More Critical Thinking

My elder son recently sent me a U-tube segment in which George Carlin rants for a minute or three about the stupidity of the American people who, as he would have it, allow the very wealthy and powerful to lead them about by their noses. As long as we are diverted and entertained we will allow those in positions of power to do whatever they want to do. He puts it down to our lack of critical thinking on our part. It is very funny. And it is spot on.

In a more serious vein Hannah Arendt said many years ago the same thing about the Nazis. She insisted that if the Germans had been more critical they never would have allowed Hitler to take power and eventually destroy their country — murdering millions of people along the way. She would have us all be more, not less, “judgmental.” Imagine that!

When I taught philosophy in a public undergraduate university I knew that I would never have many majors who would go on to graduate school and eventually become professors of philosophy themselves. There were a few who did so and they have done me proud. But there would be hundreds of students who were taking my courses simply to full a requirement or as an elective to see what all the fuss was about (!). In any event, I made the major quite small in order to encourage more students to sign up and also to allow them to get philosophy as a second major along with, say, sociology. Or biology.

My goal in teaching my courses was to teach critical thinking. In a word. I used the material not in order to drum a few assorted and esoteric facts about the history of philosophy into their heads, but in order to try to get them to think about the issues that have always perplexed and confused mankind (if I can use that word any more). I wanted, above all else, to have my students — most of whom would take only one or two philosophy classes in their four years — to think about things they never thought about before. I also wanted them to think about the things carefully and critically — not just sit around and bullshit.

Robert Hutchins once warned against “thugs who teach you what to think and not how to think.” I never wanted to be a thug!

Early on I wrote an ethics book in which I combined the rudiments of ethics with some of the elements of critical thinking — such things as informal fallacies, for example. Throughout the book I asked the question “why?” I wanted those reading the book to revert to their childhood when all was wonderful and their curiosity was unlimited. I suggested a number of theories as I went along and then asked the reader what he or she thought. “What do you think?” I wanted them to realize that what they read is not the TRUTH, but words on a page which they should subject to their critical thinking skills. I wanted them to develop their own thoughts about ethics while at the same time coming to the realization that ethics is not all about opinions, but it is about principles and suggestions as to how we can better make sense of complex moral issues. In the end we cannot do the right thing if we lack compassion, but ethics can help us become clearer about which path to choose.

In a word, I had two goals. I wanted the readers to have a new respect for orderly and systematic thinking about complex ethical issues while, at the same time, they began to develop critical thinking skills that they would take with them to other disciplines within and without the university. I wanted to help them begin to take possession of their own minds and not be puppets of others, like those Carlin mentions, who would take their minds prisoner and lead them by the nose.

Did I succeed? I do sometimes wonder, though I do know there are a scattered number of success stories (including one of the best students I ever taught who regularly makes comments on this blog). To a retired teacher this is what it is all about. But for those who took my classes — and who read the book (which did very well in the market place, by the way, and is still selling copies) — I wanted them to learn and grow.

But, in the end, Carlin is right because what I was doing was so terribly small and the ignorance that surrounds us is so terribly large. I do know, however, that it all begins with the question WHY?” We all need to ask it more than we do. And we need to embrace those thoughts that might be uncomfortable but which stand up to sustained, critical thought.


9 thoughts on “More Critical Thinking

  1. Hugh, we are the United States of Entertainment. I read several enlightened and earnest writers who pay attention, but not many Americans read other than magazines or online snippets about what they are already interested in and many do not pay attention to TV news or online news. And, too many that do, watch shows that tell them anything more than what they want to hear. Sadly, much of what goes for news is gleaned through social media where the author of a post does not convey the veracity of the source, if there is any.

    If we did pay attention, we would have never elected this president. We would know that the regulations have been rolled back to favor the wealthy and businesses. This fact is mostly unknown by Americans. But, Trump was not the first to do this. VP Dick Cheney used carte blanche power under Bush to do this. And, other presidents have abused their authority to varying degrees with Nixon actually being forced to resign because he was exactly what he said he wasn’t – a crook.


  2. This is one of your best posts ever … or perhaps it only seems so because this morning my own thoughts were already running along these same lines. More than a few times I have said that the first duty of education is not simply to drill facts and figures into young heads, but to teach them to actually think for themselves, rather than accept at face value what they are told. I was lucky to have a great philosophy teacher … two of them, actually, during my undergrad years, both of whom did just that … taught me to ask those ‘why’ questions and reason and think. Possibly the single most frustrating thing I come across today is people who argue with ‘facts’ they have heard, without every questioning whether there was any logic behind those ‘facts’. Thanks for an excellent analysis.

      • Thank you, Hugh … that means a lot to me! I do try to be open to opposing povs, but admittedly it is getting harder these days … the opposing views are so far from my own. Sigh.

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    Several people worth heeding — Hannah Arendt, Robert Hutchins, and George Carlin.

    You quote Robert Hutchins in your post, as you did in some of your lectures years ago, about the important difference between telling students WHAT to think rather than teaching them HOW to think.

    Over the years, I have had both teachers and colleagues who neglected this distinction to the detriment of their students, in my opinion. Since my earliest days in the classroom, I tried to be mindful of the difference between telling and teaching. I tried to follow Max Weber’s admonition that politics had no place in the classroom, at least as much as I could.

    The general strategy I used was to teach the issues by examining them from two or more viewpoints at a time. Then I would ask students to demonstrate their understanding of each viewpoint on a given issue without displaying their own opinions. I was trying to get the students to focus on an issue while setting aside their opinion, at least as much as possible. This takes time and practice and patience.

    Generally, the strategy worked well, on balance. One indication of this, which still makes me chuckle, is that in the same classroom I would have students who were convinced I was a fascist, others who said I was a Communist, while others said I took a fairly balanced approach to the issues. Not surprisingly, this array of opinions was especially noticeable among first-year students. Upper-division students tended to be a bit more thoughtful and balanced in their assessments, at least to the point where such terms as “fascist” and “communist” no longer appeared. Signs and wonders!

    My student teaching evaluations (do not let get me started on those!) over the years were consistent in this respect. I took pride in this. As I told my students, their political opinions were none of my business and my political opinions were none of theirs. As a result, students rarely knew my views on ANY political issue. Kudos to both Hutchins and Weber here.

    I never took the stance that teaching was a “value-free” or “objective” endeavor. I always argued that teaching was guided by values and it had specific objectives based on those values, one of which was personal enlightenment, for lack of a better word.

    The personal importance and social significance of students learning how to think was, in my assessment, deeply grounded in the value of enlightenment. As a direct consequence, the objective of teaching students how to think, not what to think, became more important to me than my own professional discipline. Hence, my career-long commitment to using writing and research assignments as means to developing analytical skills.

    It took me several years of teaching to arrive at this viewpoint about the real value of teaching. I came to understand that my primary duty was not to teach sociology; my duty was to teach students, using sociology to do so. I had come to a divergence in the roads to teaching. I took the latter road and that, as the poet said, has made all the difference.

    The seeds of these personal and professional ruminations were sown in my undergraduate years at Southwest State, most particularly in the ethics course you mentioned in your post. I have thought about that class, and several of your other courses, as well, often throughout the years — and always with a smile.

    Speaking of smiles —

    ” “Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, ‘There is no “I” in team.’ What you should tell them is, ‘Maybe not. But there is an “I” in independence, individuality and integrity.” George Carlin

    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

      • Honestly, I assumed you were speaking of Keith.

        When students asked me what kind of student I was, I would stop, think, and answer — ‘earnest”. “Naive” came in a close second. 😎

        You are far too kind, and I am humbled by your compliment.

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