a perhaps larger "can't think straight" problem.
In Jenkins' view, the decline in critical reasoning skills in college graduates largely stems from the rise of post-modernist "deconstruction" approaches in theory and teaching which elevate feelings over logic and facts and de-emphasize the search for truth traditionally at the heart of the liberal arts mission.
As Jenkins' puts it, "... although faculty in the humanities and social scientists claim to be teaching critical thinking, often they're not. Instead, they're teaching students to 'deconstruct'--to privilege their own subjective emotions or experiences over empirical evidence in the false belief that objective truth is relative, or at least unknowable."
Going further, Jenkins notes that what used to pass for "critical thinking"--an approach to learning which emphasizes being "dispassionate" and "having the mental discipline to distinguish between feelings and objective reason--then prioritizing the latter over the former"--has been confused in the minds of many faculty with the idea of social and political activism and the need for an adversarial posture toward oppressive systems and power structures.
Put differently, the truth doesn't matter if it can't be made to fit the preferred ideological narrative, and might even be an obstacle to indoctrination in the service of social activism.
If one accepts Jenkins' portrayal of contemporary campus culture, then we also arrive at the most obvious consequence of these trends--the imposition of a suffocating political correctness that prevents debate and accordingly weakens the capacity of students to think and reason.
Within this context, the speech codes, the infantile "safe spaces," and the increasingly absurd obsessions over "cultural appropriation," "white privilege," and "micro-aggressions" are parts of a larger effort to construct an impregnable "social justice" orthodoxy on campuses.
Lost (along with so many other things) in the course of that construction is the once widely accepted understanding that dogma and orthodoxy of any kind are the enemies of rationality and free thought; to the extent they prevail they invariably dull the capacity to use logic and reason and properly interpret data and facts.
The more subjects we wall off from critical scrutiny and the more we suppress debate out of fear of giving offense to the perpetually offended, the more we lose our ability to understand the world around us and objectively evaluate claims regarding it.
Put differently, critical thinking cannot be developed in an environment where an ideological party line holds sway that everyone must accept (or at least appear to accept), lest punishment of various kinds ensue. The very purposes of the college experience--subjecting one's underdeveloped assumptions and views to critical examination in the never-ending search for truth--becomes impossible when college campuses ostracize people who think differently than faculty and administrators do.
Education requires us to open rather than close our minds and to explore the widest possible range of beliefs, if only to test and thereby better fortify our own. There is, along those lines, perhaps nothing more contrary to the very concept of education and the role of the university within it than efforts to suppress objectionable ideas.
Rather than operate on the basis of feelings, learning depends upon the cultivation of logic and reason to overcome them. And in a genuine marketplace of ideas, which the university should be, there is never room for sacred cows, smelly orthodoxies and stale dogma.
We therefore have a moral obligation not to shout down alternative viewpoints but to actively defend the right of heretics to express them. What is true or false cannot be determined by the suppression of some ideas in favor of others.
One is left with the conclusion that much of this is more purposeful than might appear at first glance; that the retarding of critical thinking skills in our undergraduates stems from more than simply confusion among faculty and administrators over what critical thinking means; rather, that it is intended to foster a form of group-think and submission to orthodoxy that deters uncomfortable questions and scrutiny.
How ironic and sad that the same principle of free speech which made possible the success of the civil rights and women's rights movements is now being denounced as a "code phrase" for racism and sexism at many of our colleges.
Because a real education is, by definition, always a politically incorrect one.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 04/03/2017