More Critical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.

Social Conscience

Not long ago I made passing reference to the apparent fact that a great many athletes who make millions of dollars playing a game and getting endorsements seem to lack any sort of social conscience. I realize that there are notable exceptions — such as Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Adrian Peterson — to name a few. But on the whole, many athletes are reluctant to speak out about the problems around them and to lend their considerable weight, money, and reputation to movements that might actually help rectify many social ills — such as poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many people. The medieval thinkers would have called this the “sin of omission,” the failure to act when an evil is clearly perceived. The problem is that many of these athletes simply don’t perceive the ills that surround them in this society.

Billie Jean King(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed, when many athletes retire the best they can think of is to open an academy or a school where they will teach youngsters to play the games that made them famous. I blogged about Andy Roddick not long ago in this respect. That is not a bad thing and it is nice to see these people “giving back” to the games they play, but they are after all just games. There are more serious problems  that need attention, to be sure. This simply shows us how small the world the world is in which these people live.

But when you think about it, what are we to expect? Take golf, for example. Sports Illustrated does a poll every year among the American male golfers, and except for David Duval (who has recently been relegated to golf’s minor leagues), there isn’t a single American golfer who would be caught dead voting for a Democrat. This is not to say that only Democrats are socially responsible; that is surely not the case. But so many of those golfers are simply concerned to make sure they keep a tight grip on as much of their money as they possibly can, and they seem convinced that the best way to assure that is to vote for Republicans. If they do get involved with charities it is usually ones that touch them in a close, personal way. God forbid the state or country should take some of their money and do some real good with it.

These men tend to identify the Democratic Party with Socialism and while they have no idea what that means, they know they don’t want to have  anything to do with it. But again, what are we to expect? They fly all over the world, but they have no idea what is going on in that world. They live in gated communities; fly in private jets or first class accommodations; stay in high-priced hotels or rent a condominium during their current tournament; play at the world’s poshest golf courses and are taxied back and forth in the latest expensive SUV;  and they engage in conversation only with like-minded, wealthy Republicans. They are the pawns of their corporate sponsors — as suggested by their clothing which is covered with corporate logos. In fact, the only people with more logos on their clothing are the Nascar drivers and they aren’t really athletes, as George Carlin reminded us years ago: they are rednecks driving around in circles.

In any event, golfers resemble so many of the other wealthy athletes living in a shrunken world talking only to others who think as they do, and worried that “the government” is going to take away some of their easy money (witness Phil Mickelson who recently threatened to move out of California because they passed a bill taxing wealthy citizens at a higher rate. Goodness!)

But, while we can only regret that socially aware athletes like Arthur Ashe are no longer around, when all is said and done we really should be thankful for the handful of wealthy athletes who do give some of their money and time to deserving causes — such as children’s hospitals and hurricane relief, for example. It’s remarkable that they rise above the level of awareness that seems to be the norm in the sports world where narcissistic men and women are chasing their dream in the form of a palatial home, expensive cars, and safe investments. But as they would be the first to tell me: it’s their money. Who am I to say what they should do with it?