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I’ve lately been wondering about a problem I’ve noticed with some of the students that I have taught over the years: an inability to think through an issue. This seems particularly evident in the sections of writing assignments where they have to either evaluate contrasting viewpoints or cogently explain their point of view on an issue or topic.

The agape expressions I now often encounter when attempting to elicit thoughtful group discussions are sometimes frustrating, and I find myself working harder and harder to convince students to fully engage with a world of ideas.

The breadth of this problem is well-known and well-documented—and its negative effects extend far beyond the classroom. The most recent Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the critical thinking skills necessary for workplace success, and many business surveys mirror the annoyance that employers feel when confronted by new hires who are blissfully unaware of the need—particularly in an increasingly complex and dynamic economic environment—to reason through problems in order to arrive at sound judgments.

Employer assessments of the overall ability of college graduates to “think on their feet” are often even harsher than the already dismal numbers in the CLA+ data, and this might explain at least some of the employee churn in the American workplace.

Some part of the problem with students’ deficient critical thinking skills is certainly the result of a basic lack of background knowledge on a broad range of topics that impedes their ability to connect with ideas outside of the narrow confines of a particular class reading or lecture.

For example, if we are discussing the national debate now raging over the fraught relations between communities of color and the police, it helps to have some basic knowledge of the history of the civil rights movement in our country—a reference to “Jim Crow Laws” should not be a source of complete confusion for any college student. Similarly, if we are discussing forms of social protest that have been historically successful, Gandhi’s use of non-violent resistance in both South Africa and India perhaps should not be completely new information to so many.

Living in an age awash in information available at the touch of a finger, one might presume the ease of obtaining knowledge would translate into a more educated student, but this does not generally seem to be the case. There could, of course, be some degree of “information overload” that results from the increasing complexity of our world, and this might be part of the reason why that which is so easily accessed so frequently is not.

However, it seems that little of substance is routinely discussed inside K-12 classrooms anymore because of overriding concerns about avoiding topics that might cause even the mildest discomfort.

We see this tendency now washing up on the shores of our nation’s college and universities, where demands for “trigger warnings” to flag controversial content and “safe spaces” to recover from the contamination of different ways of thinking are now regular features of campus life. The notion that higher education might be a place for the spirited debate of issues on their merits now seems as dead as disco, and I lay the blame for much of this problem squarely at the feet of our increasingly timid public schools.

The question of how to improve critical thinking skills is a hard one to answer unless we are willing to risk open debate that is devoid of the threat of shame or sanction. It is easy to indoctrinate people—but exceedingly difficult to educate them—when all involved are required to muzzle their thoughts to avoid challenging the comfortable preconceived ideas of fellow students or the teacher.

Unless we can reconcile ourselves to the bald fact that actual debate often demands sharp thinking and sharp disagreements (but not, if done correctly, sharp words), it will be impossible to enjoy the benefits of open and honest classroom discussion—and I fear our students’ critical thinking skills will continue to atrophy from disuse.

This can also be a real impediment to our jobs as educators. A few semesters ago one of my college composition students came in during my office hours to discuss his essay, which broadly dealt with the balance between laws and individual conscience. After he briefly outlined his thesis, he had only one question for me: “Will I get in trouble if I write this?”

I was not, sad to say, all that surprised by his concern. He was a very bright and able student who was smart enough to realize that honestly expressing one’s thoughts on a 21st century college campus can lead to unforeseen difficulties. I assured him that I reserved the right to pointedly question his ideas, but my basic agreement or disagreement with his ideas would not affect his grade. He seemed pleased—and perhaps just a bit surprised—by my support for his right to express his ideas without fear of punishment and went off to work on his assignment.

Perhaps this was just a tiny moment in a very big educational universe, but I am certain no one’s critical thinking skills will ever improve if any student harbors even the vaguest suspicion that they need to self-censor in order to achieve classroom success.

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) April 28, 2016

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