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Friday, March 22, 2013


And while we're talking about the value of a liberal education (the topic of the previous post)....


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ON THE "EDUCATED, LIBERAL ELITE" or Why Critical Thinking Skills are so Critical

I've had enough! I know I'm not alone. If I hear one more ridiculous claim about the vast left-wing conspiracy at colleges and universities across the country to brainwash young minds into being 'liberals', I'm going to cry--as soon as I'm done laughing over the stupidity of that statement.

Who in the world started THAT ridiculous piece of tripe? Let's consider the argument: Most "liberals" are college educated, most college professors are liberals, therefore, the professors brainwash students to become liberal thinkers.

Wow! I want to meet the brilliant mastermind behind THAT plan. Anyone who can organize such a huge effort and get vast numbers of “radical, left-wing academics” to work together should be in charge of our military and our government because if you can make that happen, you can obviously coordinate ANYTHING.

I guess the same conspiracy theorists who thought up this one have never heard of Okkam's Razor. That's a theorem that says if there are multiple possible explanations for something the simplest one is probably true. Hmmmm--could it be a vast, nationwide, left-wing conspiracy to brainwash millions of young adults, or that a quality education that teaches critical thinking skills results in the ability to THINK? Which could possibly be the simpler, saner, and more reasonable explanation?

The primary objective of a good education, at any level, is not to have students memorize facts and figures, but to give them problem solving skills. Much of elementary and high school is memorizing because we have to start with some basic vocabulary and concepts. But memorizing and learning are two different things--memorizing can help learning, but parroting back the correct words isn't necessarily comprehending what they mean, or being able to apply those concepts to other areas.

A monkey can memorize which buttons to push to fly a spacecraft without understanding how the rockets work; rats memorize mazes all the time. Memorization is not a higher level cognitive function. Rote memorization results in blind agreement with (and obedience to) what you've been told is the answer. That amounts to unquestioningly towing the party line, regardless of whether it makes sense or not because you were told that was the "right" answer. As Rush tells his listeners, "You don't have to try to figure out what to think, I'll tell you what to think." What he really means, is that if you gather and analyze all the information to see if the arguments are valid, you'd come to a different conclusion.

Memorizing is the first step  in the learning process, but it isn't the whole process. After that, you have to understand what those words mean, then apply them, then analyze them to draw conclusions and synthesize that information into a broader context. THAT is critical thinking. It's a higher level in the learning process--one that our brains aren't even wired for until we're in our late-teens or early-20s.

Critical thinking is a process to find answers, as opposed to being given the answer. Critical thinking is learned, particularly through the sciences and mathematics. These disciplines are based on problem-solving to discover answers, not on being told the answer. This is the kind of thinking the Texas GOP wanted to ban from being taught in schools because it results in students "questioning" their beliefs. If by beliefs, they mean misperceptions, fallacies, misinformation and lies, they're correct.

I don't see anything wrong with questioning those things. How can anyone truly and wholeheartedly believe in something that won't stand up to analysis? I would think if you truly believe something to be true, you'd want it questioned again and again and again. The more times you demonstrate that something is not wrong, the stronger the proof that it is right.

Oh, wait...that describes the scientific method, the ultimate critical thinking tool! Scientists continuously try to prove that their belief, their hypothesis about something, is wrong. They question it in every way possible. Every time we demonstrate that a hypothesis is not wrong, we gain evidence that it is correct. Because there are an infinite number of variables that can affect the outcome, we can rarely say we've "proven" anything,  but with more and more evidence showing it isn't wrong, the slimmer the possibility that it is, i.e., the more certain we can be that our answer is right.
The Scientific Method = Evidence-based Problem Solving using Critical Thinking

Without questioning, without attempting to disprove one's beliefs, there is no support for those beliefs. They are just opinions. Scientists work on solid, measurable evidence. That's what students are taught in science classes as part of their "liberal" education. A real education doesn't tell students the answers. It gives them the tools they need to find the answers. A well-educated person doesn't have all the answers, but they have the ability to identify the real questions, find the resources to help answer those questions, the mental wherewithal to evaluate those resources to determine if they're factual or opinion-based, and the ability to work through the data and information to come up with the best answer to the problem. It's a lot of work.

Is it any surprise that the 'educated liberal elite' are more left-leaning than those who don't, can't, or won't take the time and effort to critically consider and analyze the issues? Not at all. If you've learned critical thinking skills and learned to differentiate fact from opinion, hypothesis from hype, you will apply those skills in your life. The simplest answer to why a preponderance of college-educated people are more middle or left-leaning in their political views is that they've learned how to think through issues and come up with logical conclusions based on factual information. Rather than believe what they're told by radio and TV pundits--from either side of the political divide--they question all of them, investigate, sort fact from fiction, and reason from opinion. The conclusions drawn from actually researching the issues don't tend to fall nicely and neatly into any one party-line. Particularly not the party line that tells us "this is the right answer, if you question it, you're unpatriotic" or worse yet (in their sad little minds), "a liberal." 

That would be the same party that tells us smaller government is good–after they took the deficit to record numbers and expand the government into the largest bureaucracy in the history of the US between 2000 and 2008. No one with the capability for abstract thought could reconcile those words and actions. Of course any sane, rational person would question the discrepancy between their words and deeds. How gullible do you have to be to believe someone who says they "stand for middle-class Americans and small town folks" while those same Americans were being evicted from their houses while big financial institutes were bailed out and their executives rewarded with trips and bonuses? (And before any of my right-leaning friends take offense, bear in mind, the political spectrum is a continuum. You may interpret your position as "right" but I'd be willing to bet you aren't on that end of the spectrum arguing to abolish critical thinking skills, dismantle education, or put creationism in the science classroom. In today's world, that makes you a moderate, and by some GOP accounting, it makes you a flaming liberal!)

I don't believe a college education makes anyone smarter. There are many fields of study where rote memorization is sufficient and many people in those fields have never developed critical thinking skills. It doesn't mean they don't possess knowledge, skills, or expertise in their field. What thinking critically and a quality education give us, is not just information but the ability to acquire it, understand it, analyze it, and apply it, regardless of the discipline. That takes time, effort and practice. It takes time to go beyond the sound-bite on the news shows, to look at congressional voting records, to locate legislation, to read and understand it, to see how it's being interpreted and applied. It's hard work, not of a physical kind, but of an intellectual kind. And it's time consuming. It's so much easier and faster to believe that chain e-mail, to unquestioningly follow party lines, to only read sources that are "approved" or sponsored by your preferred party, and to believe that there are only two answers to any issue: "with us” or “against us".

I'm sick of the unfounded, fear-based attacks on intelligence and education. Do you think there could be a correlation between the GOP's increasing attacks on education and our ever-falling rank in the world in science and math? Of course there is. We need to value education and learning rather than perpetuate the myth of "common sense." Common means average, our country deserves more than mediocre.
"Common" would be right there in the middle, where most people are.
Wouldn't uncommon sense, as in the above average type really be what we'd want out of an education?

Let's hear it for intelligent people who would rather work hard to discover the truth and the best answers, even when those may not be popular or simple, even when they may be frightening. We should look up to those who aren't afraid to base their answers on facts rather than opinion and emotion, and who are willing to change their views when more and better information becomes available. Let's hope our country has the good sense to stop seeing bull-headedness as a strength. Let's promote critical thinking, rather than obstinance as a virtue in our elected officials. Does anyone really believe that an entire political platform based on "whatever the other side says, wants, or does, we oppose it regardless of the facts" is in the best interest of anyone other than their own little egos. Really? We're smarter than that, aren't we?