Be a learner, then a ‘critical’ thinker

If there is anything in education on which everyone agrees, it’s the vital importance of “critical thinking,” writes Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek. However, before students can think, they need to learn. Call it “uncritical thinking,” the “unquestioning reception and retention of facts.”

In pure lexical terms, “critical thinking” is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Translated into pedagogy, it’s teaching students to be intellectual mavericks, cognitive cowboys who poke bullet holes into every received concept, who duel with Aristotle and Dickinson, who are never complacent, submissive or even quiet. They brim with what Walt Whitman called “original energy.”

. . . Uncritical thinking is pretty unsexy, often requiring rote memorization, deadening repetition and, not infrequently, humility before intellects greater than your own (whether Louise Erdrich’s or Albert Einstein’s or just Mr. Greenberg’s during third-period geometry class). Only someone who has uncritically mastered the intricacies of Shakespeare’s verse, the social subtexts of Elizabethan society and the historical background of Hamlet is going to have any original or even interesting thoughts about the play. Everything else is just uninformed opinion lacking intellectual valence.

In any discipline, whether trigonometry, biology or Spanish literature, “There is a lot more to absorb than to critique,” writes Nazaryan.

Giving opinion its due

I have been thinking about Justin P. McBrayer’s New York Times op-ed, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” McBrayer notes that schools implicitly tout moral relativism by having students distinguish repeatedly between “fact” and “opinion.” According to McBrayer, this creates confusion: Not all truths are proven facts, and not all opinions are “mere” opinion. Unfortunately, when given “fact vs. opinion” exercises,  students learn to treat all value statements as opinion. For instance, the statement “killing for fun is wrong” would count as opinion, when, in McBrayer’s view, it should be treated as fact. Over time, after performing many such exercises, students conclude (without thinking the matter through) that there are no moral facts.

I would take McBrayer’s argument one step further (or maybe in a direction he didn’t intend). Opinion itself was not always viewed as a one-off statement of belief or prejudice. It involved reasoning, choice, and judgment about things that were not fully known or proven. The word derives from the Proto-Indo-European *op- (“to choose”) and later from the Latin opinari (“think, judge, suppose, opine”). The OED gives, as its first definition of “opinion,” “What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in in my opinion: according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion : a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.” John Milton’s elevates the concept of opinion in his speech Areopagitica: “Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”; a similar idea appears in Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love: “Opinyon is whyle a thyng is in non certayne, and hydde from mens very knowlegyng.” (Both quotes are included in the OED entry.)

Yet for all its former respectability, opinion has always run the risk of falling back on prejudice and superstition. This is particularly true of group opinion. John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of individual expression precisely because the alternative—unconsidered public opinion—holds so many dangers and so much power:

Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.

Ironically, to protect individual opinion, one must also release it, to some degree, from responsibility Mill does not say this outright, but it seems to follow from his argument:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.

If I can say whatever I want about any subject, if I am not bound to standards of research and reasoning, then my opinion is unfettered but also potentially trivial. On the other hand, if only the qualified elite may speak, then, as Mill notes, certain prevailing opinions go unquestioned while bright and necessary challenges are suppressed.

So, as opinion becomes liberated, it also degrades—to where it becomes near-synonymous with “something that can’t be taken seriously.” As McBrayer points out, the Common Core includes the standard “Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” How did “opinion” become separate from “reasoned judgment”? The standard seems to imply that opinion does not involve judgment or reasoning; that is both peculiar and telling. One can have the best of both worlds: freedom of opinion combined with recognition that opinion can be well or poorly formed.

From what I have seen of the Common Core in word and practice, it treats opinion and argument as separate. Something that can’t be supported with “evidence” is regarded as mere opinion; something that can has a more elevated status. But facts are not always definitive and must be selected out of many; moreover, there are good arguments that don’t have “evidence” behind them. As a result, there is little room (and no good word) for inquiring into matters of uncertainty—matters that cannot be proven one way or another but that require more than a snap judgment.

To return to McBrayer’s example, killing for fun is wrong—few would dispute that—but why? Why did he not say “killing of any kind, for any reason, is wrong”? Perhaps he was leaving room for the possibility that killing may sometimes be necessary and thus not altogether wrong. In that case, how is “killing for fun” different? Let’s assume he is referring to the killing of humans; if it is true that human life has dignity (which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t define here), then human life should not be taken lightly. Kill if you must (though some would argue that there is never such necessity), but don’t kill gratuitously, whatever you do. Thus, “killing for fun is wrong” follows—or at least can follow—from the axiom that human life has dignity. I have not given any “evidence” that killing for fun is wrong, but I have identified a possible axiom behind the statement.

Opinion does not have to be trivial; it runs the gamut between folly and wisdom. Instead of dismissing opinion, schools should teach students to form theirs as well as they can.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

(I am delighted to be guest-blogging along with Rachel, Michael, and Darren. I probably won’t post anything else this week but will be back on April 4.)


Consumer students aren’t ‘paying’ to think

Students see themselves as consumers, not learners, writes a community college professor. When he discussed, in a rhetoric class, how mores and opinions have changed on a controversial topic, a student objected, saying, “I’m not paying for your opinion.”

. . . the current emphasis on “customer service” in academe seems to have given some students the impression that they have the right to “purchase” only those ideas that they personally agree with, and that all other ideas or opinions are at best irrelevant and at worst akin to faulty products or unsatisfactory service.

Ultimately, students are paying for faculty members’ opinions, or, at least, their professional judgment, he adds. It’s “not just what we know, but what we think about what we know.”