The Attack on Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking?  Forget that.  Obey!  (Inspired by the movie, “They Live”)

W.J. Astore

When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter.  This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda.  Become critical thinkers, I told them.  And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.

Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today.  This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned.  In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni.  On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation.  The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.

A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education.  Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!).  Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com.  I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding.  But stupid is as stupid does.  (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!”  Yes, hmm, yes.)

Education Ourselves to Oblivion (TomDispatch.com, May 2009)

Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.

Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.

Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)

And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.

Three Myths of Higher Ed

Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.

Nonsense.

Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)

And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.

One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).

A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?

Three Realities of Higher Ed

What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.

Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.

Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.

We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.

Donning New Sunglasses

One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.

It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.

To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.

Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.

Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

tech fears

W.J. Astore

Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society.  In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace.  The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind.  Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.

Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple).  Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.

Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable.  But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity.  But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.

Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing.  Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.

The point is not to blame technology.  The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.

Big Blue Books: Bring Them Back!

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The cover of my “big blue book”

W.J. Astore

Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar.  My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research.   According to Indiana State University:

Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.

I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each.  You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included.  The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.”  The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.

What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material.  The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:

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Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.”  We could use a book like that for these times.

Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books.  Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up.  Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.

Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today.  No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.

How much was a nickel back then?  My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s.  He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel.  In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.

Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins.  Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.

Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way.  We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.

Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge.  Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.

Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again?  To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way?  Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books?  No lithium batteries or internet required.

Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.

My First (and only) Encounter with Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan in late 1963

Richard Sahn

On a snowy evening in January 1965 four friends, including myself, drove across the Hudson River from Tivoli NY, where we were living at the time, to Woodstock. We had heard that the folksinger, Tom Paxton, was singing at the Café Espresso. I had become enamored of Paxton’s music so I was anxious to see and hear him in person. What we didn’t know was that the rising counter-cultural folk star, Bob Dylan, was also going to be there. By the time we arrived I was wondering whether it was good idea to drive the twenty miles for this mini-concert. The roads were treacherous.

As a college student in 1965 I hadn’t heard much about Bob Dylan but I did like some of his music, which my dorm mates at Bard College played constantly.  Dylan was sitting at the next table when we entered the cafe. There were only a handful of customers, mostly from the area.  As Paxton started singing some of the patrons were still talking. Suddenly, Dylan shouted at them to shut up. Perhaps he was already experiencing his celebrity because his manner was slightly intimidating. Heck, he was just a scrawny, unimpressive kid, about my age—one year older, actually.

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Tom Paxton

During a brief intermission of Paxton’s mini-concert I found myself in a backroom with the two (not too distant) future giants of counter-cultural folk music, the heirs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Dylan wanted to show Paxton, if memory serves me, some chords on the guitar. There were four of us in the room, including my classmate, Paul, who was the driver of the car to Woodstock. I can’t remember how this little gathering happened, what permission or lack thereof we had to witness this intimate discussion between Dylan and Paxton.  I do recall thinking that I should not give up the chance to be as close to Bob Dylan as I could get.

At one point during this strange encounter Dylan looked at me directly with a penetrating stare. I was nervous and amused at the same time. Did he know something about me I didn’t know or did he see me as a kindred spirit?  I’ll never know.

Fifty one years later I still listen to the music of the “old Dylan.”  I still marvel at the fame he’s achieved since the time I met him in person when we were both barely beyond being “kids”—at least by today’s standard of what it means to be a “kid.”  Today, I can appreciate the impact songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” have had on my generation especially.

What I don’t take for granted is that the younger generation, the “kids” I teach today, can appreciate, much less have heard of, the lyrics of those songs. I don’t believe they would find Dylan’s music or even Paxton’s music inspiring.  Their clarion call for a change in the status quo wouldn’t seem relevant to them or even “cool.”

Richard Sahn teaches sociology and embodies the mission of Bracing Views.  In his own way, he’s as cool as Dylan.

“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

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W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

The Yearly Federal Budget for Planned Parenthood: About the Cost of Two F-35 Fighter Jets

Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood
Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood

W.J. Astore

My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things.  The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood.  That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country.  Talk about bang for the buck!

If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters?  Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!

Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex.  Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.

The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact.  The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services.  But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time.  Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.

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Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion.  Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering.  The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.

Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion.  Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million.  If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver.  It would be a flake off of the crust.

Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than half the federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase.  Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?

For shame, Congress.  For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.

(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year.  2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.”  Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?  Except that it’s true.)