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Apr 30 2013

We’ve learned critical thinking too well?

Oh really?

Critical thinking has so thoroughly colonized our idea of education that we tend to think it’s the only kind of thinking. Tests try to measure it, and ritzy private schools all claim to teach it. Critical thinking–analysis, not mere acceptance–is a skill we can all learn. And we’ve learned it too well.

Really? Really? Who, where?

That’s an article at The American Conservative, by Eve Tushnet. (She must have had a difficult childhood.)

We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.

Is that right? I see people all around who do lots of accepting, prudent or otherwise.

What we don’t teach, and don’t even consider as something worth teaching, is the art of acceptance. The art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well. We don’t teach how to tell when you’re sure enough, when you really should take the leap of faith, when you should say, “Yes, my understanding is totally inadequate, but I believe.”

Who’s “we”? People are taught that in church and Sunday school, and outside them too, all the time. “Faith” is a hooray word in the US.

Nobody can live by critical thinking alone. And so we wait, and we keep our options endlessly open, hoping that some lightning-strike revelation will take the decision out of our hands. “When I met your mother I just knew…” “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven….” We hope that we will be transported over doubt to a place of secure faith. It turns out that this does happen sometimes–just enough to tantalize the many people who long for the moment of undeniable, irrefutable knowledge and never receive it.

Oh, please. Yes of course it happens sometimes, and often disaster results. People who think they “just know” things can be very dangerous; people who realize they don’t are less likely to be dangerous in that way.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    Well, she is still a staunch Catholic despite being gay, so she apparently hasn’t put 2 and 2 together in that arena. I would say from reading her article that she never really was taught critical thinking very well.

    To me, it just reads like another apologists mish-mash with the predictable ending…believe in Jesus because, well, just because.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    People who think they “just know”

    I often ask such people, “how do you tell the feeling of ‘just knowing’ from ‘being mistaken’?” Most of us have experience with feeling certainty and then discovering we were wrong. It’s a fairly common experience.

  3. 3
    smhll

    Wow, schools teach critical thinking, but they have stopped teaching wishful thinking. Oh, no! The horror!!!! Eeeek!

  4. 4
    Richard Smith

    Something tells me that folks like Eve “just know” that critical thinking, like reality, has a liberal bias. Well, shoot blindly long enough, and you’re bound to hit something once in a while…

  5. 5
    atheist

    I’m afraid Ms. Tushnet may be in touch with the times. The long-term conservative war on education has had an effect and will continue to have one. Schools focus less on critical thinking than before, and more on regurgitating information.

  6. 6
    axelblaster

    This is depressing. I’ve heard similar arguments from my religious relatives. It’s ignorance by choice.

  7. 7
    AJ Milne

    (Blinks…)

    She writes for The American Conservative

    … and she’s worried about ‘an excess of critical thinking’?

    (Pauses for audience reaction…)

    Seriously, Ms. Tushnet, I expect you really needn’t worry…

    I mean, even if ‘an excess of critical thinking’ were actually a thing, you, at least, should be pretty safe.

    (… Cross reference to ‘the least of your worries’)

    Seriously, that ‘art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well’ requires very little art, at least on the part of those in the process of becoming so occupied. That’s the kinda thing you can get done to you, pretty much without noticing. Those actually arranging the occupying on the other hand may have some work to do; it depends a bit, not that you’re likely to want for on-the-job training, should you be interested in such a career… Anyway, this, I guess, I could more easily accept is an ‘art’ of sorts, tho’ it’s probably a more flattering word for the process than I’d usually use.

    But seriously, she worries we’ve lost this ‘art’? Dear me. Not so as much as I’ve noticed.

    I suppose I should give her kudos, however, for the very nakedness of this appeal. As yes, this is exactly how it’s played in preserving any number of doctrines that really don’t get much mileage when you try to make any actually defensible case for them…

    Nice of her, in short, to make it so plain: repeat the article of faith–let’s not dwell on whether it makes any sense to you whatsoever–until it becomes your own. Which, by the way, it will very likely do, if you repeat it, long enough.

  8. 8
    Ian MacDougall

    There is critical thinking and critical thinking. Someone who has a malfunctioning crap detector is probably not going to last long out there in the street, or in business, or most other places. But I gather that in most parts of the world many educators, clergy and others try to encourage people to confine their critical thinking within socially and/or clerically acceptable bounds, and to not let it stray too far outside those.
    I would prefer it if that short period of my life I spent in the study of various religious texts did not go to waste. So I offer here this suggestion: one cannot be the founder of a new religion if one is incapable of thinking critically; at least about the old one
    Within the confines of the prevailing ethos of his time, Joshua bar Joseph had this ability in spades. Hence some of his arresting aphorisms, such as “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” and “the Kingdom of God is within you.” (The latter idea probably originated in India.)
    If he had been born twenty years ago, by now Joshua would probably be one of the Net’s more prominent bloggers.

  9. 9
    glodson

    Reading her piece, I can see why she has a problem with critical thinking.

  10. 10
    Ian MacDougall

    The subtext of The American Conservative would have to be ‘don’t rock the boat’. Hence the advocacy of unquestioning ‘acceptance’.
    Don’t ask me why. I just know.

  11. 11
    sailor1031

    “We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.”

    One wonders of course how one would learn when and to what without exercising critical thinking. How does she feel (because obviously there’s no actual thinking here) about scientology? suppose the LDS had got to her first? suppose she had been born in Bangla Desh? Typical smug, foolish, conservative catholic – aaaarrrgh! we hates ‘em Precious!

  12. 12
    Ysanne

    The art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well.

    How is that something that anyone would ever want to aspire to? Why would this other person’s words and insights be better or more useful than your own if they’re not rationally convincing enough?

    And so we wait, and we keep our options endlessly open, hoping that some lightning-strike revelation will take the decision out of our hands.

    The solution to this problem, on the other hand, is something completely different than taking leaps of faith: It’s called “setting a threshold for acceptance of a solution”. How important it is to get this right, and how to do it in the best possible way is the cornerstone of optimisation and operations research, and as such an extremely well-researched topic. The main result is really: Think rationally, do the maths, then stick to it and not to some failth or feeling — because humans’ probabilistic intuition sucks.

  13. 13
    badgersdaughter

    The whole thing basically boils down, in my opinion, to “What are you going to believe, baby, me telling you nothing happened, or your lying eyes?”

  14. 14
    'dirigible

    “Nobody can live by critical thinking alone.”

    If find irony and humour useful as well.

    Particularly when faced with this sort of thing.

  15. 15
    Dave

    Absolutely bog-standard [in every sense] Christian dogma. Tertullian: credo quia impossibile. Augustine: Credo quia absurdum est. Matthew: Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. And what is this, in another sense, but the very concept of ‘faith’ itself?

    Blah blah. Why change the script, it’s been working for 2000 years?

  16. 16
    michaelpowers

    These people won’t be happy until we’ve all devolved to the point where we’re just pointing, and grunting. Then, everything will be magic because nothing will be understood. This kind of thing depresses me to the point where I wonder whether sentience itself is an evolutionary dead-end.

  17. 17
    robb

    did she really quote Geddy Lee in that article?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mEzgc_ne60

  18. 18
    VeganAtheistWeirdo

    Actually it would technically be a quote of Neil Peart as sung by Geddy Lee. And I’d bet both of them would vomit on Tushnet’s shoes if they knew. I resent her having associated her drivel in my mind with Rush’s awesomeness. Bleah!

  19. 19
    sleepingwytch(inactive)

    Ugh, those words are so vilely submissive to ignorance: “We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.”

    It’s like a bucket of ice cold water =(

  20. 20
    brianpansky

    yes please, all you catholics, please say “yes” to “accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well”

    the thoughts of non-catholics. the insights of equality activists.

  21. 21
    Cam

    It’s like a horrible zombie version of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game”. Elbow would have people enter into different beliefs and try them on for size, exercising their empathy and imagination to find hidden virtues in ideas that they might otherwise find alien or repellent. It’s not supposed to be all that comfortable, any more than critical thinking is. Elbow would have you step in and out of ideas lightly, looking at them from multiple angles of belief and doubt. That’s just about the exact opposite of looking for a place of secure faith.

    Tushnet, on the other hand, seems to want people to exercise their capacity for obedience: actually accepting other people’s ideas and living them as if they were your own — forever, apparently, or at least until they are proven to be so wrong that you require regret and repentance.

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