Some Critical Thinking for 2012

Steve Balch

2012 will present the American electorate with stark choices – here a presidential candidate and party deeply invested in government as a surefire problem-solver, there a candidate and party beholding all manner of sovereign remedies in the marketplace. The chasm will yawn equally wide with respect to foreign policy, “soft-power” and internationalism squaring off against “tough-mindedness” and national self-assertion.  Facing such a sharp divide voters will do well to weigh their options carefully. And so too should educators.

Preparing young people for citizenship is, of course, one of the academy’s most heralded tasks. And, needless to say, it includes prepping for electoral choice. So what specifically might citizens expect educators to have on offer to help in their rendezvous with destiny?

The answer most favored in academe today is “critical thinking skills,” but what can this mean? Are proponents referring to the venerable trivium, that language arts ensemble schoolmen once saw as the basis for clarity of mind and the preliminary for advanced instruction? Grammar, to be sure, is still studied after a fashion in our grade schools, but rarely logic and rhetoric, the classic techniques for analyzing and constructing arguments.  Nor are these included in most college requirements. Yet even were they standbys, skillfully and rigorously imparted, neither would suffice for the coming D-Day at the polls. True, the spiels of politicians on both sides of the aisle abound in logical fallacies and rhetorical scams, but rarely does penetrating them suffice to settle any great questions. What’s needed besides is actual knowledge of how the world works, and that ain’t easy to come by.

The debate between the champions of planning and the marketplace proceeds along several distinct and fact-laden dimensions. The antagonists differ in their assessment of political benevolence, the former more optimistic, the latter less. They also split on the efficacy of collective versus personal action, progressives more persuaded of the merits of majoritarianism, conservatives of individual choice. They’re opposed as well on the relative importance of equality and liberty, and while this is usually thought a matter of “value” rather than of “fact,” assessing the trade-offs between them demands voluminous amounts of social, political, and historical understanding. With appropriate adjustments one could say very similar things of the epistemic foundations for untangling controversies over foreign policy.

The ownership of a fully stocked armamentarium of critical-thinking skills isn’t, by itself, enough to come close to settling any of these hard questions. Were that the case, most would have been laid to rest long ago, just as, gradually, have many of the knotty conjectures of logic and mathematics. Even those professionally entrusted with the investigation of these imposing policy disputes – economists, political scientists, policy wonks of every description – have failed to reach anything like agreement about them – despite the fact that they’re not only, presumably, Grade-A thinkers, but highly informed ones to boot.

There’s no mystery in this. The questions involved are simply too complex for the kind of definitive resolution that would satisfy everyone. There is no method, for instance, by which economists, imitating physicists, can dispositively dispatch erring hypotheses about business cycles to oblivion. Bulls and bears are just chancier critters than quarks. 

And then there is the matter, no small one either, of colliding interests. Public controversies are as much, if not more, about winning and losing as truth and falsity. In principle the truth about complex issues is out there to be had, and a consensus about it can sometimes be approached. But to the degree this actually happens, those with the most to lose by enlightenment – either in terms of concrete interests or, if experts, via reputational damage – are more likely to be dragged to recognition by the chastisements of experience than pure ratiocination. Marxism’s ultimate deflation had more to do with reality’s check than discursion’s trope.

The “laity” (including students) with less skin in the game, may be more open-minded. But while openness of mind and a sense of what constitutes good or bad argument can help around the fringes, it isn’t enough to take the amateur to the core of any profound issue. A prepackaged opinion from a trusted source, held in varying degrees of doubt or qualification (insofar as trusted sources differ), may be the best a citizen can do when pondering matters beyond his or her direct ken, or unrelated to any palpable interest.

So, returning to our initial question, what can the educator do to be of use? Several things.

Yes, thinking skills have their place. They help to digest problems of modest bite and to take bits and pieces out of those more massive. They also allow one to discern when there’s more hole than doughnut to an argument. Here the classic study of fallacy is valuable, especially the politically recurrent like the ad hominem, the post hoc ergo propter hoc, and question-begging.

A good thinking skills practicum can also provide the experience of working through a meaty problem – particularly the laying-out and answering of imagined objections one-by-one, like old-time scholastics. Not remotely foolproof, knowledge still is king and prejudice hard to defeat, but as Socrates knew, even when inconclusive the dialectic demonstrates what serious deliberation is all about. By virtue of its difficulty, not least its demand for intellectual self-searching, it’s also a process that can promote mental modesty, a trait Socrates at least feigned, and which is probably more important in moderating political tension than either reason or knowledge. A good education, to the extent possible, should try to cultivate the sensibility of the inquirer instead of the doctrinaire, the analyst rather than the true-believer.

But one man’s analyst is another’s high priest, bringing us inescapably to the quality of the world-picture the academy paints, that is, the extent to which it tends to be true to life’s facts. Since learners are unlikely to be able to shape an original image of the world for themselves, to the degree their mind’s eye acquires one, the university’s resident masters will probably be the source.  And what learners learn will not be confined to the broad strokes these masters paint – it will also include, perhaps most importantly, cues as to where to look for the further interpretation of facets, and to evaluate any retouchings that come to be proposed. Does one turn to Republicans or Democrats, business or labor leaders, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Tribe or Robert Bork, the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress?  For most, the lasting significance of these referential leads will lie in what they say about the cultural respectability of authorities, a quality readily – sometimes far too readily – equated with truthfulness.

Academics, of course, are not the only persons from whom worldviews can be, or are, obtained, but they are the ones who’ll be encountered by most educated people. Some students, to be sure, will reject them as role models. Others won’t care about the subjects they address. Still others, initially influenced, will subsequently have second thoughts about their wisdom.  Many, however, for want of contact with anyone more persuasive, will hold onto their basic lessons, retaining them more or less for life. Were there a wide variety of opinions within academe as to how the world works, we’d be transmitting a similarly wide variety of these persisting worldviews, and thereby hedging our bets on their verisimilitude. But as academic opinion falls heavily on the left, we’ve correspondingly concentrated our chips.

Assuming no one side in American policy debate has a monopoly on truth, this is lousy risk management. For society as a whole it creates an unhealthy imbalance within “elite” opinion. For academe in particular it leads to a dangerous level of institutional vulnerability.

It’s not, of course, that higher education’s ideologically unbalanced portfolio has made the country similarly monolithic. If the run-up to 2012 reveals anything it’s the degree to which America is now ideologically riven, with hostile camps in glowering confrontation. What it has done is to ensure that these camps are not only intellectually, but socially and culturally, separated. On the one side are those who take their cues from higher education, especially its ivied upper rung – our “court party” so to speak, recalling an eighteenth-century label now again apt. Dominating journalism, the arts, and increasingly the captaincies of industry and finance, it constitutes the new American establishment, with all the aloof disdain toward outsiders this implies. On the other stands our “country party” (continuing the Georgian analogy), Whig in our case rather than Tory, but as before fighting against insiders regarded as effete and corrupt, and priding itself on being the embattled bearer of traditional national virtues. The members of the country party take their ideological bearings from a welter of outland sources – family, church, talk radio, Ayn Rand, etc. They haven’t fashioned their worldviews singlehandedly any more than have the Yalies, but the authorities to whom they subscribe are far more sympathetic to the life experiences of Middle America than the “courtiers.” And so across a yawning chasm the hauteur of sophisticates finds its match in the indignation of the dispossessed.

To the philosophical polarity of “progressive” versus “conservative” is thus added an exacerbating social/cultural gap that needn’t have inevitably flowed from it. A more intellectually pluralistic academy could have produced a more pluralistic opinion leadership, united in taste but divided by opinion, each segment with its own country-wide following, like the Oxbridge-bred Liberal and Conservative grandees of late nineteenth-century Britain, or Republican and Democrat leaders for most of the twentieth century – gentlemen all.

An academy of decent ideological mix would have produced yet another benefit. Having two views (at least) at close institutional quarters would probably have served to moderate them. Once their worldviews become settled, most believers (including academics) remain faithful throughout their lifetimes with such change as occurs as much a function of sociality as discussion. A good way to take some of the hardness off those edges is to have their owners rub shoulders. If agreement can’t be reached this way, basic respect (the flip side of Socratic modesty) is often a serviceable substitute and, in episodes of public tension, invaluable.

For the academy pluralism would enhance institutional security. Higher educators – educators at all levels – have done themselves no favors by culturally anathematizing large swatches of their compatriots. Many of those so cursed will see in the thinking skills academicians tout, not ubiquitous instruments of analysis, but polemical weapons deliberately fashioned to eviscerate everything they hold near and dear. The academy’s own critical thinking skills should lead it to realize that this isn’t the best way to stay afloat in a political storm, or, for that matter, sell the value of critical thinking to others.

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