Chattanooga Times Free Press

THE DECLINE OF THINKING

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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.

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Bradley R. Gitz

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