The world is changing rapidly – politically, socially, technologically – and we have repeatedly considered here how we are ill-equipped to deal with it. One of the major problems blocking progress is one of authority vs critical thinking.
All of us, professionals included, often defer to authority without critically thinking about the complexities of a problem. Among the authorities to whom we defer are the king and the corporation, in their desire that we should be trained to serve their ambitions, and so they provide us with schools that thwart the development of critical thinking skills.
Overarching much of this is the authority of the scientist. We religiously adhere to a scientific system which, despite claims otherwise, is heavy on dogma and demagoguery. Scientists today are often as rigid and reactionary as scientists were in earlier centuries, and as the religious authorities were before that. Scientists often respond to that by objecting, “But we have changed so much since then.” To which I ask:
“What in our educational paradigms has changed, and when did it take place?”
They do not answer, because there has been no large shift in our approaches to teaching. This is part of the problem with everyone: we think we are smarter today without (drumroll, please) critically thinking about it.
We still teach science, and most disciplines, the same way the medieval church taught religion. I have noted that education is still based around the book which becomes an unquestionable lithography of authority.1)Lithography: Greek; literally, ‘written in stone’. I refer to Thomas Kuhn repeatedly, and in his conclusion to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he points out that science is still taught as dogmatic truth. Kuhn then relates his teaching experiences, that science students often do well in history and philosophy of science classes… eventually.
But only after they are intellectually disabused of the notion that science is Truth, and a set of facts.
Our focus on books leads us to believe that examples and logic will correct the problems of illogical thinking. In high irony, example and logical analysis show the opposite: people rarely change their opinions in the face of logic. Logic only works if the student doesn’t already have an opinion. So we see that while students quickly accept basic concepts of physiology and physics, they may balk at organic evolution and the Big Bang. Another authority got there first, and no amount of arguing 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?
The fundamental principle is role modeling. To teach open-mindedness, we must practice open-mindedness. I talked about my dad, an Episcopal priest, and his willingness to permit, and admit, questions about the existence of God.
We must do what my father did: admit that we may be wrong, and that we are not completely sure. To teach others to question global authority, we must willing to question our own authority. Experience confirms this. We have all observed angry people relent, not through argument, but through respect and sincere concern. A particularly wise friend once pointed out that it is not even critical that the source of the anger is resolved; what protesters really want is respect and a fair hearing.
That is critical: for people to reconsider dogma, for them to escape some inflexible authority, they need a new, liberating authority which respects and accepts them. They need tolerance.
In order to provide this tolerance, we must be tolerant. We must be collegial, and treat students as intellectual equals. Occasionally some school administrators and teachers have objected to this suggestion, arguing that treating students as equals will lead to chaos. But respect must work both ways. Kindergartners may defer to disrespectful authority, but with each passing year students become more resentful and resistant, sometimes with passive-aggressive sabotage.
It is certainly 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. Morale was low, teaching suffered, the principal was resented, and yes, teachers occasionally sabotaged him in passive-aggressive ways. Teachers respond to respect.
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.
There are two paradoxes here. First, given real respect for our autonomy, we become more obedient. When our ideas are respected, most people 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, disrespectful dogmatic approaches with logic and yet more authority – with hammer thinking – only leads to further entrenchment. In contrast, when given simple respect rather than logic for 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 stricter discipline, but even more respect, and more attention, as evidence from the Yale Parenting Center suggests. 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 Congress, legislatures, and school boards, we should not be surprised that the same culture is so prevalent elsewhere.
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.||↑||Lithography: Greek; literally, ‘written in stone’.|