Critical thinking

I recently wrote about evidence and faith. Faith in the very narrow definition of “blind” faith, basing beliefs and actions on an ideology in contrast to evidence and critical thinking.

Ideology is fueling increasingly violent culture wars today. I often find myself wishing people were better informed and thinking critically. Not in the sense of agreeing with me, but having views based on facts and evidence, when available, and informed by critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

sensemaking–the action or process of making sense of or giving meaning to something, especially new developments and experiences.

At the collective level, a loss of sensemaking erodes shared cultural and value structures and renders us incapable of generating the collective wisdom necessary to solve complex societal problems like those described above. When that happens the centre cannot hold.

Threats to sensemaking are manifold. Among the most readily observable sources are the excesses of identity politics, the rapid polarisation of the long-running culture war, the steep and widespread decline in trust in mainstream media and other public institutions, and the rise of mass disinformation technologies, e.g. fake news working in tandem with social media algorithms designed to hijack our limbic systems and erode our cognitive capacities. If these things can confound and divide us both within and between cultures, then we have little hope of generating the coherent dialogue, let alone the collective resolve, that is required to overcome the formidable global-scale problems converging before us.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium, June 18, 2019

As James Allen writes here, “at the collective level, a loss of sensemaking erodes shared cultural and value structures.” I think Allen’s focus on shared cultural and value structures is important. We don’t rely strictly on facts to make sense of things.

Critical thinking is how many of us make sense of things new to us.

There are so many new things coming at us. Worsing environmental chaos and collapsing economic and political systems.

But some people choose to allow others to make sense of things for them. Theirs is a conscious choice to abandon critical thinking and embrace leaders who profess to share their culture and values. Authoritarianism can be attractive to these people. This explains the assault on democratic governance. Helps explain refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and reject mask mandates, support voting restrictions, etc.

I’m especially disturbed about recent, widespread attacks against schools and educators who teach about the history of slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We cannot begin to make progress toward reconciliation without acknowledging the truth.

Some people are saying they don’t want students to be disturbed by those histories. That is appalling, because there is much we should be disturbed by.

Banning books is especially disconcerting and antithetical to education and critical thinking. Other authoritarian regimes have banned books. I realize “other authoritarian regimes” implies ours is one.

Some people are terrified that kids will learn about racism.
Especially white people.
Especially that white KIDS might learn about it.
How would that affect a white child’s self-esteem, they say.
Imagine learning that racism existed in the United States.
A country founded by white people.
(Taken from brown people. Made largely profitable by the enslavement of black people.)
Wouldn’t that make white kids feel bad?
It’s a strange question.
First of all, wouldn’t it make the black and brown kids feel worse than the white kids?
After all, it was their ancestors who were brutalized and subjugated.
Second of all, what does history have to do with your feelings?

Moreover, how would one even teach American history without talking about racism?
This is the United States – a country that built much of its economy on the backs of black people kidnapped from their homes across the sea and then bought and sold here as property.
Not only that but the very land we stand on was once the domain of dark-skinned indigenous people.
People who were tricked, coerced and killed if they did not give up this land – if they did not move on to ever shrinking corners of the continent until they were almost all dead, assimilated or stashed away on reservations.
What would it do to a white child to learn all this?
Provide an accurate account of events, I suppose.

It’s not just the history of racism these children are learning, but they’re starting to think that racism is WRONG.

And that’s a problem because it has an impact on how we view the modern world today.

So if we teach the history of racism, how do we justify saying that it ever ended?
How do we not admit that it merely evolved into the status quo?
That’s really the issue.
Not the past but the present.
It’s not the racism of the antebellum South or even the pre-civil rights period North of the Mason-Dixon line.


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