Here is a question I posed before in a different guise. If we are doing such a good job teaching critical thinking skills in schools, why is George W. Bush President of the United States? Why, indeed, are three quarters of the Congress where they are? Both the Executive and the Legislative branches of government in the USA are at all time lows in public opinion polls. And from where I sit I think I agree with the polls.
The competency at judgment for these people has been tested many times over the course of the last seven years and, as far as I can tell, they have uniformly failed to make wise choices. This is not to say I think the prior administration or the past legislatures have done much better. But the situation now stands out in deep relief because it is so starkly bad. Yet here is the thing I'm really on about: a sufficient number of the populace in 1999/2000 actually thought GWB was pretty OK such that the race was close enough to be ultimately fought in the Supreme Court and handed (in my opinion inappropriately) to Bush. Then in 2003/2004 the actual vote went to Bush (unless one thinks Ohio was stolen). So is it the case that a significant number of adults in the USA were brain-dead in those two races? Judging by the results (think Katrina and the continuing debacle in Iraq) they either made a huge mistake or were easily fooled.
And that is what I wonder about. If people in this country were actually capable of critical thinking would Bush have been elected — hell would he even have been a nominee? This question is important because there was, I think, ample evidence at the time that he was an incompetent, double-dealing liar. He'd been a lousy governor of Texas and a failed businessman. His speech patterns, eye twitches and other mannerisms (including his fake drawl and swagger) should have triggered some kind of negative emotional reaction one would think. They did in me and whenever I have such a reaction it triggers my intellect to start making careful observations and assessments. I was dumbfounded that Bush actually won the nomination and then got enough votes to get within striking distance. But what really got me to wondering is that after all the evidence of idiocy and lying from the first term, people actually voted for him again. I imagine John Kerry has really been smarting over that one.
So back to the point about people practicing critical thinking. Do they as a rule? Do people look at, for example, media statements or other political claims and start asking questions like: "OK where is the evidence? How strong is the evidence? Are there counterfactuals that should be considered?," etc. Or do they say things like: "Aha, that proves my point! You see, I told you that was so! O'Reilly said it and it sounds right to me!"
Another aspect of judgment is having some knowledge base from which to draw hypotheses about the claims being made. Take, for example, the debates about global warming or evolution that have raged in this country. We can sort of understand the motivations of the extreme claimants. For example the oil companies have economic motives for trying to obfuscate the issue of global warming. The religious extremists have a vested interest in people 'believing' the Bible literally. But what about the vast majority of people who are not necessarily proponents of these anti-science sides of debates, but nevertheless allow that there might actually BE a debate. That is, they are so uninformed about the science behind these issues that they don't realize that the dinialist or extremist claims are hogwash! The mainstream media has been criticized roundly for giving 'both sides' an equal amount of time in these non-debates. No one seems to be exercising either critical thinking skills or reality checking with science.
Now, if we were doing such a great job in education, would this be the case? Would there be 'debates' about evolution vs. creationism?
My final barb here may piss off a lot of my academic colleagues and I can only preface this with an "I'm sorry, but..." and an "I am just as guilty myself." The fact is that most academics that I know, when they are involved with decision making outside the confines of their academic discipline, frequently do not exercise critical thinking themselves. In other words we talk the talk but often do not walk the walk. I have witnessed too many times, usually in meetings involving ad hoc committees meant to solve some resource issue, or other complex governance matters, faculty members putting aside all pretense of critical judgment and evidence-based argument in favor of emotionally-guided choices.
Now let me hasten to say that this is possibly only human! I have caught myself too often having an emotional response to some issue and falling into this trap of abandoning critical thinking for more expedient argument. As academics we tend to rely more heavily on rhetoric than logic in these cases. Our arguments sound good, but they have little substance in general. I know that it is not easy to maintain a cool, rational head in all matters, especially when my job is going to be affected. But here is where I part company with and have issues with many of my fellow faculty (and I should add more generally the administrators!): They generally do not recognize that they are not thinking critically when challenged with the observation. I would guess that most faculty, if approached with the assertion that they failed to think critically, too often, outside of their discipline would be aghast and insulted (which is one reason I try not to point it out in specific cases). Yet I assert that if they simply reflected for a bit on the possibility that they are failing to practice that which they preach, they would begin to be more observant in their future decision behavior. I suspect that this would lead to far more critical thinking in practice.
Of course this sounds like painting with a broad brush when nuanced strokes are more appropriate, and I certainly acknowledge that my criticism does not blanket every faculty member, in all instances, etc. The medium of a 'quick' blog doesn't allow much more than an overview. So I don't want to sound like I think no educators ever exercise critical judgment outside of their discipline. But I do see it happening often enough that I think it is a problem.
If we, as educators, believe our job is to instill in students critical thinking behavior and to educate them in reality-based knowledge for use in doing that thinking, then we had better practice what we preach. Indeed, as the most vocal advocates of critical, knowledge-based thinking, we have an obligation to excel at this in our everyday lives, not just when we are doing our disciplinary research. And that applies very much to the post-secondary levels of education. What about primary and secondary education? Not everyone goes on to college. What kind of critical thinking skills and knowledge are instilled in high school?
In my next tirade I will continue this theme about education and how we may have it wrong by looking more closely at the whole concept of disciplinary-based education and especially professional schools. My suspicion is that we have put way too much emphasis on preparing people to be cogs in the wheel (or bricks in the wall if you like Pink Floyd). Perhaps, in the day, it was a good move for society — in the tradition of Adam Smith's famous example of the specialization in the pin factory. But I suspect it is now beginning to have an adverse effect in an age of knowledge integration and interdisciplinary progress.