Mission critical thinking: Preparing students and ourselves for catastrophic times

Most liberal arts professors have known for years that the greatest good we can do for many of our students probably isn’t to immerse them in the advanced esoterica of our particular disciplines but to help develop their critical reading, writing and thinking skills. In the disastrous age of MAGA, I have begun to more fully appreciate this lesson: Part of my job is to help prepare students to locate and respond to catastrophic social, political, and ethical problems, only some of which we are now even able to fully imagine.

“Critical thinking,” that darling term we educators have been kissing and cuddling for decades, no longer cuts it when we face the full horror and possibility of what we are collectively facing. In past decades, “critical” has signaled ways of thinking, reading, and writing that occur from a questioning and investigative mode, a disinterested evaluation of facts, logical relationships between claims, and the biases of all concerned, including oneself. This is all to the good, especially the importance of challenging claims that happen to suit one’s preexisting expectations or preferences. Certainly, we would all be much better off if “critical thinking” of this sort could dislodge the irrational mob-think and craven consumerist claptrap that passes for much of current social and political discourse.

Teaching critical analysis as a fairly narrowly cognitive approach is evidently not enough, though. What we need is a reclamation of “critical” that is bolder, more dramatic, and far more socially and emotionally urgent than any we may have ever before used. In short, we must train students and ourselves to function as intellectual and psychological EMTs, prepared to move into the disaster zone with the skills, judgment, and nerve necessary for both triage and long-term, sustainable healing and repair. We need proactive, brave, pliable first responders who are also long-term strategic solution-seekers capable of evaluating and rearrange the big picture. The “critical thinking” values that must underlie our teaching work today are “critical” in the sense of “mission critical” and of “critical condition.” The symbol for this might include a pen and inkwell, but also a blood red armband and a sturdy multi-tool.

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This more urgent, red-alert version of critical thinking obviously must include much of what has always mattered about this traditional skillset, including close reading, basic logic, the analysis of evidence, and evaluation of perspective. But it must place greater explicit emphasis on qualities of individual motivation, self-care and character development, including the cultivation of:
– a healthy combination of confidence, humility, self-efficacy and self-reflection
– an unwavering commitment to empathy and compassion that does not slide into paternalistic pity or overwhelmed quietism
– a bias toward positive, productive action in the service of deep communal values, including for example, participatory democracy and racial equality
– an ability to make tough, real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information and general uncertainty
– the courage to go against the grain, to swim upstream from groupthink while still respecting the legitimate needs of the community

Even this cursory, general list serves as a cautionary guide for me: As a feminist philosopher, I have for decades emphasized a cognitively based, moderate notion of critical thinking that has reflected both a (perhaps naive) confidence in human reason and a (legitimate) concern about alienating students. I have, then, often ended up focusing on tweaking reading, writing and thinking skills, careful not to be “too normative” or “too directive” with respect to the social and emotional values surrounding these supposedly “neutral” cognitive standards. I haven’t avoided real world issues — this would not even possible in the courses I teach — but I have sometimes highlighted the intellectual “toolbox” aspect of critical thinking in order to sidestep the messier social and ethical facets that give cognitive values sense and power.

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For better and worse, I know that I am not the only instructor who has been dancing carefully among the demanding arms of cognitive, emotional, social and ethical competence. Unfortunately, there is extraordinary pressure on professors to treat students like desperately needed, precious, fickle, customers. Further, the long, determined march from tenured to contingent faculty has eroded the secure ground from which some faculty can be expected to engage in difficult dialogues. It is surely no accident that the academic freedom necessary to engage in authentically holistic critical thinking has been hacked away by conservative extremists at the very time it is most urgently needed. Regardless, we can no longer afford any semblance of the fantasy that liberal arts professors are debate coaches meant to lead students through “what if” puzzles to achieve oblique insights or incrementally improved logical skills. The most privileged of professors, at least, surely, might rethink our relationship to “critical thinking.”

So, though I still push my students to wrestle constructively, directly and intellectually with texts — this humanistic work matters! — I engage with them in ever more practical, particular, personal, and socially urgent terms. And I am more prepared than ever to acknowledge my astonishing ignorance, because, like so many well trained, smart professors, I have been caught off guard by the scale and doggedness of the retrograde cruelty and naked greed of conservative extremists. And so I commit as much to the pedagogical power of empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-empowerment as to more specifically cognitive values. This isn’t a self-esteem based pedagogical gimmick, but, instead, a matter of necessity: It will take the empowered, compassionate, creative strategizing of all of us — young and old — to MacGyver our way out of this mess.

Selling the university to student customers: The elusive fantasy of bespoke education

At lots of struggling universities these days, part of the new game plan for attracting students revolves around the values of flexibility, choice, and individual preference. The notion that each student is unique, with gifts, challenges, and whims that ought to be accommodated is consistent with what a contemporary, consumer oriented social ethos seem to require. And I will not raise my voice against such a noble ideal.

Too often, and for far too long, young people have been slotted into institutions, majors, jobs, and even sexual identities, in ways that discourage exploration and experimentation, and ultimately stifle growth. Reshaping the university so that it encourages greater individual variation, including self-designed majors and flexible graduation goals, seems all to the good. And if students and their families arrive with fistfuls of tuition dollars to purchase the newly promised freedom and individual attention, fine.

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Except, of course, that this bargain isn’t entirely on the up-and-up. The student-centered, personalized education model remains elusive at large, bureaucratic institutions. Student advising and counseling offices are understaffed. Online classes may accommodate students’ pajamas and busy work schedules, but most have assignment deadlines more or less like their face-to-face counterparts. Further, at universities like mine, core education requirements continue to push students along fairly scripted paths. The Titanic simply wasn’t built to allow a few passengers to take side trips to explore uncharted coves or deep sea chasms.

University marketing materials may feed the fantasy of one-on-one student engagement with research-active faculty, but students are more likely to encounter overtaxed adjunct instructors. Many of these folks barely have time to floss their teeth let alone lie around on the quad debating Plato’s Republic. Fully employed tenure-track or tenured faculty too face increasing demands as our numbers dwindle and bureaucratic service demands increase. The pressure to respond to the endless, growing stream of students’ accommodation requests, mental health crises, and the proliferation of academic progress reporting alone can become overwhelming. In short, campus “look books” sell the image of unharried, student-centered professors even as long term disinvestment in the professoriate guarantees that we exist as an increasingly endangered species.

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Students quickly discover that much of the individual treatment and focused attention they were promised by the campus sales team doesn’t mean that their instructor will know their name or find time to meet with them after their shift ends at Target. The slick promises don’t save students from form letters, inscrutable across-the-board fees and charges, waiting in lines like “everyone else,” or being accountable to all sorts of deadlines. Small liberal arts colleges may be able to pull off the boutique educational experience, but larger institutions seem to have conformity and batch processing steeped into their bones. And, evidently, many universities simply have no intention of putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to making good on those feel-good promises.

And so the mad rush to attract an ostensibly shrinking body of students threatens to devolve into a bait and switch scheme worthy of fly by night used car lots. When students actually arrive on campus with demands for accommodations and special consideration they have been promised, overtaxed professors, advisors, counselors, staff, and adjunct instructors will be left to tell them the truth: This mid-tier directional university you have selected is far less like a bespoke tailor shop than a Nordstrom Rack or TJ Maxx. There is quality to be found, to be sure, but don’t expect it to be hand selected, gift wrapped, and placed lovingly in your lap.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.