What Happened to Critical Thunking?

Hello on a Spring Break,

I find myself more and more dismayed by the lack of critical thinking skills that seem to characterize the world in which we live, and before you think I am referring to only 18-25 year olds, please think again. In addition, before you think I do not fail in this area from time to time, once more, think again. From those who we have elected to those who teach, from those who teach, at any level, to students, there seems to be a serious collective drain on taking to the to step back and ponder and question thoughtfully before launching into some undoubtedly, and profoundly, shallow (how is that for a mixed metaphor) diatribe as they vociferously try to defend a point they obviously know nothing about (and by the way, hence my “misspelling” in the title).

One of the things that most frightens me is how this sort of braggadocio has come to characterize so many more of our elected officials than only one should be comfortable with, much less tolerate. While there are certainly those on both sides of the political spectrum that astound me the person I find the most outrageous is the spokesperson for the President, Sarah Sanders. I vacillate between wondering if she is caught between a rock and hard spot and it is that she is so loyal that she will say anything to protect the President. There are moments that I find myself infuriated by her attitude of seeming righteous indignation and then so stunned by her attempt to make us believe the garbage she spews that I can do nothing other than throw my hands up in utter amazement. I am sure standing in front of the White House Press Corps is stressful and even more so when you are tasked with making sense out of that which makes no sense whatsoever. Yet, this White House from the days of Spicy’s claim about the inauguration has left the infamous barn door so wide open there is no gate left to close. From the argument of alternative facts to the continual attack on the veracity of the press, the consequence for our democracy had been, in my opinion, harmed beyond what we even know at this point.

As I listen to the news, it seems the degree to which we seem to slip toward the absurd and beyond is both frightening and fascinating at the same time. The frightening part is because of the consequences of the mounting mistrust of anyone and anything. The fascinating part is to do the very thing I question from the outset: to critically think about our current national consciousness and then thoughtfully analyze how we managed to get here. There are already tell-all books on some of this, and there is enough rhetorical fodder from the daily shit-storm of finger pointing to keep academics busy for an entire generation and beyond. Yet,therein lies some of the problem. If only academics (and there are conservative academics also) are studying the issue that would mean that about 97% are merely existing (I know some will argue this and I am merely trying to make a basic point). I would also note the 1-percenters do not want us to critically think or thoughtfully analyze because it would jeopardize their privileged position. I am continually flummoxed by how easily we succumb to herd mentality and are willing to accept most anything if we are told it will benefit us (the tax cut, our indiscriminate use of technology, the latest diet fad, some get-rich-quick scheme). How much money is spent on state and national lottery tickets, for instance? In 2017, we spent over 73 billion dollars on lotteries (that is with a B), and the great majority do not play, but imagine what we could collectively do with that sort of money. First, if you saved 100,000.00 a year, which is more than I make, it would take 730,000 years to save that amount of money. That gives a bit of perspective on how much money that is. You could give every person in Canada over $2,000.00 and we spent that on lottery tickets in a year. Does that make sense? Simply: hell no!

My issue is we are not willing to ask the difficult questions. During the Super Bowl, of which I watched nothing, I am aware that the Washington Post ran the following ad: The voice of Tom Hanks, an incredible actor who can make us appreciate a soccer ball, struggle to come to terms with our discrimination towards LGBTQA individuals and rights, and cause us to rethink our own understanding of the 1960s and Vietnam, provides the following verbiage, which should cause us to step back in fear at what is happening as we hear the defender of the free world claim that a free press is the “enemy of the people,” “Knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free.” Most assuredly, the advent of the world wide web (which is 30 years old) and 24/7 news forever changed the way we receive and digest the news, but the importance of a free press has never been more critical than it is now. As Preet Bharara, writer for the New York Times, states both succinctly and aptly, the use of the term “fake news” is juvenile, but powerful because it is “thoughtless and memorable” (11Mar2019). This is the basic rhetorical strategy of our President, or so it seems, and it is sucked up like the last drops of moisture by thirsting puppies, who are trusting and naïve. If you can appeal to the mindless sound byte generation whose reading seldom goes beyond Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever platform-du-jour tickles their fancy. Again, lest you think I am only referring to 25 somethings, please think again. The next (or more accurately, previous) generation who has just enough technological prowess to get in trouble is probably even more guilty of limiting their research to what they find on the web. If it out there and posted, it has to be true!!

What I am arguing if you will is this: if we have no free press or if we have a shackled press, we have no critical voice to speak out on our behalf. Now before you think I am arguing for or against any particular press, I am not. All press coverage is biased to some extent. They are beholden to someone or something, but I would like to believe that all of them have a basic responsibility to our democracy. I know some of you will shout that I am being naïve, but we are the country we are, in part, because of the ability of the press to question and challenge. Note this also: I am not a journalism, Mass Communication or Communication Studies professor. I am first and foremost an American citizen. I am also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. I am a blue-collar kid from a basic family from NW Iowa, something I have found to be more embarrassing that I ever thought possible at times as of late, but I am a pondering person, a questioning person, and a person who asks why? And the why about the why? Again, before you brand me as a left-leaning liberal who has nary a conservative bone in his body, stop. I am more conservative than my father was, and he would be 104 this year were he alive. I read Fox News regularly . . .  because I want to? No, but because I need to. I need to understand the opinions I struggle to understand. I need to realize and accept there are people who will disagree with me. They do not need to be my enemy because we have a difference of opinion. In fact, I would much rather sit down with them and have a glass of wine and listen to what they have to say. I would only ask they do the same. I am reminded of a meeting I had with the editor of the local paper about three years ago. His perception of and appreciation for (my language)  the university that employs me and my perception and appreciation of the same do not quite line up. He has a soapbox, if you will, from which to state that perception and appreciation (or misperception and lack of), but I questioned that and asked to meet. TO his credit, he accepted my invitation to coffee and was even a bit cheeky in his initial introduction, which was quite humorous. While a number of people told me I was a bit wacky for agreeing to speak with him, I still believe it is one of the better moves on my part since coming to Bloomsburg. I would say there were areas where we would be obliged to agree to disagree, but I walked away with a much better understanding of who is was (and is) as a person and a much greater appreciation for that person. It took a willingness to step outside my comfort zone as I reached out to him. He is a mover and shaker in the town of sorts, I am merely one professor of many at the local university. However, the result of that meeting was an openness and appreciation for the person behind the name on the Masthead of the paper.

Too often my students, and many of us in general, want to ask the question in this way. What do you want me to do? What that is asking for is a recipe. Merely tell me what to do and I will follow directions, but even then we too often cannot even do that. If life is merely following directions, there is no thought. If life is merely jumping through hoops, there is no long term consequence. You pass or you fail. There is physical effort to a point, much like getting over hurdles in that 100 meter race, but then it is done. Just tell me what you want is used from our simple tasks to our relationships, but what happens to us as individuals. What happens to our basic humanity in such a process? I believe it disappears as we abdicate any power or possibilities we might have. My struggle with our current national conversation is we have retreated into our corners and like rock-’em, sock-’em robots, we come out to fight hoping we can get the first punch in and intimidate the other. We do not even come out to shake hands first. It is merely we have come to fight. There is little thought in the pugilistic encounter that we are presently engaged in. You can beat the other into submission, but that does not create respect. Thinking is not about fighting, but rather understanding. Thinking critically is attempting to create solutions for the problems and the complexities that vex us. In the last couple days, someone dear to me found it difficult that I could not be mean or uncaring about someone who had caused them profound hurt. I certainly understand this sort of call to loyalty, but one can still be caring to the one who matters and not wish the other ill. This is what I told them. That is what we have seemingly been reduced to in our national and global conversation. If we disagree, there is no opportunity for conversation. If we have been hurt, we want to hurt back. That is what two year olds do. It is time to reconsider who and what we have become. It is time to think. It is time to put both our best thoughts and our best and most caring hearts forward. It is time to leave the world better than the way we found it. Our humanity depends on it.

As I thought about the rock-’em, sock-’em, the following video came to mind from Imagine Dragons. It is such an unforgettable video with astounding symbolism. Enjoy!

As always, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

When 2+2 = Something other than 4

Hello on a Sunday evening/Monday morning,

It is late and I need to grade; I also need to sleep, but my mind seems to foggy to do the former and is yet too awake to accomplish the latter. So I will begin by reflecting on the last few days. Moving into 5th week, the first real batch of hard core grading is upon me. The busy pace of the semester has caught up and the reality of what happens to most students when pushed outside their comfort zone became evident to me in some shape or form in each of my classes today. This was the beginning of the blog, but it got sidetracked.

. . . I cannot believe almost a month has gone by and I have not had a moment to get back to this blog, but then again, if I consider the time it is now (about 1:45 a.m.) and this is when I am writing, I guess that pretty well explains the semester. While I do not have as many students as I might generally have, I have more work than ever, or so it seems. I think I laid awake for a while, finally deciding to make some use of the time because my brain is trying to make sense of all the things happening at the moment (and for the last month). It was about four weeks ago I had to make sense of why a inanimate object could cause me such emotional struggle. I sold my 2014 Malibu this past fall, and perhaps it is because I sold it to someone I know (and thus still saw it regularly) that it is such a struggle, but it was totaled in an accident. Fortunately, no one was injured. Even more importantly, the circumstances surrounding the accident, which are a bit crazy to say the least, ended up with some tickets and a check for the value of the car (which was thousands more than he paid). The consequence of all of it could have been much worse.

What is difficult for me is how the loss of something that was no longer mine was so much more emotional than I expected. Yet that sort of non-logical response caught me by surprise. Sometimes I seem pretty cognizant and not a lot catches me off guard, then there are those moments where things come flying out of the proverbial left field. I think the reason I am seldom caught off guard is because students have a way of hitting you with the unexpected. In fact, it is such a common thing that the unexpected is the norm. That has been the case much more often than I would wish as of late. Four of my present or past students have lost someone important to them in the last three weeks. In some cases a bit more expected and in a couple cases completely the opposite. Death is such an incredible equalizer. I have noted in the past that at one point earlier in life I found the concept of my demise to be frightening. Now, that is not really the case. Certainly some of that is because of my life-long battle with Crohn’s and my frequent encounters with some serious challenges related to it. Perhaps some of it is because I was a parish pastor. I am not sure. Today was another one of the unexpected days. From my morning cluelessness to an evening conversation, I was required to see things from another perspective. What I realize is how much I have conditioned myself, albeit unwittingly, to merely take things as they happen. I have noted at times if I have no control of a situation, or believe I have no control, I respond by not spending time fretting about it. This was something a self inventory at a picnic table in Paducah, KY was well as a 1,000 mile-move, forced me to encounter. I still remember the day I left on my motorcycle as Erica and Lydia stood at the top of the driveway in tears. That was a difficult day for me. It is also a rather logical, and perhaps easy way out of facing things that are neither easy nor logical. As I often have counseled others, emotions are not rational; neither are they convenient, but they are real.

What I am obliged to consider yet again is how I might have to face them on more than one front. It is interesting to me how we can work so intentionally to manage things and yet whatever plan we have (and I was reminded today that I am not a planner) can be swept aside in the second proverbial reference and cliché, that blink-of-an-eye. The range of emotions a single event can illicit from various individuals is quite astounding. I reacted with some profound joy for two people today, knowing that the same news would be astonishingly difficult for another person, who is a surrogate child for me. As two of my former students are growing accustomed to being new mothers, another has said goodbye to her grandfather. Yet, the logical side of me believes it is simply the days doing what they do. It is our living of life and trying to make sense of the equation.

I think it is that sort of face-whatever-comes-my-way that has made me not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, but more spontaneous and willing to see what is around the next corner than most (way too many hyphens in that sentence). Perhaps it is because since I was in my 20s and my battle with Crohn’s and at times praying to die that I learned to take nothing for granted. Perhaps it was being told I would never amount to much that caused me to not believe in the future much past what I could actually see. The result, it seems has been to take the day for the day. In a scriptural manner, it has been living that passage out of sixth chapter of Matthew at notes “we should let the day’s troubles be sufficient for the day (6:34). I would reverse it a bit and say let the blessings of being alive for the day be enough for the day. I remember how exasperated Lydia would be when my response to her inquiry about my state would be “I have no complaints.” And yet it was true . . . I was simply content to be alive and healthy to whatever degree my unique body would allow.

That is the latest of the reality checks this 60-something has to manage. After more than one experience of trying to figure out what was happening, in spite of inquiries of my PCP, today I got a call on a Sunday afternoon from the same often MIA doctor. After blood tests and an ultrasound late last week, my doctor believed it necessary to call me on a Sunday to tell me I need more tests on my liver. This is not the first time my liver has been a point of concern (and she mentioned my kidneys, which have also been an issue in the past). It seems there will be more tests in the near future on the liver. The kidneys will require a bit of a medications change. Certainly, livers are of importance and both the blood work and the ultrasound seemed to indicate some significant issue. I have been referred to a gastroenterologist or hepatologost. Seems we are on a new adventure.

Certainly gastroenterologists are nothing new. In fact, I have been in touch with them for a variety of reasons over the years, and recently met with two incredibly talented doctors, who are at the front of treating IBDs. Through an unexpected contact from a wonderfully caring person from the Geisinger Foundation, I had a meeting with the head of gastroenterology of the entire system as well as the head of gastroenterology Danville, which is their flagship location. To make the long-story shorter, a wonderful exchange has led to a new opportunity for me to able use my experience of suffering with Crohn’s in a way that might hopefully make a difference for others. Geisinger’s School of Medicine has offered me an appointment as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine in Gastroenterology. This is both stunning and humbling to me. It is one of those unplanned, but unparalleled, opportunities to make some small difference. It is yet another path opened for the unassuming Iowa boy, who has never really anticipated anything much beyond what he could see. In fact, if I can think out loud for a moment. It seems the times I have tried to plan things more intentionally, they seldom happen.

I planned on going to law school and ended up in seminary instead. I planned on being a parish pastor and ended up in the academy instead. I planned on staying in Wisconsin, but ended up back in Pennsylvania, which I had left once never believing I would return. I planned on having a family (the traditional being married and having children and such), but I only have surrogate kids. I planned on a sabbatical at one point and it was not selected. I applied for a Fulbright and was not selected. Now there are new plans regarding both, but no guarantees as well as a different attitude by me regarding them. I think that is what I have been strong-armed to face again and again. Regardless, at least for me, planning with too great an expectation of it coming to fruition is a bad plan. It leads to disappointment and a sense of failure, something that frightens me beyond words. I have lived a much more successful and fulfilling life than I was ever allowed to believe possible. In spite of all the logic I can muster, I have been blessed beyond any measure I could have imagined. Sometimes just when it seems I have it figured out or planned something comes along to remind me that I have less control over the bigger picture than I want to admit. So the plans for now are to prepare for the week, the month, and even the next year or two in a manner that matters and hopefully makes my life even more blessed than it has been. That means travel to Europe yet again and some new adventures and new countries. I have never been owed anything and that is still the case. I am merely one simple and unassuming person. One who has been able to make 2 + 2 add up to something other than 4. It has never been boring, why should that change? Dreams and a sort of persistence of time (Dali) are things that have been part of my life. This video imagines both.

Thanks for reading as always.

Dr. Martin