The Attack on Critical Thinking

obey
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.

The Poison of War

george
President Bush just before he gave his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003

Chris Hedges

In May 2003, Chris Hedges gave a controversial commencement speech at Rockford College (Rockford University since 2013) in Illinois.  Back then, Hedges was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times who had recently completed a book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), which I highly recommend.  Earlier that month, President George W. Bush had given his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq war, and patriotic pride was riding high.  Hedges had the foresight to recognize the mission had not been accomplished, and that the cost of war (all wars) would be high to the United States as well as to the countries purportedly liberated.

Booed and interrupted on several occasions during his speech, Hedges persevered.  His words from 2003 are well worth reading again, especially as President-elect Trump assembles a team of former generals and hardline rightists with the promise of obliterating ISIS and of “winning” conflicts around the world.

Here is his speech, in its entirety.  I have bolded one passage on Athens and the poison of war that is particularly telling for the current American moment.  W.J. Astore

Chris Hedges at Rockford College, Commencement Address, May 2003

I want to speak to you today about war and empire.

Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spill — theirs and ours — be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.

We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep.

The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth of the world’s population which is Muslim, most of whom I’ll remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess — the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq — we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past.

“Modern western civilization may perish,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good.”

The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.

Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. We have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor, the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus.

The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands in defiance of Saddam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of those who challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away. The looting of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with the exception of the oil ministry and the interior ministry — the only two ministries we bothered protecting — is self immolation.

As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in the Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we come only for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war of attrition; it is how they drove the British out and remember that, when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted by the dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months, when the Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators but occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah and was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.

As William Butler Yeats wrote in “Meditations in Times of Civil War,” “We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fair.”

This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq.

We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides’ history. Read how Athens’ expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.

This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war — if we do not understand how deadly that poison is — it can kill us just as surely as the disease.

We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.

We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity — for evil — and in this we understood not only war but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.

War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press — remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem — have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence — death — is hidden from public view.

There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have perfected the appearance of candor.

Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.

The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true — it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of our life, feel we belong.

War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.

Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all is one heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of itself.  We feel in wartime comradeship.  We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love — the exotic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, one entity, is real, but this is part of war’s intoxication.

Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.

As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends are predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But comradeship — that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime — is within our reach. We can all have comrades.

The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy does not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime are deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once the threat is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers to us. This is why after war we fall into despair.

In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about; we find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause — a common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self that is part of friendship.

In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone but as a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death. And this is what the god of war demands of us.

Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship or, let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.

The National Security State’s Tentacles Are Strangling Our Lives

Those tentacles are reaching everywhere, America
Those tentacles are reaching everywhere, America

By the Editors

Dan White’s article on Admiral (retired) McRaven’s new job as Chancellor of the University of Texas system provides a warning that must be heeded.  There is dangerous intent behind the appointment of military flag officers and national security operatives to leading public college and university leadership positions. The political elites, who usually appoint their like-minded allies to the governing boards of these institutions, see students in these public institutions of learning as potential activists against the status quo (as they were during the Vietnam War era). The governing boards usually vet the candidates for this office and thus want the candidate to mirror their own views of “national interests.” Those “interests” don’t include critical thinking or the idea of questioning authority.

Appointing a proven supporter (like McRaven) of the elites’ view of “national interest” in times like these, when their “interest” involves issues at variance with the common good, is looked at as a judicious decision. That means putting people into these offices who support the Patriot Act and its assault on citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly. It also means appointing people who support the government in its pursuit of perpetual war.

McRaven’s appointment to the University of Texas and the ridiculous appointment of Janet Napolitano, former head of the police state agency known as “Homeland Security,” as President of the university system of California are prime examples of this tendency. These selections show absolutely no interest in education but rather in administering and enforcing a sheep-like faculty and student body in these important institutions that otherwise could and should foster the serious questioning of our government and our oligarchical elites.

The elites know that stuffed shirts like McRaven and Napolitano can be counted on to foster bland conformity and blind compliance. That’s exactly why they’re hired for these offices. They work to ensure the subservience of higher education to the national security state. California and Texas are two of the biggest public university systems in the country.  Is it any accident they are controlled by Napolitano and McRaven, both former operatives and enforcers in the national security state?

Not only does the national security state conspire to control higher education but national sports as well. Consider the recent revelation of Department of Defense payments to NFL teams for on-field ceremonies in honor of the troops. These ceremonies, used for recruitment and propaganda purposes, were meant to seem free and spontaneous on the part of the participating football teams, even as behind the scenes the Department of Defense was feeding the teams taxpayer money in the millions for these ceremonies. It’s all about extending the reach of the national security state into all realms of life, to include sports.  That’s the real NFL scandal of today, not Tom Brady’s “Deflategate.”

Be afraid, America, as the national security state reaches out to control the message of higher education as well as professional sports.  High culture, low culture, it doesn’t matter.  The power elites want to control it all.

Awaken, patriotic American citizens, and resist.  Don’t let the national security state’s tentacles reach into more and more aspects of your and your children’s lives.

Education as Workforce Development: The Horror

Scott Walker: We don't need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)
Scott Walker: We don’t need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)

W.J. Astore

A strong trend in higher education today is to sell education as workforce development.  I saw this at the college where I used to teach, which was unsurprising given that the college started as a technical institute in a conservative area.  My college proudly advertised itself as valuing partnerships with business and industry, with a “learn to earn” emphasis, so students and parents knew what they were getting when they made their choice.

But the “education as workforce development” ethos is now spreading to universities and states like Wisconsin, driven by Republican governors and administrations keen to put those pointy-headed intellectuals, with their high-falutin’ ideas about education as a pursuit of truth, firmly in their place.  Consider this article at Alternet, and the following passage about Governor Scott Walker’s ideological war on higher education in his state:

Scott Walker has it out for the University of Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin is a point of pride for the state at large, to the point where their mascot, the badger, is blanketed over everything Wisconsin-related, including government services that aren’t affiliated with the school. Despite this, Gov. Scott Walker, flushwith confidence after decimating public service unions in Wisconsin, has it out now for the university, apparently not caring that it’s the state’s pride and joy. The goal is to slash a whopping $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years.

There may be some lip-smacking about “fiscal conservatism” going on with this, but Walker and his staff haven’t really taken many pains to hide that this is rooted in a deeper hostility to the very idea of knowledge itself. “A harbinger of what Walker might face came in an immediate uproar on social media this month after his staff proposed changing the university’s ethereal focus on the pursuit of truth, known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ to a grittier focus on ‘workforce needs,’” reports theWashington Post. Walker backed off recasting higher education as nothing more than job training after his critics pointed out he is a college dropout, but the fact that this wording change was proposed at all shows that the hostility to education is ideological and has little to nothing to do with saving money.”

Higher education should be dedicated to something higher than the pursuit of a job that serves corporate America.  Heck, even corporate America favors the liberal arts as being invaluable to their bottom line, e.g. in the sense of “soft” skills such as the ability to write and speak clearly, collaborating as a team, fostering creativity and curiosity, and the like.  And this is supported by research, as in this report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, which “is seriously questioning the drive to turn schools into institutions where the primary mission is offering career and vocational training,” according to a CBS News report:

The report, which was released today, concludes that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers who were surveyed for the study said that this broad learning should be an expected part of the course work for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study.

More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences, and employers were nearly unanimous (96 percent) in agreeing that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses.”

 

So, if employers are in favor of liberal arts and the sciences, why are right-wing conservatives like Walker against these subjects?  To ask the question is to answer it.  The push for “workforce development” is all about silencing liberal dissent and squelching critical research.  It’s anti-intellectualism, pure and simple, always a popular trope in America, as Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Keep ’em dumb and obedient, Walker.  Time-servers in the work trenches.  That’s the way to serve Wisconsin as governor.  Next stop: the presidency.  We don’t need any smart people in that job.  No more Jeffersons need apply.  Right, America?

More Thoughts on America’s Military Academies

West-Point-Cadets-Marching1

W.J. Astore

The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening.  Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms.  But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition.  A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well.  Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre.  Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.

Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.

Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:

1.  Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree?  The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years.  In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on).  Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.

2.  West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference?  Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones?  Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?

3.  How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.”  Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like?  Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year?  Does this truly develop character?  Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?

4.  Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training.  How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?

5.  A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football?  What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games?  What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets?  (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)

6.  When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT.  Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?

How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation.  First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character.  If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities.  But that wasn’t the point.  Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission.  This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.

We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history.  Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.

7.  And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?

Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies.  And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force.  Perhaps so.

But is it time to consider new paradigms?

What are the most serious threats that America faces today?  For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results.  Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America?  (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.)  Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?

As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources?  With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here.  Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.”  Can we make that a reality?

Too pie in the sky?  The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership.  What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America?  Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting?  Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?

There you have it.  Let’s hear your ideas in the comments.  And thanks.

Freethinkers Fighting for Fair Play: The True Goal of Higher Education

Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights?  (Movie poster from "Flash of Genius")
Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights, and to fight for what’s right? (Movie poster from “Flash of Genius”)

W.J. Astore

A New York Times editorial back in February caught two trends in higher education today: the proliferation of underpaid adjunct professors as well as the expansion of administrative positions within America’s colleges and universities.  These trends are unsurprising.  America’s colleges and universities are becoming more and more like businesses every day, with a small legion of administrators being hired in fields like assessment, retention, recruitment, student affairs, workforce development, and the like.  Adjunct faculty, meanwhile, are treated as interchangeable providers of ephemeral product, to be hired and dismissed at the whim of administrators.

As faculty increasingly inhabit lower niches within higher ed, students’ aspirations are increasingly shaped by the pursuit of high salaries.  How else to obtain “aspirational products” such as the latest Kate Spade handbag, the latest Apple iPhone, perhaps a BMW or even an Ivy League degree if you’re truly seeking to flaunt “success.”  An inherent contradiction in higher ed today is the way colleges and universities flaunt their success in helping graduates to get high-paying jobs, even as these same colleges and universities underpay adjunct professors.  Contradiction – what contradiction?

Administrative bloat and faculty contingency (“contingency” as in no job security for adjuncts, therefore little in the way of academic freedom, i.e. speak your mind, lose your job) are contributing factors in the loss of purpose within higher ed.  After all, if not for higher salaries or aspirational credentials, what is the higher purpose to higher ed?

Critical thinking should be one such higher purpose.  Alerting students to societal inequities – maybe at their very own colleges, perhaps even staring back at them in their dormitory room mirrors – is a start.  Remediating these inequities should be a goal.

Education, after all, should wake us up.  It should disturb us.  It should also strengthen our democracy.  It should reinforce our freedoms as defined in the Constitution.  It should counter prevailing anti-democratic trends toward plutocracy and authoritarianism within American society and government.

Too many students today are apathetic because they see little connection between their “higher” education and living a life that is fulfilling in wider settings.  They lack a compelling vision of what education is all about.  It doesn’t help when colleges and universities focus on making the educational money train run on time with little thought given to the passengers on board and their ultimate destination.

So, what should be the ultimate destination?  A questing and questioning mind.  Critical and creative thinking.  Curiosity about the world.  At the same time, students need to think and act to preserve what’s best about our world: our freedoms.  Fairness.  Fighters for fair play: that’s what we need more of in America.

Let me give you an example.  One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes in “Flash of Genius” (2008).  It’s about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.  His idea was stolen from him by the Ford Motor Co., and he takes them to court (true story).  When he’s asked why he’s fighting so desperately hard against Ford, why he’s risking everything, he replies: That idea was my Mona Lisa.

That line has always stayed with me.  Not only because it highlights the fact that technology is an act of creation, a work of art (or artifice).  But also because it highlights the need to be a fighter, the need to fight for what’s fair.

I like to tell my students that they too are society’s creators, that they too can create their own Mona Lisa (even if it takes the form of a new windshield wiper).  But that they too may also need to fight for their rights, and to fight for what’s right.

Motivating and equipping them for that fight: That’s what higher education should be all about, Charlie Brown.

Peter Medawar’s “The Limits of Science”

Owen Hannaway
Owen Hannaway

W.J. Astore

Note to reader: I wrote this back in 1988 when I was a first-year graduate student in the history of science at Johns Hopkins University.  I took my first graduate seminar with Owen Hannaway, a distinguished professor of early modern science and alchemy.  He asked us to do a book review, and I chose Peter Medawar’s The Limits of Science.  I dedicate this article to the memory of Owen Hannaway (1939-2006), a distinguished scholar and a gallant man.

The Limits of Science is an intentionally short book dealing with topics in the history and philosophy of science. It consists of three different essays written in three different styles, yet it yields a general outlook on science which can be nicely summarized.  Sir Peter sees science as the most successful of man’s enterprises, but he is quick to observe that science has limits, although the growth of science itself is not self-limited.

Medawar first defines science.  Science, he says, is not a mere collection of facts but organized knowledge, knowledge that can be used to predict the behavior of the sensible world.  Medawar is careful to emphasize the difficulty of obtaining scientific knowledge, and the need for confidence based on trust within the scientific community.

Medawar then discusses whether there is such a thing as the scientific method and traces the development of different approaches.  Before the Renaissance, deduction in the form of the Aristotelian syllogism was used to advance science, while intuition and revelation were used to support science.  For philosophers in the Middle Ages, divine revelation guaranteed absolute certainty.  Francis Bacon lit a new path for enlightenment in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries through the use of induction.  Bacon’s new method was the development of general premises through the use of experimentation and the collection of observations.  The frontispiece of Bacon’s Novum Organum summed up the new ideal of Plus Ultra (more beyond): it depicted the pillars of Hercules with a biblical inscription (Daniel 12:4) prophesying the advancement of knowledge.

Medawar next examines deduction and induction and finds them lacking.  The chief difficulty with deduction is that it begs the question; it can only discover something already contained in the major premise, therefore it is not a way to new knowledge.  By comparison, a major premise arrived at through induction cannot contain more information than the sum of its known instances.  A theory consisting of a legion of facts summarized by an iterative inductive process can thus be overthrown by a solitary contradictory instance.  In sum, a deductive premise merely makes explicit information that is already present in the premise, while an inductive premise is no better than the sum of its parts.  Neither method leads to new knowledge.

Considering these arguments, Medawar sides with the conclusion of Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper that there is no scientific method.  The myth of induction as the method for scientific advancement, developed by John Stuart Mill and Karl Pearson in the nineteenth century, persists today mainly because it agrees best with the public’s conception of science and the scientist’s desire for a positive self-image.

What then is the catalyst for advances in science? Medawar adopts Shelley’s idea of poesis in poetry: creation through the act of imagination.  The source of scientific hypotheses is these flashes of vision, and it is these hypotheses which guide and limit further science.  Medawar clearly rejects the idea that scientific discovery can be premeditated and cites the role of luck in scientific discovery.  He carefully qualifies the role of luck by showing how the scientist places himself in a certain mindset amenable to luck through his studies and associations with other scientists.

Medawar’s last essay discusses the limits of science. His fundamental assertion is that science does not yield absolute knowledge, and he quotes Kant as support: “Hypotheses always remain hypotheses, i.e., suppositions to the complete certainty of which we can never attain.” Science’s goal then is not the absolute but the nearest approximation possible; the nearer the approximation, the better its predictive capability.

Continuing the discussion, Medawar observes that there could be either a cognitive inadequacy or a restriction arising out of the nature of the human reasoning process that limits the growth of science, but since any such limitations would be present from conception we would never know of them (just as we could never perceive the Pythagorean celestial music due to its continuous presence in our lives). Are there then limits of science?  Not if science is understood as the art of the soluble.  If something is possible in principle, Medawar states, it can be done if the intention is sufficiently resolute and sustained.

The one limit to science as Medawar sees it is that it cannot answer ultimate questions, e.g. “Does God exist?” Medawar goes on to say he is not indicting science; rather he is recognizing that these questions require transcendent answers, which neither arise from nor require validation by empirical evidence.  He actually takes this argument one step further and asserts these questions have no possible answers. (Medawar recognizes that Immanuel Kant felt the opposite; since somehow man’s nature drives him to ask these questions, Kant felt that answers necessarily exist.)

According to Medawar, the question of whether God exists is outside the realm of science; the leap of faith required for a belief in God is one he himself is unwilling to make.  Although Medawar did not personally believe in transcendent answers, he did feel that these answers had a usefulness measured by the peace of mind they bring people.

I bought this book because as a Roman Catholic I was interested in what a scientist had to say about the limits of science in answering ultimate questions.  Medawar confirmed my suspicions that science can play at best only a subsidiary role with regards to these ultimate questions and the religious beliefs they help spawn.

For anyone looking for an introduction into what science is, how it advances, and what questions it can and cannot answer, Medawar’s book is excellent.  Perhaps the one idea I am always left with after reading this book is although science has limits, as long as man retains his ability to create imaginative hypotheses and his inclination to ascertain whether his guesses correspond to reality, there will always be more beyond for intrepid explorers in the realm of science.

Professor Hannaway appended the following note at the end of my review:

“What do you think your reaction would have been if you had read a book by a scientist less sympathetic to the claims of religion?  Perhaps you can find one, read it, and then critically assess the arguments of Medawar.”

“Why do you think a famous scientist like Medawar was so concerned by such questions to write about them in this way?  Could you find out something about his life that might explain this?  Try sources like the Times obituary columns, Nature, Notes and Records of the Royal Society.”

That was Owen: always generous with advice, and always trying to spur you to dig deeper, to learn more.

Bonus Anecdote: I’ll never forget this saying of Owen’s: “Scotch is for after dinner.” The last time I saw him in Denver at a conference, I was really pleased to track down a glass of single malt whisky for him.  He was a wonderful man.