The world is changing rapidly – politically, socially, technologically – and progress requires us to pursue critical thinking, and to resist authority.
The Problem of Authority
All of us, professionals included, too often defer to authority. We typically repeat what we have been told without critically thinking about the complexities of a problem. I see it medicine, I see it in law, I see it in science.
And I see it in education.
Which is a large problem. The only way to escape authority is through learning, education.
Among the authorities to whom we defer are the king and the corporation. They desire that we should be trained to serve their ambitions. Which is where education comes in. Throughout the 10,000 years of civilization, the king ensured that our schools do not promote the development of critical thinking skills. And now the corporation works toward the same goal.
In the modern world, the problem is easily demonstrated among our ‘best’ minds, the scientists. But the scientist submits to his own authorities. And so we all religiously adhere to a scientific system which, despite claims otherwise, is heavy on dogma and light on skepticism. Bernard Barber outlines the problem in his surprising paper, ‘Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery.’
Then there is Thomas Kuhn, who makes the same case. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of the most important philosophical and scientific works of the 20th century, Kuhn shows that ‘ordinary’ science is not practiced as open-minded inquiry. It operates within paradigms.
Only occasionally does someone challenge a field through extraordinary science, through open-minded inquiry. When that happens it creates a paradigm shift. And Kuhn should know.
He coined the phrase.
So despite much protest to the contrary, scientists today can often be as rigid and reactionary as scientists were in earlier centuries, and as the religious authorities were before them. When I mention this to modern scientists they often object, “But we have changed so much since then.”
I respond by asking, “What in our educational paradigms has changed, and when did it take place?”
They do not answer, because again, the central problem is education. There has been no large shift in our approaches to teaching since the Medieval, and actually, long before that. We have not significantly changed the structure nor philosophy of education: Memorize, don’t think.
Submit, don’t question.
So we all think we are smarter today. We certainly know more things. But we aren’t better critical thinkers because we haven’t (drumroll, please) critically thought about it.
We still teach science, and most other disciplines, the same way the Medieval church taught religion. Education is still based around the book which becomes an unquestionable lithograph of authority.1)Lithograph: from the Greek, literally ‘written in stone’.
Kuhn makes this point at the end of Structure. He relates that in his teaching experiences, science students often perform well in their history and philosophy of science classes… eventually.
But only after they are intellectually disabused of the notion that science is unmitigated Truth, and a set of facts.
Only after they reject authority.
Authority vs Logic
Our focus on Medieval education leads us to believe that the book, and its logic and examples, will correct the problems of illogical thinking. In high irony, actual example, and from it logical analysis, show exactly the opposite: people rarely change their opinions in the face of logic.
Logic only works if the student doesn’t already have an opinion. Logic only works if she doesn’t already subscribe to some authority.
So we find that while students quickly accept basic concepts of physiology and physics where they have no pre-formed opinion, they often balk at organic evolution and the Big Bang. Another authority got there first. For many of them, no amount of logic nor evidence will get them to reconsider.
So what will? It is all well and good to point to the problems. But what are the solutions? How might we differently approach knowledge and education, to produce more critical thinkers?
There are two problems. The first problem is preventing people from closing their minds in the first place. The second problem is working with the person who already has a closed mind.
Fortunately, the two strategies share some concepts, but both require that we reconsider our educational ideas.
Fighting Fire with Fire
If we all tend to defer to the first trusted authority who gets to us, then how can we possibly teach critical thinking? How do we open the closed mind?
For the first problem, keeping people from submitting to some authority, we need to get to the student before the authorities.
Which is what we do. Or rather, it’s what we think we do. Just as we see in science, we don’t so much block submission to authority, as we ensure that our preferred authorities — our religion, our political party, our self-service — get there first. But that doesn’t solve the problem of critical thinking. Fighting fire with fire is a good idea within the wilderness.
But inside of civilization, fighting fire with fire just burns down all of our houses.
Authority vs Skepticism
If our goal is critical thinking, we cannot simply substitute one authority for another. To produce critical thinkers, we need to escape the rigid authorities altogether.
The antidote for authority must be skepticism. And what is skepticism, but an open mind?
But here we arrive at another problem: we all believe we are open-minded, and we tell ourselves we are open-minded. Our freshman science classes all tell us that scientists will abandon their beliefs when confronted with just one confounding fact or experiment.
But Kuhn and Barber respond with a chorus of, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
So if talking about being open-minded, and writing about being open-minded, doesn’t make us open-minded… what will?
Role Modeling Open-Mindedness
To teach open-mindedness, our fundamental principle must be role modeling. To teach open-mindedness, we must practice open-mindedness. We must listen to people who disagree with us, and treat them with respect.
And we must listen to the student who is wrestling with questions, and treat her with respect, too. I related the story about my dad, and my questions about the existence of God. Dad was an Episcopal priest, but he surprised me by his willingness to allow me to question. And to even admit that he had his own doubts.
To avoid teaching the student to follow authority, we must do what my father did: abandon authority in favor of skepticism and open-mindedness. We need to be able to admit that we are not completely sure, that we may be wrong. To teach others to question authority, we must willing to question our own authority.
Opening the Closed Mind
It’s true for the naive learner, but it’s also true for those who already in the thrall of some authority. Opening the closed mind is summarized in the joke, ‘How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?’
‘Only one. But it takes a long time, and the light bulb has to really want to change.’
Fighting Fire with Water
So how do we get the light bulb to want to change?
Again, through skepticism and open-mindedness. Experience confirms this. We have all observed angry people relent, not through argument, but through respect and sincere concern. We get other people to shift by treating them with respect, and responding with an open mind. In fact, when someone is ranting and raving from some authoritarian position, one particularly wise friend once pointed out to me that it is not even critical that the source of their anger is addressed.
Because what the angry person really wants is what the student wants: respect and a fair hearing.
That is critical: for people to reconsider dogma and escape some inflexible authority, they need another authority; they need a liberating authority who respects and accepts them. They need tolerance.
In teaching critical thinking, we should not fight fire with fire, but with water. In order to combat intolerance, we must practice tolerance. To the angry and distrusting, we must be the opposite. We need to be collegial, and treat the other, the student, with the respect we would give an intellectual peer.
But as we noted, education submits to its own authorities. When I have suggested to school administrators and teachers that we need to entertain and even encourage students to question and challenge what we teach them, and even to question the rules, some have objected that this will lead to chaos.
But respect must work both ways. True, most kindergartners readily defer to disrespectful authority. With each passing year, however, students become more resentful and resistant. Many obediently submit to authority, and endure the grind. But clearly, the obedient will never critically think for themselves.
Yet other students rebel, sometimes through passive-aggressive sabotage, sometimes through open confrontation. But the rebel may not become a critical thinker either, because she often rejects authority only to take up an equally rigid anti-authoritarian posture.
The Power of Respect
To teach students to be critical thinkers, we have to treat them with respect, and allow them to question.
But it is also true for teachers. I remember two schools I visited. In one teachers were respected and listened to, and they showed great enthusiasm for their work, their students, and their principal. In the second teachers were disrespected, and expected to defer to whatever they were told. Morale was low, teaching suffered, the principal was resented, and yes, teachers occasionally sabotaged him in passive-aggressive ways.
Teachers respond to respect. And why should we expect students to be different? They respond exactly the same way. Observe master teachers, note that their respect for students does not lead to chaos. To the contrary, it increases order, and increases respect for the teacher and everyone.
Paradox of Autonomy
There are two paradoxes here. First, when we feel safe, when we are given real respect for our autonomy on the larger issues, we become more obedient on the smaller ones. When our ideas are respected, we quite happily submit to authority on lesser things, such as conduct, dress, and the other superficials necessary for an orderly classroom, workplace, and democracy.
Second, the traditional and popular response, of disrespectful dogma, logic, and yet more authority – with hammer thinking – only leads to further entrenchment. In contrast, when given simple respect rather than logic to their dogmatic ideas, most people will more willingly listen and open their minds.
There are, of course, some students who do not respond to respect. This presents a third paradox: it is quite possible that what more rebellious students need is not more discipline, but even more respect, and more attention. This is evidenced from the work of the Yale Parenting Center. Of course, if these tolerant practices are not instituted when the child is young, they may become permanently defiant.
An overarching goal in all of these is that other people are important, and that their questions and ideas are valid. Given the disrespect and closed mindedness in government, school boards, and the board room, we should not be surprised that the same culture is so prevalent elsewhere.
Critical Thinking Requires Practice
The final consideration in teaching people to be critical thinkers is time alone. We learn to play basketball or the piano by playing basketball or the piano. We learn to think by thinking.
We cannot think and focus deeply when we are watching TV, chatting on the phone, texting our friends, and running from one after-school event to another. We can’t figure out who we are, and what we believe, except when we are by ourselves. To develop fully, the child needs extended periods of down-time, and alone time.
Turn off the gadgets and the noise, implement some quiet. Like most changes, it’s hard at first. But here it helps to have role-models as well. Children who sit with parents who read, study, and think, are much more likely to do the same.
In order to develop critical thinking skills and a critical view of authority, we must respect the child’s ideas, in order that she learn to respect them herself. And then she needs time and space where she can teach herself what those ideas are.
Child contemplating chess courtesy of Chris Bonnello on Pinterest.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Lithograph: from the Greek, literally ‘written in stone’.|