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Intellectual Illness September 16, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Teaching, Uncategorized.
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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.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. John Anngeister - September 17, 2010

Good post, on a subject of interest to me.

I am prepared to agree with your implied criticism of the quality of our ‘critical thinking’ classes (are they still big at the secondary school level?).

My (unproved) personal theory rests alot of the blame on the caliber of high school teacher who would fancy himself ‘a philosopher’ able to teach one of these courses and then end up doing a hack-job emphasizing scepticism and not really having the knowledge or skill to do much more. (I knew some hacks among my 1960s HS instructors)

I enjoy reading works in philosophy and religion from the 1910s, 20s and 30s, and often find the university prof remarking that ‘Mr. Spencer’s type of simplistic materialism is no longer seriously entertained by our more considering minds’ or some such thing.

These university dons, etc., imagined a wind change presaging a turning of the tide, but were wrong because there were (as I believe) down at the public school level thousands of fervent high school science teachers teaching Spencer’s simplistic naturalism with hackish devotion and sending materialists and agnostics into the world who would never see the light of a higher university.

I don’t mean to sound intolerant, only amused and (like you) concerned about the future of thought. Thanks for the post, and the blog, an occasion for reflection this evening

2. Michael Mussachia - September 18, 2010

Skepticism not only needs to be combined with a commitment to the pursuit of truth; the latter should be done, preferably, using rigorous methodologies so as to have a chance of obtaining evidence that is objective in the sense that it is independent of the expectations and preferences of the test participants (unlike feeling the presence of Jesus/Lord Krishna/name your favorite deity after days of fasting, praying and meditating). I encourage my students to base their beliefs on the best available evidence, recognize that confirmation is always a matter of degree, and when there is no evidence, leave a question mark on the issue. So, what we need is a healthy dose of skepticism combined with a rigorous pursuit of truth that recognizes evidential support is always a matter of degree. In this manner, we remain open-minded without being naively open-minded.

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