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Why Johnny Can’t Think

Posted: Aug 08, 2021

Source: AP Photo/Jeff Martin

If it seems that young people these days believe absurd things, that they utterly lack both the ability and the inclination to reason logically—well, it’s not your imagination. Today’s college graduates can’t think, or at least don’t think, because they’re not being taught to.

This sad reality, though long suspected, became clear in 2011, with the publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. After a four-year study of more than 2300 undergraduates at selective universities across the country, they concluded that a sizeable percentage of them improved little if at all as critical thinkers.

Since then, numerous studies and surveys by organizations like Noel-Levitz, the Association of American Colleges and Universities,The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Payscale have confirmed Arum’s and Roksa’s thesis. Employers consistently report that new hires fare poorly in writing and critical thinking—essentially, two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities not only claim to be teaching critical thinking; they shout it from the rooftops—even as the end users of their “products,” employers, complain that skill is in short supply. Why the disconnect?

The answer, I believe (and as I argue in my book Think Better, Write Better) is that what institutions of higher learning are teaching these days under the banner of “critical thinking” really isn’t—or at least it isn’t what employers mean when they use the term. Organizations want people who can be objective and analytical, using logic and reason to solve problems. That’s what the term “critical thinking” means to them, and what it has meant to most of us for decades. It’s certainly what I was taught in college.

Today, however, that is not at all what colleges and universities mean—or perhaps I should say, what most professors mean. “Critical thinking,” for them, is a Marxist exercise in “critique,” what Marx himself called “the ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It seeks not to solve problems but to break down, or “deconstruct,” all aspects of society, beginning with but not limited to language.

The shift began in the 1980s, as a new form of literary criticism knows as “deconstructionism” caught on in English departments across the country. Inspired by the Frankfort School of Marxist thought and popularized by far-left philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism posited that language has no inherent meaning; thus, literature can be understood only in the context of the reader’s experiences. In other words, it is impossible to ultimately interpret a literary work. It means whatever the reader thinks it means.

That is, perhaps, at least a mildly interesting literary theory. It may even contain some truth, since everyone does experience a work differently, and no two people can agree fully what it means (which is not the same as saying it doesn’t mean anything). If nothing else, deconstructing provides an amusing way for otherwise nonproductive eggheads to spend their days debating semantics.

The problems began when the theory infected other disciplines, starting in the 1990s--first the social sciences and ultimately (as we see today) the hard sciences. It’s one thing to deconstruct a poem, quite another to deconstruct human biology. It’s fine for literary scholars to argue about what a novel means, but engineers should probably know how to calculate the strength of a structure. The latter has a definite answer; it should not be subject to “deconstruction.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing today, with all this talk about gender (actually, sex) being “fluid,” cries that math is racist, and the push for affirmative action in medicine and other scientific fields.

Remember that deconstruction, as the name implies, is not about building up; it’s about tearing down. It not about “criticism,” in the sense of objectively evaluating the good and bad; it’s about “critique,” which focuses solely on the bad. It’s not about solving problems; it’s about complaining about them and blaming others for them.

It also, of necessity, privileges emotion over reason. Something is bad because someone thinks it’s bad—or, more to the point, they feel it’s bad. They don’t like it. It offends them in some way, perhaps because it doesn’t seem fair or equitable. Math is certainly like that. Not everyone is good at it, and those who are possess certain advantages over their math-challenged fellows. That’s bad because it’s not fair. And so math must be critiqued. It must be deconstructed.

The same is true of biology. Men have certain inherent physical advantages over women? That’s not fair! It makes some people feel bad. Gender must therefore be deconstructed. Little do they realize that, in tearing down the edifice of biological sex, they are destroying the very foundations of civilized society—marriage, family, child-rearing, the transmission of time-tested traditions. They don’t think that way, because they don’t think at all. They merely emote.

The solution, of course, is for colleges, universities, and even high schools to go back to teaching classical critical thinking skills: logic, reason, dispassionate observation, hypothesizing, experimentation. But that is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, as a parent, you should look for private schools, at all levels, that do teach those skills—like Hillsdale College and New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I’m sure there are others. You can also talk with your kids regularly about what they’re learning, do your best to counter the Marxist nonsense, and try to model effective critical thinking in both word and deed. You can also share books like Jordan Peterson’s12 Rules for Life and Scott Newstock’s How to Think Like Shakespeare. Read them together and talk about them afterward.

Because, if there’s one upside to the fact that most young people can’t think, it is this: If your son or daughter does learn to think, there’s a good chance they’ll be running things one day, once this rudderless airplane that is deconstructionism finally careens into the mountainside of reality.


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