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

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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