Yesterday I wrote about the White House’s conference on American history. Read that post here. Conservatives are cheering the event. Those on the Left–particularly academic historians–are trashing the event.
There are a lot of reasons to be critical about what happened at the White House last Thursday (again, read my post). But I often wonder if those on the academic left are engaging in the same kind of anti-intellectualism, rigid fundamentalism, and cancel culture as those on the right.
Meanwhile, there is a very large intellectual center in America made-up of people on the Left and the Right who are not willing to be pulled to the fringes. I think this large center–a place of open discourse and academic freedom–is articulated best in the recent letter published in Harpers magazine and signed by the likes of Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jeet Heer, Matthew Karp, Randall Kennedy, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Cornel West, Sean Wilentz, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.
These signers and other like-minded academics, intellectuals, and thinkers, are calling for the “free exchange of ideas,” which the letter describes as the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” Read the statement here.
On Thursday, Constitution Day, Donald Trump announced something called the “1776 Commission.” Here is a taste of his speech:
Today, I am also pleased to announce that I will soon sign an Executive Order establishing a national commission to promote patriotic education. It will be called the “1776 Commission.” (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. It will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding. Think of that — 250 years.
If you want to see what this “1776 Commission” will look like, watch the so-called “White House Conference on American History”:
I have written about the 1619 Project many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog. Read my posts here.
As I and others have written, the 1619 project has many flaws, but what I witnessed in the above video is less about American history and more about an attempt to use the past to promote a political agenda. There is no nuance. There is no complexity. Or, as one senior historian wrote yesterday in a private e-mail, there is very little “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.”
I have a lot of respect for Allen Guelzo and Wilfred McClay. (I did not know McClay was moving from the University of Oklahoma to Hillsdale College until today). I agree with a lot of what they said in this session. There is a place for their view that the past should nourish civic identity and inspire patriotism. But this session makes it sound as if history is only about civic identity and inspiration. History is about the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads.
Recently I was talking to my dental hygienist about what her daughter was learning in her American history course. The hygienist was complaining that her daughter was learning that George Washington was a “bad person.” Another hygienist, who was in the next room eavesdropping, came into my room and said that her grandson was getting the same message in his history class. I told both of them that if their children’s teachers were telling them that George Washington was only “bad,” then they were not very good history teachers.
The next day, I was talking to a friend who lives in a very conservative part of the country. His kids were not learning anything about the fact that George Washington owned slaves, that many of the founders did not want the Constitution to abolish slavery, and that United States Indian policy was often immoral. Instead his kids were learning nothing but “God and country” patriotism. I told him that his kids had a bad history teacher.
There is also something deeply ironic about the defense of “patriotic” history as defined by this panel. When the primary focus of a history classroom is historical thinking, and not patriotism, kids learn the skills necessary to be good citizens and patriots.
Last night I watched the Netflix film The Social Dilemma. I am not going to elaborate on it here, but it is a film every American should watch. It is hard to watch The Social Dilemma and not walk away from the screen believing that we need to invest in the skills cultivated by the study of history and the larger humanities. We need to teach kids how to detect bias and how to see the world in terms of context, change over time, causality, complexity, and contingency. This is the only way they will understand what is fake and what is real as the endless content flows across their phone screens.
Social media and the proliferation of fake news may be the most existential threat to American democracy. While Trump and his team of historians worry about the 1619 Project, critical race theory, and patriotic education, our kids (and adults) are getting sucked into echo chambers and either don’t know how to get out, don’t want to get out, or have no idea they are even in one.
Meanwhile, Putin uses our addiction to these social media sites to undermine our elections. And large swaths of the country get their news and understanding of the world from a chat room god named Q.
In the end, the “White House Conference on American History” was a political stunt. Sadly, it looked like a sophisticated Trump rally.
The Trump administration believes that an attack on the 1619 Project, critical race theory, and what they claim to be “unpatriotic history” will help Trump win white evangelicals and other conservatives in November. I am really disappointed that Guelzo and McClay–both Christian historians– allowed themselves to be part of this political performance.
John Hope Franklin once called historians “the conscience of the nation.” This entire event is an example of what happens when historians get too cozy with political power.
In case you missed it, Donald Trump discovered critical race theory over the weekend. Here is Friday’s memo from Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget:
September 4, 2020
MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES
FROM: Russell Vought Director
SUBJECT: Training in the Federal Government
It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date “training” government workers to believe divisive, antiAmerican propaganda.
For example, according to press reports, employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or where they are required to say that they “benefit from racism.” According to press reports, in some cases these training have further claimed that there is racism embedded in the belief that America is the land of opportunity or the belief that the most qualified person should receive a job.
These types of “trainings” not only run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception, but they also engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce. We can be proud that as an employer, the Federal government has employees of all races, ethnicities, and religions. We can be proud that Americans from all over the country seek to join our workforce and dedicate themselves to public service. We can be proud of our continued efforts to welcome all individuals who seek to serve their fellow Americans as Federal employees. However, we cannot accept our employees receiving training that seeks to undercut our core values as Americans and drive division within our workforce.
The President has directed me to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions. Accordingly, to that end, the Office of Management and Budget will shortly issue more detailed guidance on implementing the President’s directive. In the meantime, all agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil. In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these unAmerican propaganda training sessions.
The President, and his Administration, are fully committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals in the United States. The President has a proven track record of standing for those whose voice has long been ignored and who have failed to benefit from all our country has to offer, and he intends to continue to support all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or creed. The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.
Trump has been tweeting about this:
And here are a few of Trump’s retweets this weekend:
So what is happening here?
What is critical race theory? You can learn all about it here.
Critical race theorists believe that racism is a systemic problem in the United States. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice executed by a “few bad apples,” but a system of injustice woven deeply into American culture.
I have read several stories on Trump’s attempt to ban critical race theory and it is still not clear to me exactly which federal training programs Trump is talking about here or how critical race theory is being taught in these programs. I think it is fair to say that Trump knows absolutely nothing about critical race theory apart from the fact that his political base is against it.
And what should we make of the fact that a memo from the Office of the President condemning a federal government training program cites “press reports” as its primary evidence? Trump’s seems to have learned about critical race theory from this segment of the Tucker Carlson Show on Fox News:
Chris Rufo, the guy who appears in this video, works for the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank. You can read his other writings here. You can learn more about others connected to the Discovery Institute here.
So what should we make of critical race theory? Like all academic theories, we should engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups. In the United States, there has been a long history of White people oppressing Black people. As a result, White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not.
It is hard to study American history and not see this oppression. It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty and freedom and individual rights are still with us.
This past week I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that made Black men and women slaves in an attempt to quell disgruntled poor whites who had shown a propensity for political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of the former white indentured servant population in Virginia.
Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other examples in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.
I have a hunch that Rufo is a Christian. And I have no doubt that Trump’s decision to root out critical race theory will win him points with his evangelical base. So what should a Christian think about critical race theory?
Christians should expect injustice and oppression in this world. The world is fallen. We learn this from reading Genesis 3. Sin pervades this world and manifests itself in both individual transgression and cultural systems. We place our hope in Jesus Christ, a suffering savior whose death for our sins initiated a new kingdom–the Kingdom of God– that will one day reach its fulfillment in a new heavens and a new earth. God redeems our individual lives and will one day redeem His creation, which Romans 8 tells us is “groaning” with “labor pains” as it awaits redemption.Until Jesus returns, citizens of God’s Kingdom are called to live justice-filled lives. And those who care about justice will privilege standing with the poor and oppressed.
So if theologians like James Cone, critical race theorists, or American historians can help me better understand oppression, the ways I have benefited from such oppression (even if I don’t commit overt acts of racism), and teach me how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to learn more about it?
As a Christian, I prefer to see the world through the eyes of my faith. In other words, I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of critical race theory and reject other parts. This might also mean that I reject the way critical race theory is applied, especially when it leads to violence. But Christian’s shouldn’t be afraid of it.
If we want to use jargon that is common in today’s political climate, I think it is fair to say that Trump is “canceling” critical race theory. Trump and his followers want open discourse, debate, and the free exchange of ideas, but only with those ideas that they find agreeable. Critical race theory appears to have become a new kind of McCarthyism. How else should we interpret Trump’s call to “please report any sightings.”
Finally, let’s acknowledge what is really going on here.
Second, Trump is trying to scare Americans, especially his white evangelical base, into voting for him in November.
Third, by attacking a theory he knows nothing about, Trump continues to engage in the subtle (but premeditated) racism that has defined his entire presidency. We saw it in Charlottesville. We saw it in Kenosha. We saw it following the Floyd murder. And we see it whenever he talks about the suburbs.
Fourth, this whole incident shows us, once again, that we have an incompetent president who watches Fox News and then impulsively tweets policy proposals based on what he has seen.
As many of you know, this semester I am teaching three sections of a Messiah College course called Created and Called for Community (CCC). This is a required course for first-year Messiah students. They take it in the second semester at the college.
CCC has three main goals:
It serves as one of two first-year writing courses required of all Messiah College students.
It introduces students to Christian higher education and how Messiah College approaches the task of Christian higher education. This is a course on Christian thinking.
It teaches students how to read and engage texts. We challenge students to “make meaning”out of these texts through close reading and conversation.
On Monday, we spent the entire class period preparing students for the 500-750 word analytical essay they will submit at the end of the week. The essay will engage a class reading on Christian education. Students have three choices here: Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Go With God,” Ernest Boyer’s “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College,” and John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?” Once students pick an article, they will narrow their focus to one central claim or argument and build an essay around it. They will either write an “agree or disagree” essay or an “amplification” essay.
As I talked to the students about how to compose this essay, I warned them about separating the logistics of writing (thesis statements, summarizing, arguing, opening paragraphs, conclusions) from the other two stated goals of CCC. Many first-year students don’t naturally make the connection between writing and thinking. They also don’t see writing as a spiritual discipline–a way of worshiping God with their minds.
We talked a lot about how to write in a nuanced, complex, and humble way. First-year college students have opinions, but those opinions are not fully formed. They are in no position to “agree” or “disagree” at any deep level with people like Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, or John Henry Newman. This should not stop them from trying, but such writing must remain humble. I hope I did not offend students when I told them that they are not (yet?) as smart as Hauerwas, Boyer, and Newman. Neither do they know as much about the subject of Christian education as these esteemed writers. If they disagree with the central premise of one of these articles, they still must write as if these authors can teach them something about how to think Christianly about their college experience. If students can develop this kind of nuanced and complex writing, and translate it to the way they engage the world, we may well be on our way to avoiding the kind of polarizing public discourse we find in the country today.
On Wednesday we are reading Boyer’s essay on Messiah College. Follow the class here.
Neem argues that critical thinking cannot take place without knowledge–the kind of knowledge one learns in a particular discipline. Or, as he puts it, colleges and universities should understand skill development “in relation to the goods of liberal education.”
Here is a taste:
Advocates of critical thinking contrast thinking critically with learning knowledge. College professors, they proclaim, teach a bunch of stuff (facts, dates, formulae) that students don’t need and won’t use. Instead, students need to have intellectual and cognitive skills. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proclaimed, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”
There are two problems with this perspective. First, it is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It presumes that the material colleges teach—the arts and sciences—does not matter, when, in fact, this is the very reason colleges exist. Second, these claims are wrong. Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.
In many ways, the turn to skills is a defensive response. At a time when the humanities, in particular, are under attack, what better way to defend the humanities’ “useless knowledge” than by demonstrating that these are means to a larger end: critical thinking? However, one must acknowledge that these defenses reflect the capitulation of academics to utilitarian and pragmatic pressures. Lacking a convincing argument for the knowledge that anthropologists or historians have to offer, they instead proclaim that history and anthropology will serve employers’ needs better than will other fields. But if that’s the case, why does one really need to know anything about anthropology or history? Why should colleges hire anthropologists or historians instead of professors of critical thinking?
This is not an abstract question. When we turn from higher education to the K–12 system, we see that the focus on skills over knowledge has transformed the curriculum. Increasingly, especially under the Common Core State Standards, students devote their energies to learning skills, but they may not learn as much history or civics or science. Therefore, in contrast to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of many reformers, critical thinking must be defended because it encourages students to gain more insight from the arts and sciences.
CHICAGO — A 2018 paper by members of the Stanford History Education Group called out historians for failing to value evidence of student learning as much as they value evidence in their historical analyses.
The authors’ occasion for rebuke? Their recent finding that many students don’t learn critical thinking in undergraduate history courses — a challenge to history’s sales pitch that its graduates are finely tuned critical thinkers.
Even among juniors and seniors in a sample of public university students in California, just two out of 49 explained that it was problematic to use a 20th-century painting of “The First Thanksgiving” to understand the actual 1621 event, wrote lead author Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and professor of history at Stanford University, and his colleagues.
The paper, which included other similar examples, was distressing. But it wasn’t meant to damning — just a wake-up call, or, more gently, a conversation starter. And that conversation continued Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. A panel of professors here urged a sizable crowd of colleagues to embrace not just grades but formative, ongoing assessment to gauge student learning or lack thereof in real(er) time.
Suggested formative assessments include asking students to engage with primary-source documents such as maps, paintings, eyewitness event accounts, newspaper ads and unconventional historical artifacts via specific prompts. Others include asking students to examine a symbol of American nationhood, a local historical site or how pundits use history to advance arguments.
Panelist Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College in Illinois, ran a study very similar to Wineburg’s on his own campus, and said the disappointing results held up. In general, he said, students either take any historical source at face value or — when they discover it was created by a human being — dismiss it outright as “biased,” he said, to chuckles.
Partly in response to that finding, Calder and his colleagues have doubled down on their ongoing campaign to discuss historical “sourcing” in every single class. That is part of a larger, existing departmental motto: LASER, an acronym for Love history, Acquire and analyze information, Solve difficult problems, Envision new explanations, and Reveal what you know. Sourcing work, which Calder called a “threshold concept” in history, means asking students to evaluate the reliability of various historical texts. Who made it? When? Why? What value does it hold for historians, if any?
Over at his blog Blue Book Diaries, Jonathan Wilson reminds us that the teaching of “critical thinking” skills is not the primary purpose of a college education. (Neither is job training). Here is a taste of his piece “The Most Understood Purpose of Higher Ed.”
Let’s be realistic. Most of the time, in most institutions, both the notion that the academy is a free-for-all of critical thinking and the notion that it’s a re-education camp for the politically incorrect are myths. This is not to deny that ideological abuses of power do happen, nor that many students have rational awakenings in college, but neither is a realistic description of most people’s experiences in practice. And I don’t think they’re good descriptions of the academy’s behavior in theory either.
So what kind of thinking does the academy promote when it’s doing its job especially well? (For simplicity, let’s stick close to undergraduate applications.)
The key to provisional collective best thinking practices is that knowledge means something special to scholars, including successful college students. For scholarly purposes—and I believe this is true across disciplines—professional knowledge consists not simply of true beliefs, but of true beliefs reached in a valid way. And validity is judged not by the individual, but by a community of scholars in an ongoing conversation.
Here’s where things get truly scary: For rigorous scholarly purposes, knowledge includes in its implicit definition the possibility that it might ultimately be proven false. That’s the “ongoing conversation” part. The only thing that scholars, as such, know for sure (however certain they may feel) is that their knowledge hasn’t been discredited by valid scholarship yet.
Wilson argues that colleges and universities do not teach “that certain ideas are ‘true’ in an academic sense–as far as we know, according to the best available evidence so far–because we have worked them out in a collective process of examination.” He adds, “We teach truths that are provisional but have been reached through the collective best thinking.”
Amen. This is a great argument for the communal nature of higher education. Wilson concludes: “…the mark of truly well-educated (as opposed to well-trained or well-spoken) people is their grasp of the way knowledge is collectively created….”
Two quick responses from where I sit, as a history professor at a private liberal arts college:
First, this is yet another argument for why the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination. Our job is not to tell students what to believe, but to teach them how knowledge is created so that they can make their own decisions about what to believe. This is something that those on the Left and the Right must understand, but in the context of academia it is something that is more pertinent to the Left. The classroom is not a place for preaching.
Second, Wilson seems to be making an indirect argument for the disciplines. Each liberal arts discipline offers a different way of examining the world and the human experience. Each discipline provides a different set of skills and thinking habits for arriving at knowledge. This is what makes me nervous about introducing “interdisciplinary” learning to college students so early in their college and university experience. How does one learn to think in an “interdisciplinary” fashion without first learning the thinking skills and practices associated with the individual disciplines?
According to a recent article in the journal Cognition, psychologists Gordon Pennycook (University of Regina) and David Rand (MIT) argue that “individuals who are more willing to think analytically…are less likely to think that fake news is accurate.”
The Pacific Standard has a piece on Pennycook’s and Rand’s study. Here is a taste:
If humans have extraordinary reasoning abilities, why do so many of us fall for fake news? As the mid-term elections near, and our Facebook feeds load up with dubious posts, it’s an unusually urgent question.
It links susceptibility to misinformation with intellectual laziness.
“The evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think,” report psychologists Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina and David Randof the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Individuals who are more willing to think analytically … are less likely to think that fake news is accurate.”
In the journal Cognition, the researchers describe three studies featuring a total of 3,446 people. The main study, conducted in the summer of 2017, featured 2,644 participants recruited online, split nearly evenly between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters.
Participants were presented with 12 fake and 12 real news headlines, all presented in the format of a social media post. The fake items were split evenly between ones that would appeal to Trump supporters and Trump opponents.
I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it?
Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.
You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean?
Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.
Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Thinkhere.
RNS: What do you see is the core problem with many “thinkers?”
AJ: It’s hard to name just one thing — there are so many problems! So much bad thinking! But if I were forced to name one universal one it would be a lack of awareness of our own motives and incentives. A failure to realize that there are forces at work on and in all of us to discourage thought or even prevent it altogether.
RNS: What about American Christians, generally speaking? Are they good thinkers?
AJ: Ummm … not so much.
RNS: How can followers of Jesus become better critical thinkers? Give us one or two points that come to mind.
AJ: Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here.
There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin.
Read the entire interview here and find out why Jacobs think it is impossible to
“think for yourself.”
Fifteen Ivy League scholars have published a letter encouraging young people from the class of 2021 to think for themselves. The letter appears on the website of Princeton University James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Signers include Yale historian Carlos Eire, Princeton political scientist Robert George, Princeton humanities professor Joshua Katz, and Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon.
Here it is:
We are scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale who have some thoughts to share and advice to offer students who are headed off to colleges around the country. Our advice can be distilled to three words:
Think for yourself.
Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.
In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.
At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.
Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies.
Don’t do that. Think for yourself.
Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.
The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.
So don’t be tyrannized by public opinion. Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions.
Over at The Baffler, Maximillian Alvarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, has an absolutely fascinating piece on the way our “opinions” are tied, in an unhealthy way, to our “identities.”
Here is a taste:
What do we really mean when we say we’re “entitled to our opinions”? So many questions have been asked over the past year with the hope that the answers to them may help us better understand how our dangerously absurd political moment came to be. But this question is way more revealing than most.
I’ve been fortunate enough to design and teach my own college courses exploring, from literary, historical, and philosophical angles, the many complex processes that led to a Donald Trump presidency. But, as a teacher of argumentative writing, I’ve also been given a window through which to observe some of those processes in action, to see how their effects manifest in the peculiar ways people—namely, my students—think and act. In classes where argumentation is the center of gravity for everything else we do, my students and I begin every term by discussing whether or not, in our classroom and in the world at large, we are, in fact, entitled to our opinions.
On a purely literal level, the first implication of this common refrain is that, no matter how out of wack your opinion may be, you’re entitled to have it—no one can physically stop you. Sure. That’s reasonable, if kind of banal. (You can physically punish or silence people who have certain opinions, but can you actually stop them from having the opinions in the first place?) But, as it’s generally understood, the second implication of the phrase is more troublesome.
As Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, explains it, the phrase suggests that you’re “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth.” As if there’s a social law that says all opinions are equal and all deserve, by right, to be treated equally. This is where lines start to blur—when opinions themselves are seemingly given their own protective rights—and the common refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” absorbs into itself the pseudo-noble cliché that we must always “respect other people’s opinions.” For Stokes, the obvious problem is that this kind of customary treatment devalues the ways that opinions are supposed to earnserious consideration through logical argumentation, persuasion, rigorous research, and expertise. When these are thrown out the window, people start to expect that their views deserve to not only be taken seriously, but to also be protected from serious challenges, because, well, it’s their opinion.
As Stokes argues, this shared belief that every opinion has an equal claim to being right or true leads to the twisted state of things we have today where, say, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories or climate change denialism are given plenty of media time and mainstream consideration even when it can be shown that some of their claims are verifiably wrong and have serious negative consequences. Stokes, in other words, is on to something here, but the problem goes much deeper. This prevailing situation hinges less on differing opinions that claim, by their own merits, to be “serious candidates for the truth” and more on the ways that opinions have been given cultural and political protection in the “free market of ideas.” Opinions have been subsumed under the various and more totalizing categories of identity, which are understood to be “off limits.”
This piece takes my brain in so many different directions–the court evangelicals, the intellectual culture of the college where I teach, the place of social media in democratic discourse, and the people that cable news networks choose to put on the air–that I better stop writing before I write something I am not quite ready to “put out there” yet.
Hi. This is the site for my forthcoming book, How to Think, which will be published in the U.S. by Convergent Books, and in the U.K. by Profile Books, in October of 2017…
Why did I write this book?
Across the political spectrum, people speak with a single voice on one point and one point only: our public sphere is a great big mess. Mistrust and suspicion of our neighbors, anger at their folly, inadvertent or deliberate misunderstanding of their views, attribution of the worst possible motives to those whose politics we despise: these are the dissonant notes we hear struck repeatedly every day, especially on social media. And while none of this began with the big political stories of 2016 — the Presidential election in the U.S., the Brexit decision in the U.K. — those events seem to have increased the volume pretty dramatically.
All this agitated hostility has grieved me, especially since I know and love people on all sides of the current culture wars. As someone who lives in both academic and religious communities, I am reminded every day of how deeply suspicious those groups can be of one another — and how little mutual comprehension there is. I’ve reflected a great deal on the major causes of our discontent and mutual suspicion, and I’ve wondered whether there might be some contribution I could make to the healing of these wounds.
Eventually two points occurred to me. The first is that many of our fiercest disputes occur because the people involved simply aren’t thinking: they’re reacting or emoting or virtue-signaling or ingroup-identifying. The second is that I have spent my entire career thinking and trying to teach others to think.
When those points became clear in my mind I understood what I needed to do. So I wrote this book.
Here are some of my key themes:
the dangers of thinking against others
the need to find the best people to think with
the error of believing that we can think for ourselves
Why should we study history? Why does the college where I teach require students to take a history course? I asked these questions to my students today. A few them mentioned the phrase “critical thinking” in their answers.
As Georgia State University English professor Rob Jenkins notes in a recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “critical thinking” is an overused catchphrase in American higher education.
But it can be defined.
Here is a taste:
Critical thinking, as the term suggests, has two components. The first is thinking — actually thinking about stuff, applying your brain to the issues at hand, disciplining yourself (and it does require discipline) to grapple with difficult concepts for as long as necessary in order to comprehend and internalize them.
This is important because we live in a society that increasingly makes it easy for people to get through the day without having to think very much. We have microwaveable food, entertainment at our fingertips, and GPS to get us where we need to go. I’m not saying those things are bad. Ideally, such time-saving devices free up our brains for other, more important pursuits. But the practical effect is that we’ve become accustomed to setting our brains on autopilot.
Actual thinking requires deep and protracted exposure to the subject matter — through close reading, for example, or observation. It entails collecting, examining, and evaluating evidence, and then questioning assumptions, making connections, formulating hypotheses, and testing them. It culminates in clear, concise, detailed, and well-reasoned arguments that go beyond theory to practical application….
The second component of critical thinking is the critical part. In common parlance, “critical” has come to mean simply negative — as in, “I don’t like to be around him, he’s always so critical.” But of course that’s not what it means in an academic context.
Think of movie critics. They cannot simply trash every film they see. Instead, their job is to combine their knowledge of films and filmmaking with their extensive experience (having no doubt seen hundreds, even thousands of films) and provide readers with the most objective analysis possible of a given movie’s merits. In the end, what we’re left with is just one critic’s opinion, true. But it’s an opinion based on substantial evidence.
To be “critical,” then, means to be objective, or as objective as humanly possible. No one is capable of being completely objective — we’re all human, with myriad thoughts, emotions, and subconscious biases we’re not even aware of. Recognizing that fact is a vital first step. Understanding that we’re not objective, by nature, and striving mightily to be objective, anyway, is about as good as most of us can do.