Sunday, December 26, 2004

Thinking critically about critical thinking
   The truth shall set you free

In my work in schools I haven’t talked much about “critical thinking,” though I used to talk about it a lot, when I was a young English teacher fresh from the university, more or less successfully indoctrinated by the soft Marxism that permeated the world of higher learning. I was a poor kid from a rural country disillusioned by my experience in Vietnam, surrounded by siren songs that promised liberty, equality, and fraternity, among other things. Many such songs, I later came to see, evoked only what Thoreau called “a vain reality” upon which many were shipwrecked.

Although “critical thinking” has long been used to refer, in a common sense way, to such things as asking whether the evidence we are presented is sufficient, or whether the reasoning is logical, in education the term has noisy overtones of a decidedly Marxist tenor, and such things have lost all their allure for me. The phrase is most often associated with the “critical theory” crowd, including such luminaries as Paulo Freire, Herbert Marcuse, Jergen Habermas, and Henry A. Giroux.

Some of what they say is true, of course. They focus on power relations, seeing the world primarily as a scene of groups struggling against one another. For them, critical thinking is a technique for unmasking the hidden power stratagems of dominant groups so that the oppressed, anyone with less of something than someone else, can be liberated and empowered, and so on. As I said, this is true to a point. Of course there are powerful interests who use all sorts of subtle means to further their interests, and of course there are struggles for material that are often organized along class lines.

But in my work outside of graduate classrooms, trying to help actual poor people and young people in need of guidance, I have found those who speak most readily about paternalism, sexism, false consciousness, domination, globalism, hegemony, and transformations are more often than not stuck in intellectual ghettos where no work can be done. Life, for them, would seem good if it were organized as a graduate seminar, where the most verbal could rule.

I do not like the sort of societies that have emerged from thinking like theirs. Societies where the pursuit of group interest undermined the pursuit of understanding the universal principles by which we should all be governed. Societies where fundamental thinking gave way to expedient thinking, and where the passion for solidarity trumped the cultivation of civility. Societies where utopian dreams of equality fostered envy, which was a form of hatred, and which led to terror. Societies where the importance of education (understood as knowledge of the world) receded and the importance of therapy (understood as a reification of the self’s fantasies) advanced. Societies where people came to believe that privilege caused suffering and that wealth caused poverty, and so did little (beyond speech making) to relieve suffering and poverty. Societies where class provocateurs rose to power championing the cause of the poor, but, liberated from fundamental beliefs, found nothing to stay their corruption.

The evidence is as large as the twentieth century--Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. And it’s ongoing:

The criminals in Peru’s Shining Path emerged from the philosophy department of a provincial university. They began by reading Hegel and Marx and went on to slit the throats of peasants they called “collaborators.” The Basque terrorists in ETA were incubated in Catholic seminaries. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, Jesuits from Central American University, fascinated by the ‘’theology of liberation,’’ egged on the communist guerrillas—and themselves were eventually murdered by the military. Miami Herald

Of course, most teachers who talk about liberation and empowerment aren’t dreaming of glorious revolutions. I have visited with lots of teachers who understand that right-thinking people should never use the words “capitalism” and “corporations” without a slight sneer, but who don’t think of themselves as Marxists. They are simply normal, like everyone else, inhabiting the consciousness that comes with their station in life. They would like poor people to be wealthier and the environment to be healthier, that’s all.

Well, so would we all. But I think we are more likely to make progress in that direction if we begin with an accurate diagnosis. Much of the discourse of public education seems naive and foolish to me. Our trouble is not fundamentally caused by capitalism or by corporations, and the habit of naming these as the source of our troubles is more than mental laziness--it will have real world consequences. Teachers would do better, I think, to name greed, selfishness, and diverse varieties of lust as the source of our trouble. It would help students to see more clearly what ought to be done.

Yes, there are powerful interests with sinister designs. But it does not follow that power is always oppressive (it does follow for Marxists, who simply define power as oppression, and thereby render themselves incapable of solving any real problems). It is their moral wrongness rather than their wealth that should be examined. For me, the question comes down to cases. Is what this group is saying good and true? The answer to that question gets us farther than answers to the questions favored by Marxists: Who is speaking? Do they have any money?

Of course, to think well about goodness and truth, one must believe in them. I do believe in truth. I believe in an old-fashioned understanding of truth that preceded science. I believe in the truth that we create in our relationships.  We can make promises and remember them. We can utter vows and keep them. We can fathom timeless principles and bring our conduct into harmony with them. I have known people who lived in ways that were true to themselves and to those around them. I admire them and try to learn from them.

I believe there are moral truths--universal principles that govern reality. If we violate those principles we suffer the consequences, regardless of what values we claim for ourselves. We should not lie, and if we do lie we lose trust, and as trust is diminished so is the power and security that comes from unity with others. We should not harm others, and if we do harm others, we acquire enemies, and eventually this will cause us harm. We should put resources to good use and not waste them, and if we do waste, we will find prosperity harder and harder to sustain. We should serve justice, and if we do not serve justice, the world around us becomes less just and we have more to fear. I believe that helping young people see these principles is more liberating than persuading them that their destiny is dictated by oppressive regimes.

I also believe in a newer understanding of truth--that developed by scientists. I believe there can be a correspondence between our ideas of the world and the world itself. At its simplest level, this means that when we plant pea seeds we expect peas and not corn to grow. It’s astonishing how hostile to the idea of truth our “critical theory” colleagues can become. They begin by noting that any statement of apparent truth is covertly serving the interests of this or that group--a mundane observation--and, then they move on to thinking that since all we can know of reality is filtered through our experiences, desires, feelings, and beliefs, we cannot know what is ultimately there. Therefore, they think, no perception of reality is any more true or false than any other.

I think no end of mischief follows from such thinking. Maybe it’s a sin to believe some things without sufficient evidence. Who believed that Jews were responsible for all the problems of the Weimar Republic? Who believed that Stalin was helping the poor?

Of course, I also believe there are powerful forces who are secretly as well as openly up to no good. But I believe their deceptions, rather than their power, are the problem. It doesn’t bother me that groups and individuals exist who can spend millions of dollars making and marketing movies. But it bothers me when some of those movies propagate lies about the human condition. I do not think, for example, that a nation that suffers as much as this one does from broken families and loneliness, with more and more people unable to form enduring and satisfying relationships, is well served by movies and music that depict sex as a pleasant sport that can be indulged in casually with little or no consequence.

The critical theory pedagogues I’ve visited with hate it when I say such things. They consider such views as mine attempts to “privilege” the nuclear family. That’s their view, which I deign to privilege, because I don’t think in terms of privileges. All that seems unpleasant to me, smacking of an envious nature that makes joy impossible.

I think in terms of the blessings my family relationships have brought to me. A wise and honest people would ponder the blessings they have received, and then teach their young people what they have learned about those blessings--all the little things that encourage good fortune, as poet William Stafford put it.

Unlike privileges (which exist only in class consciousness) blessings (which exist in consciousness of gratitude for creation) can be had in infinite supply, if we choose them. Why should I not enjoy my small garden, created by my own labor, simply because my boss has a larger garden, created with hired help? Should I feel oppressed? I’m sure he has troubles I know nothing about. If I think about him, wouldn’t it be better to wonder how I could help him?

When I think about how I have been blessed, my mood improves and I am happier. Who has life enough for envy?

I have been blessed by work. When other things have failed me--career aspirations, financial plans, people--I have always been able to turn to my work--reading books written by my betters, writing to clarify my own thoughts about questions that matter to me. Making a garden out of a neglected lot with shovel and hoe. Revising earlier versions of myself.

I have been blessed by growing up in a nation where free enterprise was allowed. I am free to find work, to create work, or to stop work. When I have needed money, I have cut Christmas trees and sold them from my front yard, I have sold cars, I have been a janitor, I have fought forest fires, I have taught school, I have done electrical wiring in new house construction, I have edited a newspaper, I have run an ambulance company, I have administered schools and other programs. Always, I was free to quit and try something else. I have failed and been poor and learned from that. But I always knew that there was work to be done and people who would pay for that work.

I have been blessed by parents who stayed together and made a home where I never doubted I belonged. I have been blessed by children who like to visit my wife and me, bringing their children to us, and who like to visit each other. I have been blessed by living among people who know and teach the secrets of staying together, which, alas, remain secrets to many, though they have been trumpeted from rooftops.

I recognize that I am old-fashioned. That’s my choice. I’m modern enough, though, to have a sense of irony. I feel more and more attracted to the notion of subjecting the critical pedagogues whose jargon has infiltrated public education to the critical scrutiny they have long advocated. It’s a matter of justice, sometimes referred to as the law of the harvest--as ye sow so shall ye reap--and sometimes referred to colloquially--what goes around comes around.

Critical thinking need not be a tool to keep us poor and ignorant, fighting among ourselves for our various class, gender, and racial identities. It can also be a technique to bring us nearer to truth. The democracy I yearn for is a republic of inquiry, where fellow seekers of truth outgrow the limitations of their ethnicity, religious upbringing, gender and class biases by attempting to understand and overcome disagreements. Where that cannot be done, they negotiate one law that all will live by, allowing the need to have one law lead them to a more clear understanding of universal principles.

As science has shown, the progress of truth is away from diversity of opinion (though only on matters governed by truths--not those governed by tastes) and toward unity. That way lie friendship and peace.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/26 at 11:59 AM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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