Intellectual Illness September 16, 2010Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Teaching, Uncategorized.
Tags: critical thinking, skepticism
Laurie Findrich reported on a classroom experience that indicates a pervasive intellectual illness:
The other day, during a class I was teaching on Leonardo da Vinci, the subject of how we know what we know about the artist came up. During the discussion, a student casually asserted, without rancor or even a touch of political commentary, that he thought it a “good possibility that Obama was a Muslim.” Another student nodded in agreement. Might be true, might not, they seemed to be saying. I got the distinct feeling that they thought that in their openness to the “possibility” that Obama was a Muslim, they were demonstrating their general openness to ideas—something I, as their professor, would be pleased to see. […]
Like everyone who pays attention to things, I know very well about the Pew study from this past August showing nearly one in five Americans think Obama is a Muslim. Why shouldn’t a few of those one in five Americans show up in a college classroom?
The students I encounter in my courses generally work hard and want to do well in college. They are intelligent. They want to learn things. But the “critical thinking” that’s been touted for the past several years seems to be yielding students who think that it’s a waste of time to think about things in terms of whether they are true or false. Instead, many seem to be learning that the proper and best attitude toward everything they encounter is doubt, and that nonstop doubt is the equivalent of being open-minded.
Some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of modernism, which celebrated doubt. Modernist doubt grew out of philosophical skepticism, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the disastrous 20th century, which took the wind out of the sails of Western civilization in the minds of many. (Two vicious world wars that killed millions, it seems, caused certain sensitive people to question the civilization that brought them on.) Sometimes, the reaction to modern doubt is to retreat to certainty—God said it, I believe it, that settles it. Oftentimes, the reaction is increased tolerance—openness to new ideas and a tolerance of others who are different. With many college students today, however, it seems to mean simply giving credence to anything, no matter how absurd. In absorbing the lesson that there are limits to reason, they’re concluding that more or less nothing can be ruled out by reason. Their philosophy can be summed up in these words: “I’m just saying, who knows?”
They’re cool with amorphous ideas that contain no rigor. Why try to figure it out? Maybe some people can talk to the dead; global warming may or may not be true; Princess Diana possibly was murdered; maybe 400 mcg’s of folic acid, taken three times a day, makes you smarter. Or maybe Obama is a Muslim. Who knows?
Skepticism can be aid to critical thinking. It is essential to philosophy and to science. It drives inquiry forward by sustaining the uncomfortable feeling of doubt and discouraging the premature leap to an unwarranted conclusion. But it is only a virtue if it is accompanied by a fierce commitment to seek the truth, as it was for Socrates or Descartes. Without a commitment to truth, skepticism is toxic, an invitation to intellectual laziness, boredom, and ultimately a stultifying inability to act.
Findrich is right to be concerned. […]
While higher-education critics are diligently trying to figure out how much students are not learning and how much it’s costing taxpayers (and the students and their parents) not to learn anything, we’re facing a slow meltdown of knowledge—an insidious, ongoing event, on a colossal scale, whose consequence is unpredictable. As surely as knowledge disappeared in the past by the burning of the great library at Alexandria, and the loss of ancient languages (in Europe in the late middle ages), knowledge can be destroyed by the attitude of indifference. If knowledge collapses into nothing but, “Maybe, who knows?” we’ll end up longing for the glory days when students lovingly visited Wikipedia in order to find the truth.
I am afraid we often encourage the skepticism but leave out the bit about the pursuit of truth. That is a tragic error.
For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com