Critical thinking: a prescription for intolerance

Anna Fiorino, Staff Writer

We are the products of a poor educational system; our political climate affirms this.  

An educational institution has one fundamental responsibility to students of all ages, majors, and backgrounds: to encourage critical thinking, the objective analysis of information to form collective understandings and conclusions. This, if anything, is the overarching purpose of education.

The inability to evaluate and articulate arguments is indicative of a pervasive social issue rooted in our educational system. In the midst of a particularly turbulent political year, America’s biggest problem is neither the rise of xenophobic rhetoric nor the federal debt, but, rather, public schools that don’t instill basic critical thinking skills (and citizens that go on to engage in democratic discourse without them).

To suggest that only certain scholastic fields inherently demand critical thinking, or to deem more essential for a select few, implies a dangerous, root, non-understanding of critical thinking transdisciplinary applications and the need for such.

If critical thinking lays the foundation for how we interpret and interact with our environment, a lack of such only impedes our ability to do so well. Ergo, logical fallacies run rampant and infiltrate our lives. We are more susceptible to distorted information and fake news, less capable of unbiased evaluation, and victims of largely uninformed decisions.

This creates a breeding ground for intolerance. If (i) we are hesitant to converse with people who think differently than us because we don’t know how to communicate effectively (in a way that both parties gain some mutual value from), (ii) this hesitance will only engender a lack of compassion for people with whom we disagree. Underrepresented populations in America are particularly vulnerable to consequences of this “communication intolerance.”

We are even encouraged to preface our political posts on social media with “trigger warning,” which perpetuates this notion that controversy is something to avoid, instead of an opportunity to exchange ideas. It reduces arguments to impassioned rants; it lets people opt out of important conversations.

A system that fails to teach the value of critical thinking is a system of oppression: an oppressor of conversation, of compassion- an inhibitor of progress.

In a Huffington Post article, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz identifies flaws with the standard frontal authoritarian model of learning, which is common in most classrooms. Yanklowitz is an advocate for, what he calls, an “argument curriculum.” Instead of teachers providing the questions and answers, “the students provide the questions and the answers while the teachers provide the structure, the facilitation, and the guidance.” Yanklowitz asserts that, with this student-centered model, students will not only master content but experience the “cognitive, moral, and epistemic development necessary to become autonomous critical thinkers.”

To properly rectify the curriculum and implement critical thinking training, we must first recognize its absence in the system and the severity of the absence in a social and political context. To not recognize this to the fullest extent would be to underestimate the issue, and it would then be near impossible to address it successfully.

Actively focusing on cultivating critical thinking skills (via the mindful restructuring of school curriculums to better encompass critical thinking-based learning objectives) will foster a more collaborative educational environment, inspire dialogue between people of different political, national, and religious affiliations, and encourage us all to engage in important, difficult conversations- a crucial first step on the path to a better America.