Why teaching critical thinking fails
I’ve often heard the lamentation from educated secular people that if only we taught critical thinking earlier, say in high school, we wouldn’t have so many people falling prey to pseudoscience, alt med, religion and other outlandish wastes of time. Others blame the education system for botching the job when and where it is taught. All of this is almost certainly wrong, or at least incomplete. The unpleasant truth is that some things we’d like to inculcate in young people who are going to be voters and professors and congressman one day, are things that can’t be taught, at least not in the way that we teach history or math. A person’s effective skeptical faculty relies not merely on the intellectual and factual as we seem to suppose, but on character and emotion.
The first clue of the insufficiency of education, is the story of my own atheism and skepticism. These two came to me in very different ways. I disclaimed religion at age 13. It isn’t because I was particularly bright, I wasn’t and in fact I’m sure that I was considered a bit dull. I wasn’t much of a critical thinker either- I believed in UFOs, psychics and ghosts for several more years. I wasn’t an atheist because I had been influenced or taught: I didn’t even know the word “atheist” and I wasn’t aware any others existed. I had never seen an atheistic book or publication of any kind. My best friend was Roman Catholic. My family, including my brother who was a year older than I was, were all believers (albeit non-practicing). My home town, Rockford, is known for having a church on every block. In spite of all of this, I rejected religion with extreme prejudice, having had none of the advantages or benefits atheists ten to believe leads to non-belief. Yet, as I said, I was no skeptic, I believed in all sorts of paranormal things. Why was atheism so easy and skepticism much harder? I will come back to this, but first a second example of where atheism succeeds but shouldn’t.
I lived in Germany from 2006 to 2009 and during that time I spent as much time as possible learning about German culture. For at least several decades, the German K-12 education system has read like an evangelical Christian’s dream. Students are required to take 6 years of “religious study” which for a very long time offered both existing religions: Catholicism and Lutheranism. “Study” is here a very loose term; such classes are more like “Bible study” than a world religions class (according to my German friends). In recent years an “ethics” series of coursework has also been an option, but it is only gaining popularity relatively recently. Conversely, there is no mandatory “critical thinking” coursework of such length.
Nonetheless, Germany is a hugely secular country where religion has been withering on the vine for some time. As an atheist, I absolutely loved being in Germany. There are many causes for the relative irreligiosity of a country, but it’s very hard to imagine mandatory K-12 indoctrination could fail so utterly to even tread water for God’s camp- unless it’s actually inadequate, in and of itself.
When it came to atheism, I wasn’t like my brother or my best friend the catholic. By 13, I was already a cynical loner. It didn’t matter to me what my parents, friends, or society thought about God if the god idea seemed nonsensical. In fact, setting myself apart from them was something of an emotional good for my angsty teenage rebel self. Atheism requires no great intellectual leaps, it’s pretty obvious, really. If you just let all the 13-year-olds reason it out for themselves, they would probably mostly decide against the god idea. We don’t do this, of course. Most teens and young adults are like my former peers and sibs— they care deeply about the opinions of their society, parents, and peers and those opinions have been largely religious for eons. They accept them as normal and usually good. Defying them is emotionally difficult.
Education, by itself, changes none of this. Applying critical thinking more broadly has other emotional challenges which I’ve virtually never seen discussed in the skeptical community. Truly applying critical thinking is not confined to debunking ideas one finds a priori ludicrous, such as Bigfoot or telekinesis. To call oneself a skeptic, one must apply the same evaluation to their own ideas, including those which are long-held and perhaps cherished. This is not a mere intellectual exercise, it is a matter of courage. It is a willingness to look and feel foolish when you may turn out to be wrong. When I set about on my career in science, I had been taken in by the romance, the great discoveries and amazing new insights into the natural world. I wasn’t naive, I fully expected such things had required a lot of unglamorous work. What no one ever told me, is that working in science can be emotionally grueling. It’s a non-stop exposure to criticism of almost everything you will ever say about topics your field. People who make a career in science (at least those who regularly publish) are not shrinking violets. They are tough, resilient professionals.
Critical thinking for non-scientists is just as difficult in application. It just isn’t as often or as regimented. There are ways to develop courage in young people, but critical thinking 101 class does not do so. Moreover, there’s still a piece missing. They have to want do it. That is, it needs to be an internalized moral value.
Critical thinking is always a practice in morality. Always. It relies heavily on a suite of moral values such as: discovering falsehood is more valuable than my personal comfort or interests; examining my beliefs is as important as examining anyone else’s; it is better to be open about my biases and limitations than it is to hide them. A skeptic must be vigilant. We are fallible beings, likely making large or small errors every day. The putting of truth before ego and the internalization of the need for vigilance are not intellectualisms. They are moral truths, and in my experience they are part of no curriculum, nor could they be.
My point in this writing is not that education does not matter. It does, and it is critical (it is the reason I came to be a skeptic when I did- thanks Skeptical Inquirer!) However, without courage, and without a robust moral framework, education is meaningless. Even when it comes to mere education on critical thinking, we’re failing, but that is an essay for another day. So, how do we see to the ethos and pathos?
Doubt begins in the home
How do we develop character in young people? Here, I am no expert. To be sure, it largely falls to parents and to teachers. I would offer the observation that the recent obsession with increasing “self esteem” in children is a mistake, and the loss of focus on competitive endeavors is also an error. Doing worthwhile things in the real world, including doing critical thinking, always entails risks to one’s self esteem. We should teach our children that that is a part of life, that it is normal, and they must learn to deal with it rather than trying to shield them from its vicissitudes.
The Germans are and remain secularist in spite of their forced religious education probably because their wider society has had little public regard for religion, nor has it since the end of World War II (for obvious reasons, I think). There is no domineering public religious ethic telling Germans that they must be religious to be good people. This affords young Germans a measure of objectivity, enough that they reason about religion independently and determine that it is irrelevant. Similarly, we must also remove this culturally-induced emotional barrier to critical thinking. I do not know precisely how this may be accomplished, only that it is necessary to our goal.