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content and education: or, why wonder bread does not taste as good as a fresh loaf of whole-grain

by J.L. Wall

Patrick Deneen has a long post up on the meaning and role of “critical thinking” in higher education. I’ve felt for a while now that “it inculcates critical thinking skills like no other subject!” is little more than a last line of defense thrown up hastily by Classicists; I’m worried it’s one which won’t hold out that much longer—mostly because it means the only “essential” aspect of the subject is its interdisciplinarity. But if subject matter doesn’t really matter so much as a skill—if we’re still valuing tekhne over sophia—then any meaningful education in the Classics, or the liberal arts in general, is more or less doomed.  If nothing particular to them is essential, why even bother?

From his view, critical thinking looks like:

“a form of intentional deracination and displacement. Its basic assumption is that students enter college or university with a set of under-explored moral commitments that they have inherited from the broader culture. [. . .] An education in critical thinking takes on the appearance of contentless inquiry, but is in fact deeply informed by a considerable set of Enlightenment beliefs, including the effort to inculcate deracinated reason, a conception of the individual as a monadic “self,” antipathy to culture and religion, philosophical skepticism, a deep-seated materialism, and a devotion to a cosmopolitan outlook that permits one to be comfortable everywhere and nowhere in particular.”

Which brings us to the question of educational content.  Here’s my problem with Northwestern in a nutshell: it’s possible to get a liberal arts degree without taking a course in literature, or, to broaden this up some, a single course that requires critical reading as (among) the core skills for success.  (This is despite a six-pronged approach to Distribution Requirements, which need to be replaced with a Core.  I think about this too much for my own good.)  And don’t get me started on our lovely, 100% content-free pre-professional programs that spend four years trying to teach people to “think” without giving them anything of value to think about.

Literature teaches one how to read and how to view the world through Oakeshott’s contemplative mode (and I’m with him in saying that this is too often and too easily lost); history courses–American and Western firstly and particularly–teach us where we come from, and who we are; the natural sciences teach us about the workings of the world in which we live; mathematics–in addition to being a practical skill at worst and an elegant one at best (this from one who was bored to tears by everything short of calculus)–trains the mind for clear, logical thinking (which should not be feared); philosophy gives one an introduction to ways of understanding the world and politics; etc.  It is from the interaction of the content and what one learns in them–and it must be approached as sophia rather than tekhne–that “critical thinking” develops in relation to the whole person.

Of course, I also think higher education in the liberal arts has a particular purpose: the development of the good citizen (and good person, though I feel this should/would follow inherently).  A liberal arts degree should signal, in addition to adding credence to one’s resume (or whatever), that one is prepared to act as a thoughtful and responsible participant in public life, even if only to a minimal degree–which is why the content not only matters, but is essential.
I still haven’t seen much in the way of a professoriate out to indoctrinate students, and that doesn’t quite seem to be a fair characterization of Deneen’s argument/worries (he goes on to discuss the drift/fate/purpose of Catholic universities; I can’t relate).  But I do see that, like he says, “critical thinking” is almost uniformly ill-defined–what should be understood as a quest to understand why we think the way we do, or believe what we do (not for the purpose of tossing them aside, but, even in the case of faith, understanding them better) has become a valueless shorthand for the ability to read an article and see its flaws, or take a handful of data and see how they interact.  Another way to put it, I suppose, is that critical thinking, from my perspective, has become very much conflated with critical reading.  These are not the same thing.  While the latter is a component of the former, it is not the former in whole.

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