The root cause of today’s problems
Do you consider yourself to be rational? While I hope that most readers of Medium are indeed rational, I suggest that a large percentage of Americans are better defined not as “rational” but rather as “self-deceiving”. The nature of thinking and the manner and conditions under which thinking is disciplined to acquire knowledge is just one of the many things about which we regularly deceive ourselves.
We (most people) consistently deceive ourselves about many things including the state of, the degree of, and the nature of our knowledge, our freedom, our objectivity, and our character. Specifically, most people confuse their fervent beliefs with knowledge or proof, confuse emotionally held opinions with convictions, offer their arrogance and stubbornness as proof of their determination, mistake judgmentalism for judgment, and assume that their point of view equates with reality.
We confound fact and opinion, data and interpretation, evidence and conclusion, information and knowledge, education and indoctrination. As a species, we do this with extreme ease, with skill if you will, both individually and collectively. Social life effortlessly and skillfully fosters collective illusions while personal life fosters individual ones.
To further elaborate, the concept of having knowledge is reduced to believing what those around us believe. Being free is reduced to acting as we would like to act, which turns out to be suspiciously similar to acting as those around us act, which turns out amazingly like acting as we have been conditioned to act! The real options become the commonly believed options. The right choice becomes the commonly believed choice. Thinking is reduced to responding, reasoning to psychological association. Ah, self-deception reigns supreme. Welcome to America 2019!
Our system of public education is a classic example. While there are certainly some exceptions in school systems across the United States and some schools do a better job than the norm which is where I’m directing these comments. However, by and large, what purports to be education is often indoctrination.
Certainly our society does not see itself as indoctrinating its’ young or discouraging intellectual development. The rhetoric of reason and objectivity is everywhere. Yet most classroom instruction at all levels is typically didactic, one-dimensional, and indifferent (if not antithetical) to reason. In most classes, there is little that is sharp, poignant, challenging, and radical. There is little to provide true intellectual stimulation. Rarely does the heart or the mind of students pulse with excitement.
Students are not expected to ask for reasons to justify what they are told to believe. Students generally do not question what they hear, read, or see, nor are they usually encouraged to do so. Students typically do not challenge the thinking of other students or of the instructor, nor do they want to have their thinking challenged. Indeed, many do not want to have to think at all.
Like programmable androids, students from an early age are deprogrammed from the natural state of curiosity inherent to children and brainwashed to mechanically repeat back what they are told, think what they were told to think, and rarely consider the logic of what they are being told or what they themselves are saying. In my view, basic schooling for the most part has become drab, empty, passive, and sluggish; it is a mass of rules, permissions, sanctions, authorizations, and standardized tests designed to assess rote memorization and abstract concepts that require little or no critical thinking. There is ample evidence that the national focus on test scores leads to teachers who teach only to test answers and not to enhancing intelligence. Even the best teachers are forced into pedagogical strait-jackets by a system focused on memorizing answers rather than asking questions.
At the university-level (which is where I teach), all levels of administration at least passively encourage this approach by the over-emphasis of the reward system on research productivity, with minimal tangible support given to teaching effectiveness. Indeed, teaching efficiency (maximum number of students or “customers” “served” by a minimum number of faculty utilizing minimal resources and minimal faculty time) is valued far more highly than teaching effectiveness (maximizing student learning and student skills).
Believe me, even the faculty members who truly excel in enhancing student learning are still second-class citizens in the university compared to those faculty who bring in large external grants and generate overhead dollars to feed the bureaucracy. (And, of course, even the first-class researchers are lower ranked than the coaches in revenue generating sports! No surprise, it is all about the Benjamins!)
There is an on-going nation-wide trend that most new tenure-track faculty hires are/will be predominantly researchers and that the percentage of “contingent” faculty at the non-tenured “Instructor” or “Lecturer” rank increases each academic year.
Here is a different but related point on the dearth of critical thinking. Prejudice and intolerance is rampant in the world (and on the rise in the age of Trump). Perhaps this is in large part due the lack of developing critical thinking skills. At the level of public discourse, most people oppose, even scorn and ridicule, prejudice. As a practical matter, however, we show little interest in understanding or eradicating it. More often than not, we identify the person disagreeing with as the one who is prejudiced. People tend to only be opposed to the prejudices of others against them, not to their own prejudices against others.
The Founding Fathers of our country built the foundation for our democratic system of government on the assumption that the electorate would choose its representatives wisely. However, an electorate that does not understand the issues on which the quality of life depends cannot hope to do any such thing. To my continuing astonishment, many people express an open disinterest and even disdain for the political process. Many do not bother to vote at all. Many who do vote cast their votes in response to simplistic slogans (Make America Great Again) and emotional nonsense that is so transparent that any thinking person could easily see through it. But the politicians who espouse this simplistic approach are counting on the fact that most people are indeed not thinking. Sadly, the evidence indicates that they are correct in their assumptions. The current resident of the White House is my evidence to verify that assertion.
To put the point in other words, issues and events which, to be approached fairly must be approached from many points of view, are often (perhaps mostly) analyzed and answered from one-side, or perhaps at most two, socially dominant points of view. Prejudiced conclusions are taken to be knowledge based on insight, and a mode of pseudo-freedom results as people define only those options as reasonable that square with their preconceived beliefs. Free choice, manipulated choice, and prejudiced choice have become one and the same phenomenon.
So, for all of these reasons and many more, it is my opinion that we (individually, as a society, and within a teaching/learning environment) must cultivate and value self-disciplined, independent, open-minded thought. We must learn to do something that is quite new to many people: to identify not with the content of our beliefs but with the integrity of the thought process by which we arrived at them. Only then will we not feel threatened when others question our beliefs, only then will we welcome the questioning of others because it is a reminder of the need to be ready to test and retest our beliefs daily, and only then will we learn to think within multiple points of view and with a sense of global perspective. However, in the view of the majority of the American population, the traits expressed above are to be shunned and mocked, not embraced.
A terrifying trend in America is the rampant increase in anti-intellectualism. Why is academia being vilified and why are educated individuals being vilified as “elitists”? Why is it that “being intellectual” is considered by many people to be a very negative trait for a politician? Why would one want to elect leaders, the President of the United States, Senators, Representatives, Governors, who are “just average people” and who are not intelligent critical thinkers? Is it a belief that “simple people” are good and that thinking and learning are bad things?
Why is free thought viewed by many as subversive and conspiratorial? Why are people willing to accept (indeed seek) as answers and solutions to complex and multi-faceted problems simple slogans that will fit onto a bumper sticker? Why is depicting an opponent as an “egghead” generally a very successful political strategy? Is religion (accepting things on faith) a source of anti-intellectualism? Why do some people take pride in the fact that they don’t think? Why, even on university campuses and even by some individuals who have advanced college degrees themselves, is anti-intellectualism common? These are just a few questions that I have been thinking about. I respectfully suggest that these are questions that all of us need to think about.