Friday, May 8, 2009

College & Critical Thinking

There is a nice article in First Things about college thinking.

It is quite good and looks at critical theory.

The only quibble I would have would be in the last couple of lines from the second to last paragraph excerpted here—which I have bolded—as I have found that those who build their lives on relativism, feel that instead of living a “life without truths”, believe, though mistaken, that they have discovered the highest of truths; that all truth is relative.

The excerpt.

“After teaching for twenty years, I can report that the phrase that can unite otherwise fractious faculties is “critical thinking.” Quite often the invocation of “critical thinking” is meant simply to suggest an ancient and honorable educational goal: the creation in students of a nuanced intellectual mentality, one both warm with desire for truth and cool with careful deliberation. The dialogues of Plato encourage this combination. So does the scholastic method perfected by St. Thomas. In his Summa, the Angelic Doctor carefully chooses objections to his own position in order to bring the truth into sharper focus. His students are asked to entertain what is false. They must delay the impulse to rush to a direct and unopposed affirmation of truth—and they do so in order to sharpen and heighten their perception of what makes the correct view the true view.

“We do not, however, live in ancient Athens or medieval Paris. “Critical thinking” has a contemporary meaning that does not clear the way forward to deeper convictions. Instead, the moment of seeing falsehood has become the goal and summit of the intellectual life. One does not so much aspire to critical thinking as critical theory.

“For example, when I was a college student, critical theory meant the Marxist analysis of the Frankfurt School. Very few people believed in Marxist claims about history, economics, and politics. In fact, figures such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were popular precisely because they were “critical Marxists” rather than the dogmatic sort. They offered little in the way of prescription, and they demurred from the grandiose claims about historical progress that makes Marx so comical today. Their contribution was entirely critical. They used a refined version of Marxist categories in order to uncover and expose the oppressive and de-humanizing dynamics of social life.

“The same could be said for the role of Freud and Nietzsche in the ecosystem of late twentieth century intellectual culture. There was something very exciting about being eighteen or nineteen and discovering that what seemed like refined cultural sensibilities were, in fact, the excrescences of primitive psychological processes. A person of profound self-discipline is “anal,” and lofty ideals of moral self-sacrifice are actually carefully crafted instruments of power and self-assertion. Or so a dash of Freud and a spoonful of Nietzsche suggested to our young minds.

“Paul Riceour once dubbed Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud the “masters of suspicion.” Their stars may have waned in recent decades (though not Nietzsche’s), but the larger role of suspicion has most definitely waxed. Some form of critical theory has become the overriding goal of almost all humanistic study these days. We do not so much read Aristotle or Aquinas or Jane Austen as take their ideas and expressions as instances of a patriarchal culture, instantiations of power-relations, rhetorically coded expressions of class-relations, and so forth. Critical thinking really means cultural studies.

“Many have pointed out the gray ideological homogeneity of what passes for critical theory. David Horowitz has amply chronicled the rigidity and intolerance of the contemporary professoriate. Others have noticed that the preening theoretical vocabularies of contemporary cultural analysts tend toward rhetoric rather than argument. Back when deconstruction was the rage, John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of the gimcrack posturing that was being passed off as profound argument.

“Yet endless theoretical elaborations of suspicion remain a growth industry all the same. “Truths are fictions whose fictionality has been forgotten”—it continues to be said in a thousand different ways. The reason, I think, is simple. Critical theory plays a significant and important role in contemporary society: it de-mystifies and de-legitimates inherited beliefs. It is not, as some critics would like to think, simply Leftist ideology. Nor is it nonsense dressed up in fancy French words. These days critical theory is an intellectual project, the main goal of which is to show that conventional ways of thinking are hopelessly na├»ve, if not malign and corrupt. It is a deck-clearing operation—not to prepare students for truth, but to prepare them for life without truths.

“Pope Benedict has called this mode of pedagogy a dictatorship of relativism. It is, of course, a soft tyranny. Nobody is imprisoning college students for having convictions. The dominant intellectual regime is satisfied with two basic strategies: continuous assault and a starvation diet. We take apart the belief-systems of adolescents with our multi-faceted and powerful modes of critical analysis—and we give them next to nothing substantive to believe.”