You know those news stories that cause your mouth to fall open? Here’s one about the findings of a study that followed 2000+ students through four years of college.

“. . . large numbers (of students) didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education. Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event . . . for example, . . . how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.”

This explains so much that’s frightening and frustrating about our society, particularly the voices we hear on TV discussing political, social and cultural issues, but also the ones we hear about in everyday life.

  • Accepting a politician’s or pundit’s opinion as fact without thinking it through or looking at both sides of an argument.
  • Seeing the world as black and white — no shades of gray accepted.
  • Describing all opposing views as evil or stupid.
  • Equating a thoughtful change in view with weakness.
  • Choosing not to understand, and instead resorting to dismissal, scorn or hatred.
  • Rubberstamping decisions to avoid difficult deliberation.
  • Focusing only on short-term decisions and ignoring long-term challenges.

A lack of education explains both the sheep herd mentality as well as the irrational fear and hatred we see in many places, including here in the U.S. It also explains many leaders’ preference for the Easy button.

The author “hopes his data will encourage colleges and universities to look within for ways to improve teaching and learning.” How many of your college professors were graduate student teaching assistants or professionals moonlighting as educators? Most school systems require their K-12 teachers to have Master degrees and continue taking graduate courses. What are the standards for teaching college students? I’m not positive but I believe they must have advanced degrees along with research and publications to their name, but only in their area of expertise, not in adult education. Do they really know how to teach?

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.”

Liberal arts programs give you the opportunity to develop a good mind, but they don’t always track you into a profession or trade, as many restaurant managers who were once enthusiastic history majors can tell you. Even when I was in college, many students weren’t there for the learning experience; they were there primarily to get the degree and the connections. The ends mattered, not the means. With the exploding cost of a college education today, it’s no surprise that kids have to think about the ROI of their major.

Critical thinking and complex reasoning are not skills we want to lose to devolution. The problem is our popular culture sometimes paints education and intellectuals as elitist. It shouldn’t be that way. There have always been and will always be cultural elites who think their taste, in politics, art, literature, food and so on, is the best and only taste, but frankly, they’re as close-minded as those on the other end of the spectrum, and shouldn’t define what it means to be educated or intellectual.

We need to promote and celebrate intellectual exercise, and creativity while we’re at it, like we do physical exercise. It’s not only a gift we can enjoy throughout our lives, but it’s a gift to our society and country too. Let’s make critical thinking sexy and patriotic.critical thinking reading intellectual education