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.

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.

STEM Education Is Not Enough

Sir Peter Medawar
Sir Peter Medawar

W.J. Astore

If you’re in education, you’ve heard the acronym STEM. It stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  As a country, the USA is behind in STEM, so there are lots of calls (and lots of federal money available) for improvements in STEM.  Usually the stated agenda is competitiveness.  If the US wants to compete with China, Japan, Europe, India, and other economies, our students must do better in science and math, else our economy will atrophy.

Here’s a sample rationale that can stand in for hundreds of others: “International comparisons place the U.S. in the middle of the [STEM] pack globally,” said Debbie Myers, general manager of Discovery Communications.  And for corporate managers like Myers, that’s not good enough when competition in the global market is both endless and the means to the end, the end being profit.

I’m all for STEM.  I got my BS in mechanical engineering and worked as an engineer in the Air Force.  I love science and got my master’s and Ph.D. in the history of science and technology.  I love science fiction and movies/documentaries that explore the natural world around us.

And that’s one thing that bugs me about all this emphasis on STEM.  It’s not about curiosity and fun; it’s not even about creativity.  STEM is almost always pushed in the US in terms of market competitiveness.  STEM, in other words, is just another commodity tied to profit in the marketplace.

My other bugaboo is our educational establishment’s focus on STEM to the exclusion of the humanities.  At the same time as the humanities are undervalued, STEM is reduced to a set of skills as mediated and measured by standardized tests.  Can you solve that equation?  Can you calculate that coefficient of friction? Can you troubleshoot that server?  Results, man.  Give me results.

Sir Peter Medawar, a great medical researcher and a fine writer on science, spoke of scientific discovery as an act of creation akin to poetry and other so-called liberal arts.  Nowadays, we simply don’t hear such views being aired in US discourse.  STEM as an act of creation?  As a joyful pursuit? Bah, humbug.  Give me results.  Give me market share.  Make me Number One.

If we as a nation want to encourage STEM, we should be focusing not on rubrics and metrics and scores.  We should instead be focusing on the joy of learning about nature and the natural world. How we model it, manipulate it, understand it, and honor it by preserving it.  STEM, in other words, must be infused with, not divorced from, the humanities.  Why?  Because STEM is a human pursuit.

As we pursue STEM, we should also honor our human past, a past in which we’ve learned a lot about ethics, morality, and humane values.  The problem is that STEM education in the US is often present- and future-focused, with little time for the past.

In American society, those with respect for old ways and traditional values are often dismissed as Luddites or tolerated as quaint misfits (like the Amish).  After all, Luddites aren’t competitive. And Amish quilts and buggies won’t return America to preeminence in science and technology.  The US as a nation has nothing to gain from them.  Right?

Here’s the problem.  We connect STEM to material prosperity.  We dismiss those who question all this feverish attention to STEM as anti-science or hopelessly old-fashioned.  But there’s a lot we can from the humanities about ourselves and our world.

To cite just one example: Consider this passage from Jacob Burckhardt, a great historian writing during the industrial revolution of the late 19th-century:

material wealth and refinement of living conditions are no guarantee against barbarism. The social classes that have benefited from this kind of progress are often, under a veneer of luxury, crude and vulgar in the extreme, and those whom it has left untouched even more so. Besides, progress brings with it the exploitation and exhaustion of the earth’s surface, as well as the increase and consequent proletarianization of the urban population, in short, everything that leads inevitably to decline, to the condition in which the world casts about for ‘refreshment’ from the yet untapped powers of Nature, that is, for a new ‘primitiveness’ – or barbarism.”

What a party-pooper he was, right? Most of what the US defines as STEM is about “material wealth” and “refinement of living conditions,” the very definition of “progress,” at least for those out to make a buck off of it.

Burckhardt was warning us that “progress” tied to STEM had its drawbacks, to include the exhaustion of the earth’s resources as well as the exploitation of human labor. Divorced from ethics and morality, STEM was likely to lead to “primitiveness,” a new barbarism.

Tragically, Burckhardt was right. Consider the industrialized mass murder of two world wars. Consider the “scientific” mass murder committed by the Nazis. (By the way, the Nazis were great at STEM, valuing it highly.)

In a democracy, STEM divorced from the humanities is not “competitive,” unless your idea of competition is barbaric. Disconnected from humane values, a narrow education in STEM will serve mainly to widen the gap between the 1% and the rest of us while continuing to stretch the earth’s resources to the breaking point.

Education in STEM, in short, is not enough. But you won’t learn that by listening to corporate CEOs or presidents prattle on about competitiveness.

For that wisdom, you need to study the humanities.