THE DE­CLINE OF THINK­ING

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPINION -

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 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 those 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 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.

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.

Bradley R. Gitz lives and teaches in Batesville, Ark.

Bradley R. Gitz

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