The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out… without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.
I’ve long been of the opinion that a critical flaw in our society, likely foisted over several generations though I haven’t been alive long enough to see that many, is that we have spent far too much time teaching one what to think, and far too little teaching how. If I were in charge of education, I would make a requirement of high schools that economics and logic were required courses — economics of the behavioral sort and logic courses with a heavy emphasis on logical fallacies.
But I’m not in charge, and in my experience very few students are exposed to either in their formative years. Sadly, a new study suggests that they’re not offered all that much better in college.
An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.
Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.
Possibly the best teacher I’ve ever had, my AP US History teacher in high school, started the semester by giving us conflicting accounts of the battle of Lexington & Concord. Our first assignment was to write a paper justifying which side fired the first shot — the “shot heard round the world” — based SOLELY on those accounts. Not all people in the class came to the same conclusion, but the lesson wasn’t about providing us with the correct historical answer. It was about teaching us how to determine the answer based on that evidence. The lesson, one I remember vividly 17 years later, was that one does not “learn” history, one “does” history. Implicit in the lesson is that you cannot accept written, even eyewitness, accounts without evaluating the credibility of the source of those accounts.
To place nothing — nothing — above the verdict of my own mind.
-Dagny Taggart’s rule, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
It goes without saying that such a lesson makes one inherently a skeptic. That poor word, too often used pejoratively, denigrates those who are unwilling to take revealed information as fact without self-confirmation. But skepticism is a healthy part of critical thinking. It is what instructs to ask whether a speaker’s own interests might cloud their ability or desire to present an unbiased viewpoint. It is what instructs us to ask whether a political policy’s actual results will in any way resemble its stated objectives. In short, skepticism and critical thinking is man’s only defense against snake oil and bullshit — in other words, the only defense against politics.
Very few people I’ve ever spoken to had such opportunities in their high school curriculum. Most were taught facts, not processes. And thus many come into their collegiate experience without these skills. Sadly, too many also leave after four years without those skills.
Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.
If you’re not going to college to learn, exactly why are you there?
Oh, wait, it’s because you have no clue what you want to do with your life, you’re terrified of actually entering the real world, and because your parents and your previous schooling have prepared you for absolutely nothing other than classwork [this of course discounts those who went to school to obtain their Mrs. degree — not an inconsequential number]. So you do something silly like majoring in “Communications”, which offers no particularly employable skill set.
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”
While I don’t particularly consider natural sciences or mathematics to be “liberal arts” disciplines, and am surprised by the grouping of business students in the group showing little gains, I think the keys are simple. The natural sciences and mathematics demand rigorous adherence to logical thinking. Even in the social sciences, it is expected that you justify an idea with some sort of argument. It’s no surprise that math students are better at thinking than communications majors — they’ve spent the last four years practicing.
But it’s good to know that denial of reality hasn’t been impacted!
The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.
Christine Walker, a senior at DePauw who’s also student body president, said the study doesn’t reflect her own experience: She studies upwards of 30 hours a week and is confident she’s learning plenty. Walker said she and her classmates are juggling multiple non-academic demands, including jobs, to help pay for their education and that in today’s economy, top grades aren’t enough.
“If you don’t have a good resume,” Walker said, “the fact that you can say, ‘I wrote this really good paper that helped my critical thinking’ is going to be irrelevant.”
Yeah, those “real world problem-solving” skills are going to be completely useless to an employer.
You wouldn’t be aiming for government work, would you Christine? Oh, “student body president”? Yeah, you’ll fit in well in DC…