America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

As a retired college professor who has thought about education all of my adult life  (and even written a book about it!), I have posted a number of blogs on the topic. This is one of my favorites from 2014.

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” or teaches them job skills, and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been commonplace  in our culture since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has turned many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled and the practical along with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  not to mention a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

Improved Learning

I repost once again because I have begun to think that some of my best thoughts have already been set forth and there are a few new readers who might find them worth pondering.

There must be many school administrators who have too much time on their hands. They keep trying to come up with new ways to teach and learn forgetting that the best way to do that is to get the brightest teachers you can by paying them a decent salary and then turning them loose in the classrooms. Instead, they have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the electronic toys that have been incorporated into schools at nearly every level. This is part of the common educational practice of bringing the subject matter down to the level of the student rather than to have the student stretch and grow to reach a higher level. “Dumbing down the curriculum,” as it is called. Give ’em what they want. The kids play with electronic toys, let’s incorporate them into the curriculum. Somehow. The latest educational fad in “higher” education is to make learning even easier and less painful: let the students stay at home where they can sit in front of a computer screen as passive vessels instead of in a classroom where they might accidentally interact with each other or, worse yet, the instructor.

I’m with Albert here: led by a purblind educational bureaucracy we are rapidly turning out idiots who cannot interact with one another and cannot use their minds except to turn things on and off. Socrates was never “certified” to teach, and he didn’t use the latest electronic gadget, either. Plato’s Academy also did rather well without the latest electronic toy, thank you very much. After all, Plato was able to turn out people like Aristotle without a huge cadre of administrators looking over his shoulder, a committee of well-meaning board members to answer to, or a single computer.

Our addiction to electronic toys has seriously inhibited human interaction as we see people walking down the street holding electronic devices to their ears or looking down at the device they are sending text messages from: they don’t talk to one another any more, they talk at one another — in broken English. As suggested above, the latest fad in higher education is the trend toward on-line learning, which is simply another way to guarantee that students will learn very little. I dare say it will soon catch on at the high school level as well.

However, studies have shown repeatedly that the lecture method — in the classroom or on-line — is the worst way to teach a subject for most students. In addition, the drop-out rates in on-line education are off the charts. Real learning takes place when people interact with one another. On-line lecturing is simply multiplying the lecture-system mistake by making it easier and faster — and cheaper. And there’s the rub. Education has become so costly that students are turning to on-line “universities” like The University of Phoenix, and the other colleges and universities realize they must either join the party or sit by as their high-paid faculty lecture to empty halls. It’s sink or swim. We are now told that a group of so-called “prestige” universities wants to join the fray:

Now 30 Under 30 alum 2U, which has previously focused on online graduate degree programs, has decided to throw its hat into the ring. This week, the company, formerly known as 2tor, announced a partnership with a consortium of 10 universities to offer undergraduate courses online. The company’s new program, Semester Online, will launch in September 2013 with a catalog of about 30 courses offered by Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Whatever the reason, we insist on embracing the latest fashion even when the evidence proves that it not only fails to deliver the goods, but it actually inhibits the results — teaching and learning in this case. Electronic gadgets do not enhance learning; as Jane Healy has shown, they actually inhibit learning. Their use has led to the incapacity of parts of the brain to function as they should, thereby making thought and coherent speech more and more difficult for growing numbers of young people. Instead of embracing the latest fad, we might be better advised to simply reflect on the goal of education which is to enable young minds to grow and develop. We need to stop worrying about what is latest, or cheapest and easiest, and start to recall what is most effective: a good teacher in a room interacting with interested and curious students. Preferably they should sit in a circle or, better yet, around a table.

Once Again In the Toilet Bowl!

I update and repost this in my ongoing effort to spit into the wind. There is something radically wrong in academia where the business model has become the paradigm and students are regarded as clients. But major sports are clearly still the tail that wags the dog!

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year orgy known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious: 40 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over even if one weren’t gorging himself on chips and warm beer. The bowl games are now appropriately named after their corporate sponsors and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced soon. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is a symptom of something terribly wrong. The big-time collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher and former small-time collegiate coach. Seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Answer: nothing whatever; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what their parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Bollocks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6. It makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name on ESPN. There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education in any way shape or form.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as a Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games of late (though not this year, sad to say). In the end it’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for big bucks has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level.  In the typical American college or university, for example, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed; the students themselves, pumped up by an unwarranted sense of entitlement and ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. The institutions regard them as a source of money, as faculty fight for their precious territory and students are lost in the shuffle. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty also fight for their territory but also are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. These problems are compounded by the sports mania. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim.

But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.

The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

Teacher Burnout

I only taught at the grade-school level for one year — and that was at a private school in New York. It convinced me that I wanted to teach, but it also convinced me that I wanted to teach at a higher level where I could continue to learn and grow. But I knew right away how hard those who teach the very young work and I knew that I loved teaching.

So did a young woman in South Carolina by the name of Sariah McCall who recently left teaching because she “couldn’t set [her]self on fire to keep someone else warm.” That is to say, she burned out. As an article in Yahoo News recently reported:

McCall says she never saw herself leaving teaching until it was happening. However, when she found that her job became “less about teaching the kids than making sure that mandates were fulfilled,” McCall made the decision that her own well-being needed to take precedence. “You can’t keep killing yourself over it because it’s not helping anybody. I had to prioritize that I had to be more important than my career. And it still sounds really selfish and I still feel guilty about it,” McCall explains.

If you wonder why she felt the need to leave teaching, take a quick look at her daily schedule:

Sariah McCall was in her classroom every morning at 6:45 a.m., taught bell-to-bell classes, attended meetings during her planning period and worked assigned lunch and recess duties with little time to eat or go to the restroom. When the bell rang for the 2:15 p.m. student dismissal, she worked an assigned bus or hall duty, followed by lesson and classroom prep. Sometimes, she left school by 5 p.m. At home, McCall would work on more grading and paper work until 11 p.m. or midnight, then finally sleep — and repeat.

In our self-absorbed age, it is rare to find a person like Ms McCall who was dedicated to others and to helping them grow into intelligent and responsible adults. But South Carolina, in this report, is seeing quite a lot of this of late. In fact, the reports tells us that 7300 teachers left teaching  for one reason or another during or at the end of the 2017-2018 school year! This is not only sad. It is borderline tragic (and I refuse to overuse that word!) We all suffer when those who teach must quit or face ill-health or nervous disorders because of the endless trite nonsense they are required to do outside of teaching. Or because they can’t make a living.

The answer to this dilemma is quite simple — and I have mentioned this once or twice before. We need to pay the teachers what they deserve, as they do in tiny Finland. This will attract more and better teachers to begin with and perhaps restore some semblance of respect to a calling that is currently much maligned. After all, we measure success in dollars in this country and underpaid teachers are not regarded as successful people by and large.

But we also need to cut out all the bullshit that goes along with teaching generated by an overabundance of administrating types who have little to do themselves aside from determining what others should do. We have far too many administrators in the education establishment at all levels. These are people who are paid well and who go to meetings (after meetings, after meetings) and try to reinvent the wheel. If they were once in the classroom they are no longer and because of the distance now between themselves and the teachers they forget the demands that are placed on the teachers who are simply exhausted filling out forms and checking boxes — making sure they are in “compliance.”

And, of course, the parents at home are too busy to raise their children properly so they are sent off to school, spoiled, undisciplined, and unruly where the teachers are supposed to build the character that has been ignored for six years at home while the parents were earning enough money to maintain their “lifestyle.”

Parents and administrators simply demand far too much of the teachers and fail to reward them adequately. It’s that simple. So stories like that of Sariah McCall will become more and more commonplace as our education system continues to slip into the abyss and small countries like Finland show us how it is done while we turn our faces away — not in shame, as we ought, but out of indifference to a serious problem that undermines the basic premiss of a free society.

A democracy simply cannot survive, if survival is still a possibility, without an educated citizenry. And that requires a bureaucracy pared to the bone coupled with good teachers paid a fair wage and supported, not attacked, by the populace at large that currently wants only to save tax dollars and make sure their children are not taught about evolution.

How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.

 

Learning To Learn

When I professed philosophy — back in the Dark Ages — my goal was always to help my students think for themselves. The greatest compliment I ever received came after I retired and I read a review of one of my books on Amazon after a former student bought my book because he had taken several of my classes and always wondered what my views were on key issues. I never gave it away in class, he said. It was my hope that this would happen, that my students would not know exactly where I stood so they could find their own footing. After all, if they knew where I stood that might simply pretend to stand there as well in order to get a good grade! Heaven forbid!

I never saw my chosen field of philosophy as a subject to be taught in and of itself. Not at the undergraduate level anyway. I was never going to have that many majors and there would be hundreds of students passing through my classes who would never even take another philosophy course from or anyone else. But if I could use the subject matter to get them thinking that would be a triumph indeed! That was always my goal –though I dare say my own private thoughts on key subjects must have crept through from time to time! I am an opinionated bastard as you already know if you have been reading my blog.

Another key feature of my goals as a college professor was to hope that after my students left my classes they would continue to learn and grow. In several cases I know about this has in fact happened. College, after all, is not the be-all and end-all of education. Education, properly conceived, takes a lifetime. Students should be taught how to learn. They should be taught how to think, not what to think — as Charles Van Doren wisely said long ago. He also said that we who teach should guard our students from the “thugs” who want only to ensnare their minds and make of them large puppets, mouthing their instructor’s words and adopting their thoughts. I did not want to be thought a thug!

I have said in print that the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds. This is vitally important, but it is also something that apparently I share with very few of my fellow professors. The stories coming out of the Ivory Tower of late is that faculty are more concerned about indoctrinating than they are about freeing young minds. For growing numbers of them it is vitally important that the current cultural malaise be radically altered, that students be made aware of the ills of Western Civilization, of capitalism, of colonialism, of the rape of our precious earth — all of which they put down to “dead, white European males” who should be set aside and ignored henceforth.

These are all important issues. But if we focus attention on how learning takes place rather than what it is we are teaching we take a step in the right direction, though I would prefer that my students read books that are worth reading. Great books are great teachers.  Whether we agree with them or not, those dead, white European males had important things to say. They should not be read in order to agree with them — after all, they didn’t even agree with one another. They should be read in order to use their thoughts to engender thoughts of our own. Reading what great minds have written down will help students become more aware of the complex issues mentioned above. And it will provide them with the tools they need so work toward solutions of those problems rather than simply getting all worked up about them.

In any event, these things have always seemed important to me and I still think the basic reasoning here is sound. There is a movement afoot in our colleges and universities that has me deeply concerned as many of you are aware. And this is not because there are so many who disagree with me, it is because they are convinced that in this day and age the most important thing is to revolt against the past altogether and adopt new ways of thinking, ways that the professors will lay out for their students — thereby confusing education with indoctrination. Clearly, this is not the right way to go about things. Not if we want them to become thoughtful, engaged citizens of this Republic.