Critical thinking losing favor in schools, culture, politics

On Tuesday, I published a reader’s question that provoked a discussion of fundamentalism. This discussion just won’t let me go. Let’s pick it up from this line: “Fundamentalism is not the same as conviction wrought from the marriage of abiding values and the willingness to think critically.”

Ah, the willingness to think critically. A crippled understatement, actually. It’s more than willingness. We have to know how to think critically.

I know a brother and sister, 17 and 15, who take part in debate in high school. Spend five minutes with either of these kids, and you’ll know you’re not in the company of your average American teenager.

A debate team teaches you to be a relentless researcher. On a debate team, you will hone the skills of great oratory. But more than anything else, debate teaches critical thinking.

Rules of inference and logic, fallacies of logic, the burden of proof, parsimony, empiricism, teleology, utilitarianism, epistemology, tests for validity, specious arguments — the language of critical thinkers. There is nothing more important an education can provide a child than to foster a hunger to think critically and the tools to know how.

I can’t be the only American who fears that critical thinking is no longer the central agenda of our schools. Read Allan Bloom’s book “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987). He observes that critical thinking is no longer an abiding value in our culture. Just not that important. The winner of “America’s Next Top Model”? That’s important!

And I’m here to tell you it might be worse than that. George Orwell’s novel “1984” was all the rage when I was in college. I felt really hip to have read it. But today, Orwell’s book is starting to freak me right out.

I wonder if we don’t actually prefer not to think critically, because the conclusions of critical thinking connote an unbearable responsibility. I notice styles and patterns of leadership — educational, religious, political, familial — that appear to seduce, enchant and bewitch. Turn our brains to oatmeal. Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Wish I could remember who said this, but I can’t say it any better: “There have always been men of arrested development who, dreading reality, found psychological protection in the art of incapacitating the minds of others.”

And I’m not even a conspiracy buff.

Today you can garner folks’ admiration by saying “in my opinion.” In a world absent much critical thinking, such words pass as humility. But it’s a dodge. I don’t care about your opinion. Or mine. Bring me a powerful and compelling argument. Then you’ll have my attention.

Everyone is part of the solution, all ideas have value, we’re all experts, humility means remembering that we can’t know anything absolutely — know what all these little maxims have in common? Every last one of them is hogwash, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people with multiple college degrees recite such phrases without irony.

Which leads me to the subject of political campaigns. Are you watching and listening to the presidential hopefuls from both parties?

I’m the candidate for change!

What change, exactly?

The change that Americans want, that they are looking for!

OK. I’ll bite. What change am I looking for?

No more “business as usual” in Washington!

I so don’t have a reference point here. What do you understand to be business as usual, and how would you do it differently?

My opponent is, on a good day, an idiot. But worse, his/her motives are corrupt!

Any chance for an illustration?

I’m really cool, and I have pure motives! See this picture of me and my spouse and our dog?

They are all using variations of the Sprite advertising campaign — Image is nothing; obey your thirst! — where they try to “sell” you the idea of embracing the image of someone who is so cool they have risen above the need to have an image.

Except the presidential candidates aren’t selling soft drinks.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@review

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