Thursday, March 22, 2012

How our Modern Education is Keeping us From Thinking

I've been reading Darwin's The Origin of Species.  It's an interesting read and has earned it's place among the classics.  Darwin presented some insightful ideas and interpretations about what he observed in the environment.  It was interesting to me how much it read like Plato - using logic to move forward with his argument such as, "if we deny this, we must make one of the two highly improbable suppositions..."   I've been underlining his statements of "I think..." or "I do not think..." or "It seems to me..." or "I do not believe..." or "I am doubtfully inclined to.." or even, "I can not doubt..." They are in every paragraph!  It is a philosophy book, not a "scientific text" as I had previously supposed.  I certainly was never allowed to make such statements in any "scholarly" papers that I wrote in college - I had to let the evidence speak for me (as if evidence could form an opinion) and pretend the evidence proved my unbiased point.

Not that there is anything wrong with a philosophical book.  Why would evidence even matter if it wasn't to prove or disprove some interesting idea?  I think all great ideas are worth examining, they can help us come closer to truth.  The problem with the educational system I was in was that it did not teach how to examine interesting ideas (unless data could be collected), or how to decide what methods to use to measure their truth.

There is a big difference between the education of today and the education people considered "quality" education in the past. David V  Hicks in Norms and Nobility: A Treatise in Education presents a contrast between our modern education and "classical" education .  In a "classical" education - all sorts of questions are welcome.  It is alive with the spirit of inquiry.  No topic is "off limits".  We are curious about life, nature, how things work, the purpose of our existence, what brings happiness, and most importantly, how should we then live?  These are the kind of questions that make learning exciting and pertinent.  At school, I was taught that the "pertinent" were those things that were going to be on the test and the "exciting" were those things of interests that I may someday use to make money.

This reduced me to a "product" that was being developed to produce capital gain.  I wasn't learning because I wanted to know and understand the questions I had deep in my soul.  I was going to school to pass standardized tests to prove I was a good enough product to be admitted to specialized training for a particular field of work.  I became reliant on "experts" to tell me what was true or false.  I had learned that to really know something you had to gather sufficient empirical evidence.  Since I did not have time to gather all of this empirical evidence myself, I became reliant on "experts" who had done the research for me to tell me what was true and what was not.  How did I know the "experts" knew what they were talking about?  Well, there was "proof" because they had degrees or certificates in a particular area of knowledge.

Then I started reading some classics.  I realized that the so-called "experts" of my time were asking the same questions that were being asked thousands of years ago, but these modern experts often had not had time to read, discuss and understand these questions or the direction they had taken throughout time.  In fact, many of these experts were "products" of the same educational system I had experienced, and similarly, knew very little about the questions they were attempting to answer with their empirical evidence.  Something they all seem to have in common, though, is the ability to house their rhetoric in scientific jargon.  Instead of saying, "I think..." as Darwin was at liberty to do, they must say, "Evidence points to..." or "The statistics clearly show..."  It is one thing I became very good at in my years at college writing scholarly papers.

Here are some differences between the education of the best thinkers of mankind vs. our modern education:

1) The questions we can ask:
Any question is valid and worth examining  VS  Only questions that can be answered by the gathering of observable data are worth examining (anything else is a waste of time because it has no definite answer).

2) The hypothesis
We can think and imagine many possible hypotheses to our questions VS The hypothesis must be provable by the systematic gathering of data.

3) Determining the method for testing our hypothesis
Depending on the question, methods may include reason, observation, logic, experimentation, physical, emotional or religious experience ( "How else, ultimately, does one test the value of a poem or the validity of God's love?"- Hicks), or others VS The scientific method.

Personally, I love the scientific method.  I tend to think in a systematic way myself.  I like things that are orderly.  However, I think we do our youth a great disservice by limiting their quest for truth to the questions that can be answered by just one method.  There is so much more to life than the empirical!  We lie to them when we teach them that you can find truth to life's important questions in this way.  I studied human behavior through the lens of the scientific method for my college degree.  Frankly, it's kind of a farce.  Not to say that some good does not come from it - if you want to make a difference in the world, you need to speak the language of the world: "Statistics show that children born to single parents are less likely to...." However, it doesn't answer any of the questions about how we can improve our present condition; how we can teach children, coming from any circumstance, how to live a happy life.  It, essentially, turns people into objects.  We think of ourselves as something to be acted upon instead of agents who are ready to act. "We look upon virtue as what under a specific set of circumstances can be achieved, rather than what ought to be achieved under all circumstances" (Hicks). 

I can not tell you the number of times I have approached someone with a new idea about parenting only to be asked, "What studies have shown that ____ is a good idea", or "What are the credentials of the author of _____ that supports this idea?".  We can't even think for ourselves to decide if something is a good idea or not!  This ability to think has been trained out of us - we do not know how!  It makes us wonderful followers, but terrible leaders.   It fills the world with cynical skeptics afraid to test or try new ideas for themselves.  "Premature skepticism tends to separate thinking from acting, forcing the precept to withstand an adolescent's stubborn incredulity before he is prepared to put it to the test of acting upon it.  Indeed, youthful skepticism often amounts to little more than an arrogant prejudice against novel or difficult ideas.  It can lead to cynicism - a sophistical (now sophisticated) belief that all ideas are relative and that none is worthy of one's wholehearted allegiance." (Hicks)

I hope my children will not be afraid to read "The Origin of Species" if they want.  I hope they will read "The Koran" and other great works.  I hope to teach them to know how to evaluate ideas, how to find the best method for testing their validity, and that they will act and apply what they learn to the betterment of their character.  I know there are absolute truths.  Every diligent, sincere seeker can come to find them if they seek them with the intent to do right.  I hope we can all teach our children to not be afraid of asking difficult questions and to diligently seek for their answers.  I hope we can teach them to be leaders.
"The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows"  -David V. Hicks