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.

Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

Consumerism1

W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets
The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war).  They are Archimedean.  They focus on engineering and the machinery of war.  But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.

There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations.  But they do not.  I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years.  My experience?  The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.  Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.

A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.  Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.  Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.

Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse.  U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables.  They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.

Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics.  Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized.  Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.

When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?”  They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders.  They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.

As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history.  (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects.  Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air.  Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.

Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity.  Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws.  A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.

Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them.  Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.

Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta.  Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens.  Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.

But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory.  Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.

The Education Business: Money, Money, Money (Updated)

W.J. Astore

As a college professor, I’m in the education business, a word that repels me but which nowadays is undeniably true.  One of the marketing slogans where I teach is “A degree is measured by its success in the workplace.”  In other words, if a college degree leads to a decent salary in the “workplace,” it’s worth it, but if the “workplace” does not reward you with a position with good pay and benefits, your degree is without merit.

Education in America has become just another business.  It’s increasingly monetized and corporatized.  Hence it’s unsurprising that educational results are measured increasingly by standardized tests developed by corporations.  If education is reducible to standardized metrics, you can run it and control it just like a business.  Professors become providers, students become consumers, and education becomes a commodity which is marketed and sold to consumers. Administrators are the middle managers who ultimately answer to corporate-dominated boards. “Success” for an administrator is measured mainly by money: funding drives, corporate donations, endowments, and similar issues related to budget and “the bottom line.”

As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score.  And he knew how to express it in pungent prose:

Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job-training mills, ranging from the truck-driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.  Education is not supposed to be an industry.  Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry-purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug.  Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture.  This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information or facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical, and human context or priority.

Consider the harsh reality of Bageant’s statement: America “is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.”  It’s impossible to deny this statement, especially when institutions of higher learning use the “workplace” as the measure of success for their degree programs.

Education today is disconnected from democracy.  It’s disconnected from producing an educated citizenry with critical thinking skills.  Rather, it’s connected to consumption; indeed, education is just another ephemeral consumable in a world of goods.  It’s valued only for its monetary fungibility, i.e. how much money can I make with this degree?  Alternatively, from a provider’s perspective, how much money can I make from offering these degrees?

Increasingly, there’s only one true degree offered by American colleges and universities: the business degree.  Such is the uniformity of market-driven ideology applied to education.

Say what you will of “diversity” in higher education as measured by differences in age, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, and all the rest.  Such diversity doesn’t matter much when all these “diverse” students are striving for the same thing: a fungible degree that’s translatable into money, money, money.

Show me the money!
Show me the money!

Update (12/4): When you treat students as consumers, there’s a tendency to buy the idea that “the customer is always right.” In other words, don’t offend the customer with disturbing ideas, such as the legacy of structural racism in society. Better to ignore such topics, especially when the “customer” complains about being offended by the ideas the professor (whoops — I meant the provider) introduces in class. See this story from Slate for more details.

Placing Too Much Faith in Technology in the Classroom

Stare at the screens, you zombies!
Stare at the screens, you zombies!

W.J. Astore

Americans put a lot of faith in technology.  Nowadays, we see computers, one-gun projectors, Smart boards, and similar technologies as essential to education.  But are they really?

In many cases, computers and PowerPoint and one-guns are simply fancier overhead projectors.  And when you show a video, does it matter if it’s from YouTube or from a DVD or from an old film projector?  Many of the new technologies allow us to make slides or show videos with more ease, but they don’t change education in any fundamental way.

Take calculators.  When I was in middle school in the 1970s, electronic calculators were taking over from slide rules as the new shortcut calculating device.  I wouldn’t want to go back to slide rules, but calculators didn’t make us any smarter.  Indeed, by focusing on getting the right answer as an exercise in operating the calculator, the new devices tended to obscure the meaning of the answer.  You learned to operate the machine and not necessarily the concepts behind the mathematics.  It was all solution, no understanding.

I didn’t like it at the time, but I learned long division, how to do square roots, how to solve quadratic equations, how to plot a graph without a calculator doing the heavy lifting for me.

Classrooms themselves are fascinating areas where “old” technology often lingers.  I still use chalk boards (or white boards), and I still occasionally use those old overhead projectors.  I was using slide projectors as late as the year 2000; in some ways, they were better than PowerPoint (e.g. brighter images and no worries about gigabytes of memory or backwards compatibility).

All this is to say that I’m skeptical when someone touts a technology as revolutionizing education.  It’s true that students need to know about computers and the Internet; the so-called Digital Divide is a real thing, with disadvantaged students suffering in a world driven by computers.

But education itself remains a process that is personal, creative, imaginative; education is an exercise in alchemy, the mixing of minds in the classroom that sometimes creates dross, but other times leads to – well, maybe not gold – but to exciting new ideas.

If technology can serve as a catalyst in this creative endeavor, that’s great.  But oft-times I see students in a PowerPoint-induced coma, staring at slides and images and thinking that the only thing that matters is memorizing the words on those slides.  An overuse of PowerPoint reduces teaching to briefing; the instructor becomes the “sage on the stage” and the students become unthinking zombies.   And it can be highly tempting as an instructor to fill that role – just give the students what they want, a simple template to memorize the course material so they can do well on the tests and jump through the hoop that is your course.

But that’s not education: it’s training.  Or worse: it’s conditioning.

Real education is not about the technology.  It’s about creating a dialogue; it’s about stimulating critical and creative thinking.  And to do that, the best “tools” are fully engaged human beings, teachers and students doing an alchemical dance of the mind in the crucible of the classroom.

Education, Thoughtlessness, and the Golem

The Golem, fed by our thoughtlessness (Source: Wikipedia)
The Golem, fed by our thoughtlessness (Source: Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Hannah Arendt, the famous philosopher and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote that “thoughtlessness“–the inability of people to think deeply and critically and reflectively–was a defining characteristic of our times.

Thoughtlessness is characterized by the repetition of certain “truths,” often defined by the state, that are not meant to be questioned.  Contemporary examples might include the idea that “America is the greatest country,” with no thought given as to what greatness really means, or whether it’s even desirable to be “the greatest” in categories such as military power.  Americans are not encouraged to think about such things; indeed, if you dare question such things, you risk being labeled “un-American.”

Education has a powerful role to play in either making us more thoughtful or in reinforcing our tendency toward thoughtlessness.  What concerns me about higher education today is its tendency toward banality, as represented by the idea of diplomas as passports to jobs.  When education is subsumed by careerism, when it becomes little more than an exercise in gaining credentials for “success,” it reinforces thoughtlessness.

Consider the big trends in higher education today.  In the name of “relevance” and greater national competitiveness, colleges and universities pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in place of liberal arts and boast about the virtues of vocational training that turns students into reliable and obedient employees.  Such monomania for STEM and vocational relevance is perfectly consistent with thoughtlessness, a key feature of authoritarian political systems in Arendt’s view.

Let’s not forget that totalitarian systems love education – of a kind.  They love education when it exalts the state, when it’s apolitical training, whether technical/scientific or in terms of conditioned “thought,” and when it’s manifested by duck speak: the quacking of state-sanctioned pieties.  Pieties like “America is the greatest country.”

Thoughtlessness goes hand-in-hand with powerlessness.  The less we think as citizens, the less power we have.  And the less power we have, the more power the state grabs for itself.  As the state grows in power, it increasingly ignores puny citizens (that’s us).  Eventually, the state can only be manipulated by other powerful entities (multinational corporations, big finance, and the like) with deep pockets, far deeper than any citizen or coalition of citizens.

In such a scenario, not only do individuals become thoughtless; the state does too.  It morphs into a golem, a soulless monster of our own creation, one that we soon discover we can no longer control, as noted in this powerful article by finem respice.

To keep the shambling monster happy, both political parties end up feeding it.  It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, whether you’re a rich supplicant or a poor one: everyone looks to the golem for care and feeding.  The rich and powerful just have an advantage because they have bigger sticks with which they can prod the golem in a direction favorable to them.

An education that refuses to provoke thought, that refuses to challenge the status quo, is an education that feeds the golem.

And golems have a well-known tendency to bite the hands that feed them.

A Bumper Sticker Collage

A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.
A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.  Photo by the author.

A sequel to our recent article, Dueling Bumper Stickers

I remember making collages in grade school; they were always good fun.  I came across this collage of bumper stickers yesterday at the Gypsy Joint Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass.  (They make scrumptious sandwiches and salads, by the way.)

It’s a representative sample of sentiments that are common to progressive places.  (But note the “Don’t mess with Texas,” which is representative of, well, Texans.)

It’s hard to argue with “Teach Peace” or “Peace Is Patriotic.”  “Folk the War” is pretty straightforward.  And I do like the idea of living the life that I love.  And I hope that the more I know, the less I need.

Now I need to find a similar collage of conservative stickers.  Will those stickers be as idealistic, as upbeat, as focused on sustainable food and education and music and peace?

I’m betting not.

W.J. Astore