I’ve often disagreed with Michael Roth’s take on liberal education, but I think he’s hit a nail on the head here. He lumps “critical thinking” with “problem solving” and contrasts it with “absorption” suggesting that all-critique-all-the-time is a sort of wall-flower in society condition. Liberal education he says
“must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. … designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning … increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”
If anything, he’s stopped one step short – our tutelage should also include how to do things. In my own field, sociology, much of the teaching (and writing, for that matter) has been given over to, as someone put it, “learning the 9000 ways that the world sucks”; graduates leave knowing how to DO very little (except lame research that shows how much the world sucks). That’s too bad since there is a lot of sociology (and social science more generally) that helps us, for example, design institutions, improve organizations, and make communities work better.
I’m not persuaded we make the world a better place by turning out legions of clever critics who can join the snipey, take-down culture of the blogosphere, parsing texts to find hidden signs of X-, Y-, or Z-ism.
from the New York Times
Young Minds in Critical Condition
By MICHAEL S. ROTH MAY 10, 2014
It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.
Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?
Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.”
The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.