The View From 1776

Learning How to Think

Progressive educators today proudly declare that they don’t warp students’ minds by teaching specific bodies of knowledge, by teaching to the test; they teach students how to think.  That concept is a meaningless and dangerous abstraction.

Commenting upon a recent posting, a reader wrote:

“.... Now, if you go to college, you learn how to analyze information critically as opposed to reeling with whatever gut, emotional response you get.? You learn not ?What to think,? but ?How to think.? The only way that education will ever succeed in our times is if it raises a generation of children who can not only read, but read between the lines.”

No one would disagree with the sentiment that children should be able to understand the context of what they read and have a sufficient breadth of knowledge to bring critical judgment to what they read.

But the concept of learning how to think, as a stand-alone pedagogy, is meaningless.  One has to think about something, and, in order to understand what one is thinking about, is is necessary to learn a great many facts about that something.  In many cases understanding comes only with much practice and drill.

One might as well hand an oboe to an untutored music student and lecture him on how to think about playing the oboe, without benefit of being able to read music and without practice to master the mechanics of producing correct notes from the instrument.

This is particularly true, for example, in mathematics.  When a teacher presents a concept with a blackboard demonstration, keener students may be able to follow each step of the process.  But only later, working alone at home on assignments, will the student discover what he doesn’t know and in the process learn the concept sufficiently well to solve similar problems in the future.

When students are allowed to use electronic calculators to solve problems, their minds are not engaged in any meaningful way with mathematics itself.  They might as well be playing a video game.

But they are learning how to think about mathematical problems.  They just don’t really understand what they are thinking about.

Even teachers’ unions dominated by progressive liberalism have begun to admit that the various genres of new math fail to teach mathematics to students.  When it doesn’t matter whether students can solve problems and get correct answers, when it is believed sufficient for students to have some conceptual idea about a problem, we have a nation of students falling each year farther behind Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian students in real scientific accomplishment.

The problem lies with the qualification that students have a breadth of knowledge.  A good analogy is the story of seven blind men on all sides of an elephant, each feeling one part of the elephant and describing what he takes to be its nature.  Only a sighted person, walking all around the elephant and studying its habits and moods over time can know how to think about an elephant.

What learning how to think has come to mean is something quite different, and it applies primarily to the so-called social sciences: history, political science, anthropology, psychology, etc. 

In practice, teaching students how to think means appealing to the normal rebelliousness of youth by telling them that they should ignore what their parents and their churches teach them, that the only standards that matter are the opinions of their peers.  Students should, for example, experiment with homosexual and heterosexual congress.

Learning how to think, even at the college level, is reduced to equipping students with the Marxian socialist critique of individual responsibility and free markets and with the faith that the mechanical apparatus of atheistic government working upon the materialistic factors of human existence can reshape human nature and create permanent human happiness.  Students are simply inculcated with one-sided denigration of American history and of the Judeo-Christian principles that were the essential ethos of the society that wrote the Declaration of Independence and crafted the Constitution. 

If you think this is an exaggeration, ask yourself why so many young people come out of college believing that Professors like Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky are speaking the truth.  Ask yourself why most college students today identify themselves with liberalism, the American sect of socialism.

If students don’t know the facts of American history and don’t understand the complex political, philosophical, and religious issues that produced that history, it is absolutely impossible for them to form meaningful judgments about the politically-correct, multi-cultural doctrine they are given in the classroom. 

This issue - what to include in the core curriculum of college students - was covered by James Atlas in his “Battle of the Books.”  Mr. Atlas is a self-identified liberal who worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and wrote for iconic liberal publications such as the New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, and Partisan Review (founded by New York City Trotskyites).  He wrote:

“Again, put simply: Has the United States become too diverse a society to embrace one idea of itself?..... Who gets to decide what books - even what languages - are taught in our schools?  Is the canon an instrument of oppression - ‘the property of a small and powerful caste that is linguistically and ethnically unified,’ to quote Stanford professor Mary Louise Pratt?  Or is it an instrument of liberty that will enable minorities to achieve self-esteem and - ultimately - political and economic power? .... Every effort to inculcate a body of knowledge that reflects our common history is seen as an effort to oppress.”

“.... The question, as Lionel Trilling [one of the leading lights among the New York socialist intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s] framed it in a prophetic lecture, ‘The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal,’ was a practical one: ‘What is best for young minds to be engaged by, how they may best be shaped through what they read - or look at or listen to - and think about.’  At Columbia, where Trilling studied and where he taught for a half-century, the Great Books Program, as it came to be known there, was firmly enshrined.  The study of the ‘whole man’ - that is to say, history, ethics, and philosophy, as well as literature - was standard procedure. .......By the 1960s, the whole-man idea had been scaled down considerably.  It was possible to earn a bachelor of arts without a lot of sweat.” 

Mr. Atlas continues, “Our demands (as we defined student protest at Harvard) were explicitly political.  They focused on the draft, ROTC, the Vietnam War, the ethics of military research and the universities’ investment policies, the grievances of the (usually poor and black) communities on the perimeter.” 

This is what today is called “learning how to think,” represented by the esoteric jumble of deconstruction and critical studies that tell students there are no standards of right or wrong, merely the political power to impose the doctrines of one social class or another on the remainder of the population.  “Learning how to think” is adopting the faith that liberal socialism represents the correct power guidon behind which to line up for marching orders.

Even Derek Bok, a vigorous defender of social-justice touchstones such as affirmative action and multi-cultural, PC education, has been compelled to confront the shortcomings of “learning how to think.”  Fomerly president of Harvard University, Mr. Bok was called back to that post after Lawrence Summers was forced out recently.  Mr. Bok wrote:

“Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy. And those are only some of the problems.”

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