Thursday, October 08, 2015

Critical Thinking Declining Amongst University and College Students!

Political Correctness, Not Critical Thinking, is the Key to Our Demise
We must get back to common sense, logic and critical thinking and it must begin at home and within our educational institutions
By Leigh Bravo -- Bio and Archives  
October 7, 2015

We have all heard it before. Students at colleges and universities around the
country are demanding that anyone who has a differing opinion than their own should be tarred, feathered, banned and removed from their sight.  Student groups claim that inviting anyone with a differing opinion onto their campus threatens their very safety or well-being. Sound ridiculous? Leaders at these educational institutions are listening to these demands resulting in the creation of a generation that is single-minded, self-absorbed, and intolerant of others all while the same generation demands a voice, respect and tolerance from others.
What happened to “teaching our kids how to think and not what to think?”  This old adage is truly at the core of critical thinking and should be practiced at all learning institutions around the country. When a university or college stops exposing our children to differing opinions or ways of life, then we are doomed to live a life that no longer offers diversity, but demands that we all live, act and believe the same.
In a recent article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, on the September cover of the Atlantic,
“In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like and seeking punishment of those who give even accidental offense. This is disastrous for education and likely to worsen mental health on campus.”
 Today , what we call the Socratic method, is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding. But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands the intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong….the new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”
Can you imagine where the world would be if we all adhered to this thinking? Those who believed the world was actually round would have been ridiculed and Columbus would never have sailed the ocean blue. Other ideas that were ridiculed include the computer, the automobile, genetics, plate tectonics and the continental drift. If, throughout history, we all bought into this educational example of shutting down those who believe differently, the world would be a different place.

“Idea Discrimination”

Where does this “idea discrimination” originate? Dr. Richard Paul, Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking said,
“Many of our answers are no more than a repetition of what we as children heard from adults. We pass on the misconceptions of our parents and those of their parents. We say what we heard, not what we know. We rarely join the quest with our children. We rarely admit our ignorance, even to ourselves.”
Could this bashing of anyone who thinks differently and the polarization of ideas be contributing to the increased incidences of shootings around the country? Could this atmosphere of political correctness be giving offenders a justifiable reason to believe that those with differing opinions should be dealt with violently? If our children were taught to be open to others experience and opinions, could we, as a society, become more tolerant of others and in the end solve our own politically induced problems?
Universities and Colleges across the country should be rejecting the new status quo of bias and polarization and instead base their educational instruction on critical thinking.
A well cultivated critical thinker:
  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.
Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native ego-centrism and socio-centrism.
We must reject this pattern that has been developing and spreading like a cancer throughout our educational system. If the United States wants to remain competitive in the global market,  if our young generation wants to be successful within the workplace, we must get back to common sense, logic and critical thinking and it must begin at home and within our educational institutions.
What’s Missing From Education? Critical Thinking 
Stewart Lyman    
There is too little emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills in schools. Many adults have little understanding of important science and technology issues, which leaves them open to poor decision making on matters that will affect both their families as well as society in general.
A good example would be a failure to understand and appreciate the tremendous advancement in human health as a result of vaccines. These days, unfortunately, misinformation abounds on the Internet, and many parents don’t have the critical thinking skills to distinguish anecdotes and rumors from factual information. As a result, they don’t have their children vaccinated, and this has led to a large increase in whooping cough, mumps, and measles cases. Many adults get their scientific information from unreliable sources. [not in agreement - editor] Recent studies have shown that even “medical” based shows on television, such as Dr. Oz and The Doctors, are filled with incorrect information and should more properly be thought of purely as “entertainment.” While science and technology will not solve all of our problems, children need to be taught how they can recognize when data does not support an idea, and to be open to changing their minds as new information becomes available.
[Editor’s note: To tap the wisdom of our distinguished group of Xconomists, we asked a few of them to answer this question heading into 2015: “If you could change one thing in education, what would it be?” You can see other questions and answers here.]
Critical Thinking and the Scientific Process First—Humanities Later
If luck favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, we’re in danger of becoming a very unlucky nation. Little of the material taught in schools today is relevant to the future. Consider all the science and economics that has been updated, the shifting theories of psychology, the programming languages, political theories, and even how many planets our solar system has. Much, like literature and history, should be evaluated against updated, relevant priorities in the 21st century. So, what can we “teach” our students to prepare them for the future?
1. The fundamental tools of learning and analysis, as well as basic concepts
2. Knowledge of a few generally applicable topics
3. The skills to “dig deep” into their areas of interest in order to understand how these tools can be applied to one domain and to be equipped to change domains every so often
4. Preparation for jobs in a competitive and evolving global economy
5. Preparation to continuously evolve and stay current as informed and intelligent citizens of a democracy. To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study). Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, or Technology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education? Should we teach our students what we already know, or prepare them to discover more? Memorizing the Gettysburg address is admirable but ultimately worthless; understanding history is interesting, but not as relevant as topics from the Economist; a student who can apply the scientific process or employ critical thinking skills to solve a big problem has the potential to change the world or at least get a better-paying job. No wonder half the college graduates who fill jobs actually fill jobs that don’t need a college degree! Their degree is not relevant to adding value to an employer. Often, in my view, it is even less relevant to being an intelligent voter in a democratic economy. Most graduates cannot read the Economist and separate “facts,” “assumptions by the writer,” “biases,” “projections,” or “conclusions and their validity” in a critical way. I’d also suggest tackling several general and currently relevant topic areas such as genetics, computer science, systems modeling, econometrics, linguistics modeling, traditional and behavioral economics, and bioinformatics (not an exhaustive list). Not only do these topics expose students to a lot of useful and current information, theories, and algorithms, they may in fact become platforms to teach the scientific process—a process that applies to (and is desperately needed for) logical discourse as much as it applies to science, and of much future learning in general. Even if the specific information becomes irrelevant within a decade (who knows where technology will head next; Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone didn’t exist in 2004, after all), it’s incredibly useful to understand the current frontiers of science and technology as building blocks for the future, more so than understanding history or Kafka. If we had enough time in school, I would suggest we do everything. Sadly that is not realistic, so we need a prioritized list of basic requirements because every subject we do cover excludes some other subject given the fixed time we have available. We must decide what is better taught during the limited teaching time we have, and what subjects are easier learnt during personal time or as post-education pursuits. For instance, passions like music and its history may be best left to self-pursuit, while exploring the structure and theory of music may be a way to teach critical tools! For some small subset of the student body, pursuing passions and developing skills in subjects such as music or sports can be valuable, and I am a fan of schools like Juilliard, but in my view this must be in addition to a required general education. It’s the lack of balance in general education which I am suggesting needs to be addressed. Setting music and sports aside, with the critical thinking tools and exposure to the up-and-coming areas mentioned above, students should be positioned to discover their first passion and begin to understand themselves, or at the least be able to keep up with the changes to come, get (and maintain) productive jobs, and be intelligent citizens After grasping the fundamental tools of learning and some broad topical exposure, it’s valuable to “dig deep” in one or two topic areas of interest. For this, I prefer some subject in science or engineering rather than literature or history (bear with me; I’ll explain in a minute). Obviously, it’s best if students are passionate about a specific topic, but it’s not critical as the passion may develop as they dig in (some students will have passions, but many won’t have any at all). The real value for digging deep is to learn how to dig in; it serves a person for the duration of their life: in school, work, and leisure. If students choose options from traditional liberal-education subjects, they should be taught in the context of the critical tools mentioned above. If students want jobs, they should be taught skills where future jobs will exist. If we want them as intelligent citizens, we need to have them understand critical thinking, statistics, economics, how to interpret technology and science developments, and how global game theory applies to local interests. Traditional international relations and political science are passĂ© as base skills and can easily be acquired once a student has the basic tools of understanding. Back to history and literature for a moment; these are great to wrestle with once a student has learned to think critically. My contention is not that these subjects are unimportant, but rather that they are not basic or broad enough “tools for developing learning skills” as they were in the 1800s, because the set of skills needed today has changed. Furthermore, they are topics easily learned by someone trained in the basic disciplines of thinking and learning that I’ve defined above: this isn’t as easy the other way around. A scientist can more easily become a philosopher or writer than a writer can become a scientist. Besides, physics is a much more important tool to understand the science and technology that drives modern life than history is, not to mention that it’s far more useful in helping someone understand how her car or refrigerator works. This makes it all the more concerning that many states don’t require physics to graduate from high school but do require many years of history classes—a lopsided and poor use of student time. University education continues this tradition, especially as students flock to the “easier/less work” courses. If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies—this can actually do a lot of damage. On the other hand, with the right critical lens, history, philosophy, and literature can help creativity and breadth by opening the mind to new perspectives and ideas. Still, learning about them is secondary to learning the tools of learning. In the end, school is a place where every kid should have the opportunity to become a potential participant in whatever they might want to tackle in the future, with an appropriate focus not only on what they want to pursue but also, pragmatically, what they will need to do to be productively employed. By embracing thinking and learning skills, and adding a dash of irreverence and confidence that comes from being able to tackle new arenas (creative writing may have a role here, but Jane Austen does not make my priority list), hopefully they will be lucky enough to help shape the next few decades or at least be intelligent voters in a democracy and productive participants in their jobs. At the very least they should be able to evaluate how much confidence to place in a New York Times study of 11 patients on a new cancer treatment from Mexico or a health supplement from China and to assess the study’s statistical validity and whether the treatment’s economics make sense. And they should understand the relationship between taxes, spending, balanced budgets, and growth better than they understand 15th century English history. Vinod Khosla was co-founder and first CEO of Sun Microsystems. He became a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and in 2004 formed cleantech- and infotech-focused investing firm Khosla Ventures.
Critical Thinking Gone Missing
By Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Ignorance As a Default Position
April 05, 2013 "Information Clearing House" -  In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble.Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population. 
To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.  
The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka.  If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.    
Part II – Ideology And Bureaucracy 
The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities. 
In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.   
Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine. 
Part III -  Moments of Embarrassment  
That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight.  Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:  
McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.” 
Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?” 
Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.   
Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.   
Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfully
restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.   
Part IV -  Teaching Critical Thinking? 
As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.  
Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve. 
Part V – Conclusion 
It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.  
The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well educated among us know what happened to him. 
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.