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.

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On Balance

One of the most difficult things to do when determining the strengths and weaknesses of Western Civilization — which has come under fire of late by many who see it as the cause of nothing but years of persecution and misery for millions of human beings — is to balance the pros against the cons. We might begin with the cons, as they are most interesting. At the top of my list would be the Spanish Inquisition about which the always reliable Wikipedia has this to say:

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The “Spanish Inquisition” may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Spanish Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.

Gruesome, to say the least — even if the numbers of those burned alive in public auto-da-fes in the name of Christ are exaggerated. But one might add to this list the Protestant persecutions and execution of witches and heretics as well as the many wars fought by various factions of a Church which was founded on love.

And while we must realize that the history of the Christian Church is not the whole of the history of Western Civilization which began with the pre-Socratics, we must wonder why such a civilization that could have produced such horrors — not ignoring the Holocaust that took the lives of millions of Jews, the murder of millions of Russians during the Second World War by the Nazis, and the dropping of bombs on civilians in Germany and Japan by the Allies — should be preserved and allowed to survive. And we mustn’t forget the slave trade and the genocide that accompanied the take-over of the North American continent.

Arnold Toynbee tells us that civilizations come and go; they have a lifetime and the expire just as do those who comprise the members of those civilizations. Ours is clearly enduring what Toynbee called a “time of troubles” and seems to be gasping for breath — especially as growing numbers of those historically devoted to preserving Western Civilization in the colleges and universities have turned against it. But why should we be concerned, given the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of civilization when we know that many people who we have always regarded as “uncivilized” seem now to be in many ways superior to those who regard themselves as “civilized” people?

Ignoring for the moment that fact that many of the images of the delights of “uncivilized” people are romantic nonsense with little or no basis in historical fact, there are a number of reasons to fight to save Western Civilization. If we simply regard the benefits that have come to humankind as a result of Western Civilization the list would be impressive indeed. It must start with Roman law, civil discourse, a growing awareness of universal human rights together with the extraordinary works of art, music, literature, sculpture, philosophy and science all of which owe their origins to the brilliant people who have lived during that period we associate with Western Civilization, many of the art works centering around the passion of Christ. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film-making genius put it well when he noted that:

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”

Thus we do wander around bleating like sheep about nothing more important than ourselves. Our art shrinks to the level of the merely personal. We strive to eliminate all suffering because we fail to see that through suffering we might grow as human beings.  And this is a sure sign of the “time of troubles” that Toynbee notes is associated with the demise of civilizations. We live shallow lives, and in the process seem to have lost our creative abilities as we worry not about others and about the future but about ourselves now. This suggests that the present civilization may well be replaced by another that will almost certainly have as many atrocities — given the nature of human beings — and fewer of the great works noted above. The best we can hope for, I strongly suspect, is something very closely resembling Huxley’s Brave New World peopled by citizens who find their narrow pleasure-seeking lives worth the price of greatness that we must, like it or not, associate with Western Civilization at its height.

Decline of the West

 

This is a slightly modified and updated version of a previous post.

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its

“vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization.

In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages, though this sounds much like Spengler’s “organic” view of civilizations.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which many of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military which enjoys the lion’s share of our annual budget, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress and their determined attempt to turn this democracy into an oligarchy.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy. This is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security” born of the fear of terrorism.

Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

Decline of The West

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization is Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its “vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization. In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted that all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which most of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy; this is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security.”

Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.

Being Judgmental

[This is the second of two “re-blogs” resulting from the visit of our granddaughters last week. I have reworked it a bit.]

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she thinks is “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not “look themselves in the mirror,” i.e.,  cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. This is why engaging with people who disagree with us is so terribly important to real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we show not to think and to associate only with others of like minds that is the greatest danger as we are surrounded by the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation, and with cultural diversity rather than intellectual diversity. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with our own agendas and with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Unexamined Life

In Hannah Arendt’s superb book Responsibility and Judgment she draws lessons from the terrors that occurred in Germany before and during the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she calls “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. She is convinced evil comes from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think — to exercise our faculty of judgment.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however, as a moment’s consideration of “talk shows” on radio and TV will attest. Socrates showed us many times that our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudices that prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought. For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and the insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, he only knew that he did not know. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers, like Heidegger), but a few ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but as responsible individuals we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt, and even skepticism, must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought.

Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities almost certainly would never have happened. The refusal to be “judgmental” is irresponsible. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we succumb to the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with “making a living” and the attendant creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Self-Destruction

History has recorded a number of civilizations that have committed suicide. One of the theories about the collapse of the pre-Columbian Maya, for example, is that they destroyed the forests that surrounded them and also sustained them. When the forests were gone, the people died out or were largely absorbed by other cultures.

Wallace Stegner wrote a most interesting book about his years as a child on the Canada/U.S. border which includes fascinating historical, geological, and geographical information. It also focuses on the plight of the plains Indians who peopled that area for so many years, especially toward the end of the Indian wars when many tribes sought sanctuary in Canada from the avowed American policy of extermination. Despite the fact that the Americans practiced genocide on a grand scale, Stegner makes a good case that the Indians themselves contributed to their own downfall by destroying the environment that sustained them — by killing off the buffalo, for example. Granted, they had considerable assistance in this destruction from buffalo hunters and white “sportsmen.” But native practices such as driving whole herds of buffalo off the edge of cliffs, coupled with such common practices as having each member of a hunting party of the métis killing six or eight buffalo “from which his women would take the tongues and hump ribs and leave the rest, even the hides,” most assuredly helped bring the end to thousands of Indians themselves. As Stegner points out, the men surveying the Canadian/U.S. border witnessed this sort of mindless slaughter and working their way “across the arid cactus plain . . . pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.” In a word, history repeatedly shows us humans bent on self-destruction, destroying the environment that sustains them. Does this sound familiar? Consider some of the things we have done to ourselves just this past year alone, in a year when the planet experienced record-high temperatures and human populations continued to spiral out of control:

At present 4 out of 10 power plants in this country have no advanced emissions controls despite EPA limits on such emissions.

Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to protect its burgeoning tar sands oil developments.

Russian government documents revealed that the country spills 5 million tons of oil a year — equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizon disasters annually. Shell Oil, in the meantime, spilled 13,400 gallons of gasoline and drilling fluid into the Gulf of Mexico  and more than 100 times as much oil off the coast of Nigeria. Despite this, the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9 percent last year, the largest jump in any year since the start of the industrial revolution.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States suffered a record dozen climate disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more each.

Arnold Toynbee, in his remarkable Study of History examined 21 separate civilizations he marked out from the beginnings of recorded history, 16 of which have disappeared. He determined that there are definite rhythms that recur in each of those civilizations and that the disappearance of each followed definite causes — many of them self-inflicted. One of the major causes, according to Toynbee, is the fact that “a challenge arises which the civilization in question fails to meet.”  Toynbee’s own conclusion was that our civilization is showing definite signs of deterioration and it can be saved only by recovering “the use of a spiritual faculty which we have been doing our utmost to sterilize.” Whether or not we agree with Toynbee, it is clear that we currently face innumerable challenges and the failure to meet those challenges can be catastrophic. Meeting them begins with awareness. And this begins by reading history and learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of past civilizations that have come and gone — in many cases as a result of their own fixation on immediate needs with no thought for tomorrow.

Socratic Doubt

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”