Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why we teach critical thinking skills

We teach critical thinking skills for a lot of reasons, but my zeal-o-meter for teaching these gets ramped WAY up by seeing hucksters and snake-oil salespeople like the person who wrote The Secret, which is, from what I've read in the papers, all over television shows like Oprah. This faux expert, with a cadre of other "visionaries," apparently says that you "attract" your own fate. What does this mean for the victims of 9/11 or Katrina?

From her answers to the Associated Press:
"In a large-scale tragedy, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc. we see that the law of attraction [this is her trademarked term for a centuries-old concept used by generations of earlier hucksters] responds to people being at the wrong place at the wrong time because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events."

See how easy that is? No meteorological events, no weather patterns, no failure of government planning, no terrorism--just bad thoughts on the part of the victims, who are entirely to blame for what happened to them.

Am I wrong in seeing this as a logical extension of certain other "visionary" principles?
From Ron Suskind's "Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush" in the New York Times in 2004:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

One of the things that I took for granted growing up was that wishful thinking or personal beliefs were not the same thing as reality. It's more than a little unnerving to see that this is no longer accepted as a principle on which everyone agrees. Part of the point of teaching is that students get to test their beliefs, which they consider realities, against the convictions of others. The dimwitted demagogues referred to above, though, demand that their convictions be regarded as truth.

Okay, here's an anecdote that expresses a little of what I mean:

The American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller once said, “I accept the universe.” When Thomas Carlyle heard this, however, his comment was this: `Gad! she’d better!’”

I'm with Carlyle on this one.

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