Schooling underpinned by critical thinking is the bedrock of civilisation. It could save us from today’s infantilised discourse
Many years ago I gave a talk at the London Metropolitan Archives in which I outlined my reasons for rejecting the then fashionable theory of social constructionism in relation to human sexuality. In the coffee break that followed, I was approached by a lesbian activist, who claimed to have chosen her orientation as a means to oppose the patriarchy. She demanded to know why I would not accept that sexuality had no biological basis, even though I had spent the best part of an hour answering this very question. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ve already explained why I don’t agree with you.” “But why won’t you agree?” she shouted in response. “Why?”
Primary school teachers are familiar with such frustrated pleas. The anger of children is so often connected with incomprehension, a sense of injustice, or both. When it persists into adulthood it represents a failure of socialisation. We frequently hear talk of our degraded political discourse—and there is some truth to that—but really we are dealing with mass infantilism. Its impact is evident wherever one cares to look: online, in the media, even in parliament. Argumentation is reduced to a matter of tribal loyalty; whether one is right or wrong becomes secondary to the satisfaction of one’s ego through the submission of an opponent. This is not, as some imagine, simply a consequence of the ubiquity of social media, but rather a general failure over a number of years to instil critical thinking at every level of our educational institutions.
To be a freethinker has little to do with mastery of rhetoric and everything to do with introspection. It is all very well engaging in a debate in order to refine our persuasive skills, but it is a futile exercise unless we can entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. In Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, he relates an anecdote about his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. A visiting academic from America gave a talk on the Golgi apparatus, a microscopic organelle found in plant and animal cells, and in doing so provided incontrovertible evidence of its existence. An elderly member of the Zoology Department, who had asserted for many years that the Golgi apparatus was a myth, was present at the lecture. Dawkins relates how, as the speaker drew to a close, “the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said—with passion—‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red.”
This is the ideal that so few embody, particularly when it comes to the unexamined tenets of political ideology. We often see examples of media commentators or politicians being discredited in interviews or discussions, but how often do we see them concede their errors, even when they are exposed beyond doubt? There is a very good reason why the sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer opened his First Principles (1862) by asserting that there exists “a soul of truth in things erroneous”; but such concessions can only be made by those who are able to prioritise being right over being seen to be right. Too many are seemingly determined to turn difficult arguments into zero-sum games in which to give any ground whatsoever is to automatically surrender it to an opponent.
The discipline of critical thinking invites us to consider the origins of our knowledge and convictions. A man may speak with the certainty of an Old Testament prophet, but has he reached his conclusions for himself? Or is he a mere resurrectionist, plundering his bookshelves for the leather-bound corpses of other people’s ideas? Hazlitt expounded at length on how sophistry might be mistaken for critical faculties, noting that the man who sees only one half of a subject may still be able to express it fluently. “You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his chair and throw away his crutch,” he wrote, “as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and think for himself. He clings to it for his intellectual support; and his dread of being left to himself is like the horror of a vacuum.”
The natural human instinct for confirmation bias presents a further problem, one especially prominent among ideologues. Anything can be taken to support one’s position so long as it
is perceived through the lens of prejudgment. We can see this most notably in the proponents of Critical Social Justice, who start from the premise that unequal outcomes—disparities in average earnings between men and women, for instance—are evidence of structural inequalities in society. They are beginning with the conclusion and working backwards, mistaking their own arguments for proof.
Worse still, such an approach often correlates with a distinctly moralistic standpoint. Many of the most abusive individuals on social media cannot recognise their behaviour for what it is because they have cast themselves in the role of the virtuous. If we are morally good, the logic goes, it must be assumed that our detractors are motivated by evil and we are therefore relieved of the obligation to treat them as human beings. This line of thinking accounts for the more depressing aspects of the debates leading up to the Brexit referendum, in which prominent members of the commentariat represented the binary of Remain versus Leave as synonymous with Good versus Evil.
Again, we must be alert to the danger of cheapening argumentation and analysis to the mere satisfaction of ego. One of the reasons why disagreements on social media tend towards the bellicose is that the forum is public. Where there is an audience, there is always the risk that critical thinking will be subordinated to the performative desire for victory or the humiliation of a rival; such are our limitations as status-seeking primates. In these circumstances, complexities that require a nuanced approach are refashioned into misleading binaries, and opponents are mischaracterised out of all recognition so that people effectively end up arguing with spectres of their imagination. The Socratic method, by contrast, urges us to see disputation as essentially cooperative, a drawing out of ideas through the dialectical process.
This is the ideal that should be embedded into our national curricula. Children need to be taught that there are few instances in which serious discussions can be simplified to a matter of right or wrong, and fewer still in which one person’s rightness should be taken as proof of another’s wrongness. In the lexicon of Critical Thinking, this is called the fallacy of “affirming a disjunct”; that is to say, “either you are right or I am right, which means that if you are wrong I must be right”. One cannot think critically in such reductionist terms.
To attempt seriously to understand an alternative worldview involves, as Bertrand Russell put it, “some effort of thought, and most people would sooner die than think”. In the study of psychology this is termed the “cognitive miser” model, which acknowledges that most human brains will favour the easiest solution to any given problem. These mental shortcuts—known as “heuristics”—are hardwired into us, which is why being told what to think is more pleasurable than thinking for ourselves. I remember an English lesson in which I had initiated a discussion with my students about the representation of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a topic that routinely comes up in exams. I wanted to know what they thought, and why. One student was sufficiently bold to ask: “Can’t you just tell us what we need to write to get the highest marks?”
This was not the fault of the student; there has been a trend in recent years, most likely influenced by the pressures of league tables, for schools to engage in “spoon-feeding”. Schemes of work and assessment criteria are made readily available to the pupils so that they can systematically hit the necessary targets in order to elevate their grades. The notion of education for education’s sake no longer carries any weight. I have even seen talented pupils marked down by moderators for an excess of individuality in their answers. In such circumstances, even a subject like English Literature can be reduced to a kind of memory test in which essays are regurgitated by rote.
It is hardly surprising, then, that pupils who opt for Critical Thinking courses at GCSE or A-level often perceive it to be a light option, a means to enhance the CV without too much exertion. Courses are generally divided into Problem Solving and Critical Thinking, the former concerned with processing and interpreting data, and the latter covering the fundamentals of analysis and argumentation. Pupils learn about common fallacies such as the ad hominem (personal attack), tu quoque (counter attack) and post hoc ergo propter hoc (mistaking correlation for causality), along with others derived from Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations. The Latin may be off-putting, but in truth these are simple ideas which are readily grasped. If one were to discount arguments in which these fallacies were committed, virtually all online disputes would disappear. As for politicians and the commentariat, a basic understanding of the principles of argumentation would go some way to restoring clarity and sophistication to public discourse.
That said, the existence of Critical Thinking as an academic subject in its own right might not be the best way to achieve this. As the psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has argued, cognitive abilities are redundant without secure contextual knowledge. Critical thinking is already embedded into any pedagogical practice that focuses on how to think rather than what to think. The increased influence of Critical Social Justice in education presents a problem in this regard, given that it is particularly hostile to divergent viewpoints. Any institution which becomes ideologically driven is unlikely to successfully foster critical thinking, and this is particularly the case when teachers are at times expected to proselytise in accordance with fashionable identity politics.
The depoliticisation of schools is just the first step. Critical thinking requires humility; this involves not just the ability to admit that one might be wrong, but also to recognise that an uninformed opinion is worthless, however stridently expressed. Interpretative skills are key, but only when developed on a secure foundation of subject-specific knowledge. This is the basis for Camille Paglia’s view that art history should be built into the national curriculum from primary school level. In her book Glittering Images, Paglia explains that children require “a historical framework of objective knowledge about art”, rather than merely treating art as “therapeutic praxis” to “unleash children’s hidden creativity”. Potato prints and zigzag scissors have their place, but we mustn’t forget about the textbooks.
A healthy degree of humility could act as a corrective to the rise of narcissism and decline of empathy that psychologists have observed over the past 30 years. One of the ways in which this trend manifests itself is the now common tendency for arguments to deteriorate into accusations of dishonesty. After all, it takes an extreme form of egotism to assume that the only possible explanation for an alternative point of view is that one’s opponent must be lying. In order to think critically, we cannot be in the business of simply assessing conclusions on the basis of whether or not they accord with our own.
An education underpinned by critical thinking is the very bedrock of civilisation, the means by which chaos is tamed into order. Tribalism, mudslinging, the inability to critique one’s own position: these are the tell-tale markers of the uncivilised and the hidebound. A society is ill served by a generation of adults who have not been educated beyond the egotistical impulses of childhood. At a time when so many are lamenting the degradation of public discourse, a conversation about how best to incorporate critical thinking into our schools is long overdue. Our civilisation might just depend on it.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.