Monday, May 12, 2014

A Very Popular Error: Having the Courage of One's Convictions

Bless Rod Dreher.  As soon as I saw the title of today's post, "A Problem With Critical Thinking," I knew it would give me something to play with.

Dreher linked to a complaint by Michael S. Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, about "the knee-jerk critical response of today's college students to the material they're presented".
Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.”

... Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.
Roth offers no support for his claim that "our cultural resources" are depleted, unless you count the example he offers in the next paragraph (which I don't):
In my film and philosophy class, for example, I have to insist that students put their devices away while watching movies that don’t immediately engage their senses with explosions, sex or gag lines. At first they see this as some old guy’s failure to grasp their skill at multitasking, but eventually most relearn how to give themselves to an emotional and intellectual experience, one that is deeply engaging partly because it does not pander to their most superficial habits of attention. I usually watch the movies with them (though I’ve seen them more than a dozen times), and together we share an experience that becomes the subject of reflection, interpretation and analysis. We even forget our phones and tablets when we encounter these unexpected sources of inspiration.
One of Dreher's commenters, Franklin Evans, pointed out the major problem with Roth's complaint: he's confusing different meanings of "critical thinking."
To be critical has long had a specific meaning, one that fits well with the pejorative connotations of “deconstructionism”. The parallel concept critical thinking maintained its own specificity, one that is being overshadowed as Roth describes by a key misconception:
Asking questions is automatically denigrating or casting mistrust on that which is being questioned.
This is a fallacy under the simple logic inherent in critical thinking. It is an examination, not a value judgment or demand for justification.
I've pointed out before that many people, even well-educated people, think of criticism and critical thinking simply as destructive criticism, tearing things down for the fun of seeing the fur fly and hearing the anguished cries of the bystanders.  It's depressingly clear that Michael S. Roth is one of these people.  So is Dreher, who replied to Evans's comment: "I think Roth's point is not that we shouldn't think critically, but that we abuse critical thinking when we begin reacting critically before we've fully understood the thing we're examining."  Evans pointed out that Roth's students aren't doing "critical thinking" or "critical reflection" in the first place.

I'm familiar with the phenomenon Roth describes, of movie geeks who've immersed themselves in slasher or action films to the point that they can't watch a film that moves at a slower pace, say, or involves no exploding heads or car crashes.  They imagine themselves to be superior to the gullible, sheeplike masses in the thrall of Hollywood.  But they also are evidence that Roth is wrong about a lack of "absorption" in the young: they happily, eagerly absorb films that conform to their preferred aesthetic, and watch them repeatedly.  They don't approach everything they encounter with the snarky cynicism Roth laments; indeed, they react indignantly to anyone who doesn't share their aesthetic, and gripe that the critic just likes tearing things down out of perversity.  Why can't you just shut off your brain, they implore, and let yourself enjoy it?  I've tried to engage such people in some kind of dialogue, but they aren't interested in critical thinking.  That's their right, of course, but not (at least in principle) in a university setting.  As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, it's important, for all that ít's difficult, to mount an attack on one's own convictions, not just those of others.  That is what critical thinking means, but as I've also noticed before, most people who advocate the project to others don't seem to think they should examine their own beliefs critically.  It's the sheeple who need to be critical, not their own fine enlightened selves.

I've known quite a few undergraduates who fit Roth's stereotype.  They wear "Question Authority" buttons; they aren't impressed by your Dead White Males.  But they have their own generational and/or subcultural canon, and are uncritical of their own arts and authorities.  I remember well the excitement that came from reading, say, Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and watching Heinlein slaughter sacred cows by the herd; it's a valuable experience.  But sooner or later, if you really care about questioning authority, you have to learn to question your Heinlein, your Bernard Shaw, your Rand, your Chomsky, your C. S. Lewis, your Foucault, whoever.  And you don't do this by reeling from one failed hero(ine) to the the next, disappointed when the latest guru turns out to have feet of clay, but still confident that somewhere over the hill is someone who really knows -- eventually you must have no authorities, and make your own decisions while remaining aware of your own fallibility.

This also applies to Dreher's next move:
One more thing: this blog’s frequent commenter Thursday often says that a problem with modernity is that we have more generally lost our receptive capabilities to things numinous, a receptivity that many peoples outside of Western secular modern cultures retain to some degree. Thursday is speaking specifically in spiritual terms; Roth is talking about liberal arts education. But there is a connection, I think.
I find this pretty funny.  Again, I think that "we" moderns have retained our receptive capabilities to things numinous, and not just because so many modern Western secularists I know, gleefully deriding bible-thumpers and Rethuglicans, turn out to have moved to "mindfulness," Soka Gakkai, and the Dalai Lama.  Dreher himself, after all, has no "receptive capabilities" when it comes to perceiving the numinous in a same-sex wedding.  When it comes to competing spiritual paths, let alone the "secular," Dreher and his fellow "traditionalists" are as knee-jerk cynical and snarky as any undergraduate hipster.

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number 3 is probably more typical of lay Christians of my generation than either I or Rod Dreher.  She's middle-class, college-educated (at least a bachelor's degree and perhaps a master's besides), a former elementary school teacher.  She thinks of herself as a bold skeptic because she won't listen to "liberal propaganda."  Conservative propaganda is okay, though; she says that she can't tell which point of view is more truthful, what news reports are accurate, so she just listens to and believes the ones she likes.  Like so many people, she loves memes and snappy stories, like the one about the college student who cleverly one-upped his smarty-pants atheist professor by proving the existence of God -- and that student was Albert Einstein!  When she posted this one to Facebook and some of her friends (including me) called her on it, she said indignantly that she didn't care what some liberal propagandist said -- she liked it, so she believed it, so there!  (This sort of story is the counterpart to secularist mythology about the great debate on Evolution by Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley; that one has also been roundly debunked, so many secularists seek a new hope in Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, or Bill Nye the Science Guy: someone who'll demolish the opposition with a well-turned scientific quip.  That way lies heartbreak, my children.)

Nor is this tendency limited to modern Westerners, secular or not.  Think of the early Christians, who surely were receptive to the numinous as mediated by their own cult but were unreceptive to its manifestations in their competition, from Jesus attacking the Pharisees (and vice versa) to Saint John Chrysostom ordering his mobs to burn down synagogues, preferably with the congregations still inside.  The gods of Rome weren't numinous, they were demons!  And that leaves aside Christians' often violent disagreements with each other.  What I'm talking about is not specific to theists, secularists, scientists, theologians, academics, or ordinary schmucks.  It's a tendency found in people of all stripes, and contrary to Dreher's claim that "the knee-jerk critical response of today’s college students to the material they’re presented has become not an aid to learning, but a barrier to it," it's not critical thinking at all, but the absence of critical thinking.