In the immediate aftermath of a highly charged 2016 presidential election, a number of college and university presidents issued public statements expressing their concerns over the unexpected result and vowing to protect students from a national resurgence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and misogyny that they believe to be implicit in Donald Trump’s victory.
Rather than helping to reduce tensions and assuage fears, these expressions of alarm, concern and support may have done more to create campus unrest than forestall it by reinforcing the notion that the academic community must erect barricades to protect its members -- instead of exploring what happened in the election and why.
In my dealings as a university president with donors, alumni, legislators, staff members, faculty members and students, I hear views that are every class of right, left and center. To most of those with whom I speak (and to most people in general), their views appear to them to be self-evident truth.
This normal human tendency is exacerbated by what pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” in which the modern proliferation of news media allows us -- and, in fact, encourages us -- to surround ourselves only with views that match our own. That phenomenon is a problem not only intellectually and politically but also ethically.
To think within such bubbles is to put the person who is outside one’s bubble into a limiting category in which we believe we understand everything we need to know about that person. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, this subjection of the other person to one’s own categories is precisely the definition of violence. Levinas, most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, goes so far as to find in this limited categorization of “the other” an important source of the Nazis’ violence against Jews.
Presidential elections regularly practice this kind of violent categorization (think “lying Hillary” and “racist Trump”), though it was more extreme than usual in this one. Such hyperbolic characterizations of another’s position are themselves examples of the violence implicit in racism and the imposition of untruth. In that sense, violence knows no party, and neither violence nor its cure can be laid at the feet of the democratic process, since any person’s vote can be a gesture of violence or peace. I would go so far as to suggest that our either/or two-party system of national elections, in addition to our post-Enlightenment prioritization of the individual over the group, tends to promote -- or, at least, in no way combat -- the violence of categorization and exclusion of the other.
How do we get out of this violent cycle? As an alumnus said to me recently, those who are upset by the election results need to ask themselves, “Why did my views lose?” Donald Trump’s victory was not a coup but a free election in a democracy. That cannot be labeled populism gone awry, because he will very likely be chosen by the very system, the Electoral College, that was established in part to counter unbridled populism, and it is now pretty clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Barring any major surprises (which virtually no one anticipates) in the various recounts now occurring, he is our president-elect, because we elected him. There is no “they” to blame here -- not even Russia.
The hacking of internal Democratic National Committee and other emails during the campaign, for which the CIA blames Russia, is a serious national security concern. However, to equate it to a foreign manipulation of the election is an illogical inference, even if that was their intent, and as much as it might fit into the bubble of a Cold War narrative. Russian operatives didn’t stuff ballot boxes, coerce voters or even spread fake news. If the CIA is correct, they simply released presumably authentic emails that DNC staff did not want released. (Of all people, given Clinton’s own email woes, those staffers should have known better than to write self-incriminating emails.)
The hacking itself may be evil, but that doesn’t translate into an evil effect on the election. If people’s votes were changed, they were freely changed on the basis of new information. Our own government’s reopening of the Clinton email case probably did as much to dissuade people from voting for Clinton as any action by a foreign power.
Apocalyptic hand-wringing, especially by those of us in the business of educating the electorate, is really not helpful. (Plenty of college-educated people voted for Trump, so it’s disingenuous to pin his victory on the poorly educated.) Even President Obama, whose personal and political legacy has more to lose than most in this election, said, as noted in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker piece, “This is not the apocalypse.”
The way forward is to find common ground, oppose violence and work toward the good -- as even Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in engaging Trump on a shared concern for the plight of the working class. Trump also has a distinctive opportunity, despite his own campaign rhetoric, to separate conservatism from bigotry by disavowing the openly racist “alt-right” groups that have stepped out of the shadows (where they were arguably more dangerous) since the election.
As institutions of higher education, we need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges students both to get out of their filter bubbles and to recognize the violence implicit in living inside a bubble. That requires us to protect them when necessary, including from the violence of others who would define them by race, gender, political beliefs or national origin.
But we also need to prepare them to live and work in a messy democracy in which, following Levinas, peace is achieved not through the voter’s assertion of the priority of individual choice, but rather by acknowledging the infinity of the other person -- someone who has an existence we should respect beyond the categories we are tempted to impose. I hope that can be an important part of our focus as citizens and educators going forward.
David P. Haney is president of Centenary University.
Maybe there are years when professors can plod through their syllabi untouched by current events. We lack the luxury of living in such a year.
American politics are now at the forefront of students’ consciousness. Many feel it acutely and personally. In my normally nonpolitical course on negotiation and conflict resolution at the City University of New York, I have seen passion and uncertainty on students’ faces all year. President-elect Donald Trump generates a wide range of deep emotions, from cutting anxiety to genuine optimism.
As professors finish out this semester and prepare for the next, how can we reckon with the election of Trump? How can we discuss his election without silencing or alienating some students? And, at the outset, is it appropriate for courses beyond pure political science to discuss politics at all?
With such heightened student engagement, it would be pedagogical malpractice not to harness those emotions into informed discussion within our disciplines. “Informed discussion” means more than having students express how they feel about the election -- although that, too, can be valuable -- but structurally integrating this election into syllabi this winter and spring. Fortunately, politics is an inherently multidisciplinary field with many entry points. Dozens of academic disciplines can offer meaningful insight into our current political landscape, even disciplines that seem less obvious on first blush. I offer my own approach here for consideration (or critique).
Teaching With Trump: The Example of Negotiation
I am a full-time attorney and teach an evening course each semester. My CUNY students are undergraduates, generally majoring in business or communications. Many are first-generation college students, immigrants and/or students for whom English is a second language. While the course focuses on business conflict -- the negotiation, mediation, arbitration and litigation of commercial disputes -- we also consider conflict resolution in other areas of life, such as handling a noisy neighbor or writing a separation agreement with a spouse.
Much of Trump's appeal throughout the campaign has been his professed ability to “negotiate good deals.” He has written and spoken about negotiation for decades, most famously in his 1987 book (co-written with Tony Schwartz), The Art of the Deal. This makes our president-elect particularly relevant for those currently teaching or taking courses in negotiation. Throughout the campaign, I have used Trump’s approach to negotiation specifically, and conflict more broadly, as an occasional bridge between current events and my syllabus.
With that in mind, I try to frame discussion topics as objectively as possible in furtherance of the course’s goals and match those topics to scholarly readings. Here are some topics that my class has discussed so far this election cycle.
Can you negotiate with someone whose values are inconsistent with yours? During the campaign, Trump called Washington a “swamp.” He accused Democratic leaders of being stupid and ineffective and Republican leaders of being weak and mendacious. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, at various times, accused Trump of being intellectually and ethically unfit for office. Some went farther, suggesting that Trump rejects core American values. How can these political actors now sit across the bargaining table from one another? Is it possible to negotiate legislation, budgets and other business with someone whom you believe is wrongheaded or immoral?
The students read excerpts of Bargaining With the Devil by Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, which offers advice for negotiating with someone whom you feel you cannot trust or who holds opposing values. In class, we discuss situations when negotiation is appropriate, as well as situations when negotiation creates untenable ethical challenges.
Is it a smart negotiation strategy to take an exaggerated initial position? Trump has proposed building a southern border wall, which would cost billions of dollars, and said that Mexico would foot the bill. Mexico’s president has flatly countered that his country will never do this. Putting aside the merits of constructing such a wall, is it an effective strategy for Trump to begin this negotiation by staking out a position that Mexico views as inherently unreasonable? Would it have been any more effective for Trump to begin the discussion by suggesting that each country pay 50 percent? Or propose a different form of border control? Or solicit Mexico’s views before offering an initial proposal?
In negotiation, there is a concept known as anchoring -- starting a negotiation at a very high number that you know you will never achieve. There are potential benefits to this as well as potential risks. Here, I have the students read work by legal negotiation scholars like Nancy Welsh (Penn State Law School) on fairness, Chris Guthrie (Vanderbilt University Law School) on anchoring and Jennifer Reynolds (University of Oregon Law School) on strategy. When Senator Bernie Sanders was running, we also discussed these concepts in connection with his staunchly progressive proposals for single-payer health care and free college tuition.
How can tone shape a negotiation, and how can tone change online? Trump has used ad hominem attacks, particularly over the internet, to hurt opponents and gain sizable media coverage. When you negotiate with an adversary, what is the value of publicly criticizing that person compared to criticizing them privately? What effects might ad hominem attacks have on bargaining? And how are emotions conveyed differently when communicating online?
The students read a book on party-centered dispute resolution by Lela P. Love (Cardozo Law School) and an article on negotiating over email by Noam Ebner (Creighton University School of Law). We also discuss excerpts of a book by Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University) to consider gender’s important role on tone and substance of this election.
What rhetorical devices has Trump used effectively? As a lawyer, I am always attuned to logical fallacies -- rhetorical constructions that leave the listener with a particular framing of an issue. Politicians (and attorneys) of all partisan persuasions use such devices, which are not inherently good or bad. Trump is fond of several. For example, he sometimes begins an assertion by stating, “Many people have said …” or “Believe me” or cites unnamed people in authority -- a device that allows him to suggest expertise (argumentum ab auctoritate). He also blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of certain terrorist groups, because those groups emerged after President Obama came into office (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).
Every semester, my students must learn a set of common logical fallacies. But this past semester, I also had them watch the second presidential debate and record each candidate’s logical fallacies. In the next class, they split up into small groups, and whichever group found the highest number (combining both candidates’ statements) “won.” Importantly, the goal was not to find flaws in the candidates’ policies but in their persuasive logic, thus fitting within the course’s goals without the perception of partisanship.
The Value of Political Discussion
There are no right answers to these discussion questions. They do not frame a conversation that inevitably supports or opposes Trump himself or his policies; those judgments are left to the students after putting the course materials into conversation with current events. My hope is that by interrogating such issues, students will be more attuned to a legal argument containing a fallacy meant to obfuscate, or consider the effect of publicity on their future business negotiations. If this election makes those concepts memorable, or helps them to contextualize the news, the integration is well worthwhile.
Not all professors believe this is the right approach. Some argue that this is a moment for faculty across disciplines to take a strong political position, one of unguarded advocacy in their teaching and scholarship. These voices assert that faculty simply cannot be “objective” about a politician like Trump, discussing him like a theoretical doctrine, literary character or far-off historical figure. Doing so, they argue, risks “normalizing” Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies.
But such advocacy in the classroom can create an uncomfortable dynamic that mutes productive disagreement among students -- the most fruitful type of disagreement. Few undergraduates will take a “side” opposed by the teacher, especially if they immediately see what “side” that teacher supports. (This calculus shifts in graduate courses, where students have greater context and may feel more comfortable engaging the professor in debate.)
Another reason to leave your politics at the door: if you think you already know your students’ opinions, you may be gravely mistaken. An off-color joke about a politician could easily create discomfort and, again, chill the very dialogue we hope to enliven. I teach in New York City, which overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. But I have seen genuinely thoughtful class participation from supporters of Trump (as well as Senator Sanders and third-party candidates).
Rather than making assumptions about our students’ politics, or advocating our own, teachers should methodically create apolitical discussion topics and allow students to come to their own conclusions or disagreements. This is the pedagogy perfected by America’s small liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams; students learn as much from the perspectives of their peers as from their professors. Whether you teach history, politics, communications, law, economics, biology, gender studies or almost any other subject, let’s meet this moment by using our disciplines to provide critical context. There are surely angles we can explore, and scholars whose voices shed light on current events. To prepare for next semester, we may all need to do some syllabus surgery over the holidays.
I cannot pretend to have all the answers on how to effectively teach this election or its complex, indefinite aftermath. But I will try.
Brian Farkas is a business litigator in New York. He is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York and Brooklyn Law School, teaching courses on negotiation, mediation and arbitration.
America is still feeling the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. The protests and unrest that have swelled across the nation have especially surged on college campuses. That is not surprising, given that millennials (people aged 18 to 35 in 2015) largely voted for Hillary Clinton. (Had only millennials, America’s largest generation, voted, Clinton would have received 473 electoral votes and Trump would have received 32.)
But there’s more to campus climate right now than millennials perceiving they have simply lost, or won, an election. A deeper upheaval has been unleashed, and college campuses, populated with large groups of young people, are experiencing the same high levels of racial and religious frustrations and tensions that are playing out on other national stages.
Faculty members on the front lines of interacting with students face some difficult questions. What role should we play in working through all of this? How do we fulfill our responsibilities to teach students while also finding ways to support them in a divisive and sometimes even dangerous climate?
Some students may feel compelled to dampen or publicly quell their conservative viewpoints. Others may be fearful, anxious or angry about what a Trump presidency means for their future. Still others perceive themselves as wholly excluded from the current bipartisan system. If these are points along a spectrum of the climate of our campuses, we know students are experiencing even greater pressures in the many spaces where they spend their time outside faculty purview.
Given all of this, our role as educators on college campuses today is as crucially important as it is complex. So how should we respond? We have outlined five action items that faculty members can contemplate in the coming days, weeks and months.
Define and exemplify what it means to be political. We must begin by helping our students understand different meanings of the word “political.”
Many faculty members have a long practice of carefully navigating politics in our teaching. That is particularly true if we define “politics” as encouraging discourse about legitimate, differing views people hold on what policies best address the collective, common good of our nation. Faculty members regularly make diverse and reasonable decisions about educating students to engage those issues without taking a side. Legitimate, even divisive, policy disagreements are OK, healthy even, and can foster greater understanding for our students and ourselves.
But racial hostility and violence are unacceptable on college campuses. We must help our students understand that. A political climate in which rhetoric has been used in and after an election to instigate racial harassment on our campuses is not good for anyone, regardless of party affiliations.
We can offer opportunities to talk about the issues without succumbing to being partisan. We can facilitate conversations without targeting individuals. Talking about candidates, or even specific issues, may create more fissures, but talking about shared questions and concerns about the common good can open the door for deeper reflections.
Listen to, but do not lie to, students. We must allow people to vent without interruption when they share their experiences with hostility and violent rhetoric. Many students are literally facing affronts to their lives and personhoods. Some have been attacked and threatened -- receiving group text messages calling for a “daily lynching” and being attacked while expressing political viewpoints. Others may lose their health care. Still others may have their families torn apart. By some estimates, there are more than 200,000 undocumented students are enrolled in American colleges and universities. They face a very real and present threat of deportation in the near future.
We cannot predict what will happen to our students, but we must provide them support systems. Support means resisting the desire to assure them that “everything will be OK” or that we will “get through this together.” We do not know if this will be the case, and we must not lie. Those of us who are white, male or non-Muslim must not tell our students who are people of color, Muslim or female, “I know exactly how you feel.” Our students need us to join them in the space of not knowing what is going to happen and validate that their vulnerabilities are legitimate.
Encourage students to actively engage in their communities and with one another. All of our students, whether they are members of historically marginalized groups or part of dominant racial and gender ones, need to be encouraged to stay engaged in their communities. Students may not have yet developed the understanding that our political system works, in part, through various kinds of organizations and that they can get involved at the local level. This is critical information for them relative to the risk of their becoming hopeless or immobilized with the despair of “what can I do?”
Whether they have an affinity for grassroots organizing, participation in state and local government, or national politics, we can help them direct their frustrations and interests in productive ways. With all of its imperfections, democracy is something we participate in to shape and mold. Sitting on the sidelines will only ensure that nothing changes, and connecting helps work against isolation. We, as faculty, can help students find and express their own political and moral agency.
Assess your own classroom. Consider your own pedagogical approach to the classroom. As one teaching and learning expert has asked, what strategies are we using to ensure that we "include all of our students in the class space and collective endeavor of our courses" at our institutions? We should reflect on the interactions that take place in our classes, both between ourselves and our students and among the students themselves.
Regarding specific assignments, consider integrating reading and other material that crosses social, cultural and political boundaries. Do you provide students with the opportunity to share different viewpoints? If not, are there constructive ways to do so?
We can use the classroom to teach students how to respectfully engage with each other. We can allow them to practice having discourse that is simultaneously civil and disagreeable. In fact, we must do that, because we become what we practice. We do not have to insist on getting to common ground on a matter too quickly, if at all. We do, however, have to create new spaces and new methods for having difficult discussions.
Hold the university accountable. It is too early to know exactly how the president-elect’s campaign promises will play out in terms of actual policy implementation. We can be sure, however, that higher education will be impacted if any of the proposed immigration, law enforcement, federal financial aid or health care policies are realized. Students who are part of the most marginalized groups may be vulnerable to significant disruptions in their daily lives. We must begin to ready our institutions to protect intellectual freedom, student well-being and civil liberties.
Faculty members need to start having these -- probably difficult -- dialogues now among ourselves as well as with university administrations. Those of us with tenure should be particularly attuned to the specific impact the campus climate has not only on students but also on untenured faculty members -- especially those from groups most marginalized by the rhetoric, harassment and unrest unfolding across the country.
How we show public solidarity and support may vary by institution. But we must engage in public recommitments to a discourse of inclusion based on the institutional policies, charters and statements that govern us.
It is not too early to push our institutions to create structures that will respond to impending campus challenges, including having clear reporting mechanisms for harassment and public positions on both Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students and undocumented students without DACA status.
We are not trying to toll an alarmist bell within the academy. We are simply highlighting the shared questions that faculty members around the United States must begin to answer on their campuses. In the days since the presidential election, hundreds of incidents of violence and harassment have occurred on college campuses. Regardless of political ideology, we cannot ignore that campus climates are in a state of unrest.
To that end, we who are committed to the well-being of students and to insisting on the contribution education makes to democracy must begin responding to these many challenges today.
Shontavia Johnson is the Kern Family Chair in Intellectual Property Law and directs the Intellectual Property Law Center at Drake University Law School. She curates content related to law and policy at www.shontavia.com and can be found @ShontaviaJEsq. Jennifer Harvey is a professor of religion and currently serves as the Baum Chair of Ethics and the Professions at Drake University. She is the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2014).
Submitted by Ben Paris on November 29, 2016 - 3:00am
Educators and employers agree that critical thinking is one of the essential skills required for postgraduation success. Unfortunately, multiple surveys indicate that employers believe that recent grads do not have the critical-thinking skills those employers expect, although recent grads (surprise!) have a sunnier view of their capabilities.
Whether recent grads are up to standard or not, there’s evidence that the college experience does not do enough to improve those skills, and not a lot of evidence that it does. In “Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble,” John Schlueter takes this case even further, questioning whether the college experience can even in principle build those skills.
I’m more optimistic. In contexts ranging from higher education to corporate training to test preparation, I’ve helped thousands of learners improve their skills and found nothing unique about that process. While aptitude for critical thinking is clearly not distributed equally in the population, no one is an expert critical thinker from birth. Even the best of us had to learn it somewhere.
That said, it isn’t easy. We can improve critical-thinking skills, in college or elsewhere, but doing so requires a commitment, an understanding of the nature of the task and deep learning experiences.
What makes teaching and improving critical-thinking skills so difficult? Here are a few factors:
Definitions. There’s no general agreement on what critical thinking is. Whereas people don’t often debate the properties of exponents or the components of a complete sentence, we’re less aligned when it comes to critical thinking. It often gets confused with creative thinking, reflective thinking or other skills.
Complexity. Critical-thinking tasks tend to be much more difficult than others in part because critical thinking needs to be built on a foundation of language and comprehension. Also, some of the issues involved when analyzing statements and arguments are quite subtle. Moreover, many people resist the notion that anything could be wrong with their thinking process, and those with the weakest skills tend to be the most resistant.
Abstraction. Critical thinking is not a list of facts to memorize. It’s a process, a general way of approaching problems. That means learners have to connect the general lessons they’ve learned to totally new situations. Common patterns emerge, but learners have to recognize them in order to leverage critical-thinking training.
Contrast. Modern education too often focuses on memorization, compliance and endurance rather than critical thought. Educational experiences based on “drill and kill” reward people who follow instructions and punish people who are more critical. Of course, people who succeeded in college by doing as they were told often have trouble solving real-world problems that are new and different. Critical thinkers do well in the long run, but they often have to survive a culture that teaches them not to be critical.
Training. We ask a lot of our instructors. They need to know their subject matter, of course, but they also need to know about education itself while developing the communication skills to connect with a diverse group of learners. Most faculty members haven’t been trained in critical thinking, and while they can pick it up, they’ll need consistent and sophisticated support to do so.
Measurement. Writing is hard. Writing assessments is very hard. Writing critical-thinking assessments is extremely hard. While some maintain that critical thinking cannot be measured at all, or can only be measured by complex items such as essays, it is possible to create valid measures of critical-thinking skills such as identifying assumptions, analyzing arguments and making inferences. But even assessment writers have a hard time writing those questions.
Why What We’re Doing Isn’t Working
By now, it should be clear that improving critical-thinking skills in college or anywhere else is a tall order under the best of circumstances. But what we have now is far from the best of circumstances, and that is not an accident. We can lament our failure to improve critical-thinking skills, but the truth is that this failure is not really a bug in the system. It’s a feature that flows from the structure of the current college experience.
Critical thinking, like other higher-order skills, gets crowded out in college courses that try to cover as much of the subject matter as possible. In the large introductory courses, with the largest number of students per class, students devote instructional time to a wide range of topics because no one wants to leave anything out. That forces the students into a breakneck pace that leaves little time for anything more than learning the vocabulary of the discipline -- vocabulary that mostly gets forgotten just after the final exam. If critical thinking is addressed at all, it tends to be tacked onto the core content in a manner that everyone can tell is contrived. Students might be invited to reflect on potentially interesting topics, but few will do so without meaningful feedback and some kind of credit toward a good grade.
Too many classes are this way, but the bigger problem is that they tend to stay this way. Faculty members who have their class structure set tend to be reluctant to radically change anything, especially when the change would require them to develop new expertise, as is often the case with critical thinking. Moreover, introducing critical thinking into an already-stuffed course tends to lower grades, as critical-thinking questions tend to be difficult and different from what students are accustomed to.
Also, it can be hard to convince faculty members to make a change that would likely hurt their evaluations -- and possibly their employment -- and often those evaluations depend on the grades that students receive. That’s why when critical thinking is included in courses, it sometimes gets covered in a way that poses no threat to anyone’s grades. What should be a rigorous analysis of evidence and conclusion instead becomes a glorified opinion poll. Students say whatever they want about the subject, and then … nothing.
What Would Be Better?
The path to improving critical-thinking skills starts with awareness. We must recognize that the world has changed and that possessing information and being able to execute rote procedures is not enough. Anyone who merely follows instructions is at risk of being replaced by someone cheaper or a machine.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that actively analyzing decisions leads to better outcomes, and the people who can do that will drive innovation and organizational success, no matter where they wind up. We need instructors and students to recognize the importance of critical thinking and be inspired with its potential to improve the world. It also requires a commitment to do justice to critical-thinking and other higher-order skills. It means accepting that courses won’t cover as many subjects, but they’ll do a better job with the ones they do cover.
Along the way, we should encourage learners who have been raised on a diet of compliance and social control to take a critical mind-set. But that doesn’t mean that we should teach them that all arguments are equally valid and that the truth is whatever you decide it is at that moment. Just as we learn to raise our standards when analyzing the claims of others, we also need to apply high standards to our own thinking. That’s why critical thinking can be an important part of self-improvement. It can help you get what you want, but it can also help you decide what you want to want.
We also have to arrive at a reasonable and workable definition of critical thinking and its related concepts. I’m not recommending that we create some semisecret code language to exclude “nonexperts” from the conversation. Education has enough of that already. However, we should come to a common understanding of terms such as assumption, relevance, argument and critical thinking itself.
The dictionary is a fine starting point, and we should add to ordinary definitions only when the interests of clarity call for it. For example, here’s the definition of critical thinking we use at my company:
Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. It is the ability to make logically sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and to be fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.
That covers the essential elements of the concept without requiring a doctoral dissertation. Others are of course free to disagree, to add, to subtract or to alter, but any meaningful definition of critical thinking is likely to include those core elements. This definition, or something like it, can be part of a shared and inclusive vocabulary that will help us identify the point at issue, the terms of the argument and the standards by which we make decisions.
With a clear and flexible structure, we make great progress, but it also helps to spot patterns of reasoning that appear across academic disciplines and real-world environments. While every situation could be different, being able to spot analogous situations can help us apply lessons we learned from our previous experience. No matter where we go, we should watch out for causation issues, representativeness and the difference between necessity and sufficiency. We should identify scope shifts, alternative explanations and ambiguous terms. Critical thinking will never be a mechanical application of procedures, but it still helps to have a sense of the usual suspects when it comes to logic.
While critical thinking is, by its nature, abstract, it also should be an applied field. For that reason, part of the process of improving one’s critical-thinking skills is to solve problems in real-world contexts and to practice drawing connections between the abstract concepts of critical thinking and the facts on the ground. Let’s not underestimate the value of practice, either. Critical thinking is like other skills in that it gets better with practice, but it has to be the right kind of practice. Pure repetition won’t help, but careful analysis will. That’s why we need to evaluate the claims we hear in everyday life, examine critiques of arguments to see if they have represented their subject fairly and construct our own persuasive arguments -- holding ourselves to the same standards we apply to others.
To illustrate the results of this process, consider this true story of critical-thinking success. On his first day at his new publishing job, an editor got bad news: samples from a new print job had come in, and they had a huge flaw that made all the books unusable. He was asked if he wanted to trash the entire print run. He would not have been blamed if he had, but instead he asked if they were sure that all of the books had that flaw. As it turned out, they didn’t. It was only some of them, and so he saved thousands of books from going to the landfill for no good reason.
For this to happen, he needed to be aware that he needed to apply his critical-thinking skills, he needed a structure to analyze the situation, he needed to recognize a familiar pattern of reasoning (in this case, representative samples) and he needed to apply what he knew from the publishing context. In this case, he knew that print samples sometimes come from only one round of printing and may not represent the entire print job. It was an insightful decision, but it wasn’t magic. Decisions like this are the natural product of sophisticated learning processes reinforced with experience.
But Can Critical Thinking Truly Be Improved?
It isn’t easy, and aptitude varies, but critical-thinking skills are not fixed at birth. We know that some people have strong skills, and they had to get them from somewhere. People still debate the extent to which critical thinking is a general skill that can be transferred whole into any context as opposed to being a context-dependent skill. The truth could be somewhat in between. There are certain structures, patterns and techniques that can be learned in general and applied elsewhere.
That is what I did while creating preparation courses for exams such as the LSAT and GMAT. We never knew exactly what the subject matter of the questions would be, but that didn’t matter as long as the patterns of reasoning were the same. That being said, context still matters, and applying one’s general skills is not equally easy everywhere.
My friend who made the inspired call about the print job had strong thinking skills but also needed to know something about publishing in order to find that solution. So there’s something to the notion that we ought to integrate critical thinking into our courses of study and not teach it as an entirely separate discipline. That’s another debate.
For now, I hope to have advanced the case that everyone can get better at critical thinking, but only if we make it a priority. The fact that we haven’t made great progress is evidence that we haven’t tried more than it is evidence that we can’t.
Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in educational assessment and learning design. He is the vice president of learning architecture for ansrsource, where he develops learning solutions for academic and professional environments.
A student said she is “terrified” by what might happen once Donald Trump becomes president. That was a few days ago in a class discussion of how the Trump administration will affect higher education.
It wasn’t my class. I was a guest lecturer and didn’t know the student. But the sentiment wasn’t unusual. Lots of people on our campus feel this way. So I asked her, “Terrified is a pretty strong word -- what exactly are you terrified of?” Silence. I continued, calmly, “What do you think is going to happen?”
More silence, until someone else said, “Because of Trump’s comments about other people.” That seemed sufficient explanation for everyone, and I felt no need to challenge it. Many people look at our president-elect and expect the next four years to be a nightmare, but they aren’t prepared to enumerate its predations. They are genuinely alarmed, but it’s hard to pin them down.
One professor in a recent article spoke of “the recent election and its hideous aftermath of swastika flaunting,” while one of my colleagues at Emory University insisted we must develop an “impactful left willing to call out white supremacy, whiteness and misogyny.” Statements such as these signaling so much worry aren't easy to address. I've chosen not to argue over them but only to reply, “Well, we’ll see.” If you read conservative publications, you can find similar quotations highlighted all the time with terms such as “loopy left” attached. But it's best to let them stand by themselves and pass or fail the test of time.
When students express such fears, however, we have a situation that calls for action. It isn’t hard for a tenured professor to let his peers believe what they believe and go his own way. In the humanities, you teach classes and conduct research by yourself, and when you mingle with colleagues at meetings and on committees, you hold up your end, help the team and smile -- even though you may fall on the other side of things.
You can't do that and be a teacher, though. What the students believe and assume affects what happens in their course work. If the outcome of a presidential election has jarred them to the point of horror, they have a mind-set that is bound to show up in their work, especially if it’s in an American subject. It will influence how they read and write about Huck Finn and O Pioneers! So we have to ask where it comes from.
The first job I had was as a dishwasher in a country club restaurant. It was 1974, and my brother and I were 15. The pay was $1.90 an hour, which sounded good to us. We cleaned the storage room, scrubbed pots and pans, and ran tray after tray through the assembly-line dishwashing machine as soon as the busboys started clearing tables once the dinner rush began. By the night’s end, we stank like sewage and sweat, but we didn’t care. One of the cooks, a middle-aged guy who was a star lineman in high school, would sock me on the shoulder every now and then just for fun. My brother and I looked enough alike to make it hard for him to tell us apart, so he called us both “Shithead,” sometimes adding “No. 1” and “No. 2” to his commands. None of that made us want to quit, however, and I never thought of griping to anyone.
At the same time, I grew up with parents who instilled a universalist vision of humanity in their kids. They revered Martin Luther King Jr. and taught us that people are “all the same underneath.” When we started elementary school, we lived in a mixed neighborhood in Southwest D.C. and were best friends with a black kid and his mother and father. It was my parents’ deliberate reversal of white flight to the suburbs.
And so when my brother and I went to the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1977 and lived in the dorms for two years with, successively, Chinese, Mexican, Guatemalan and Iranian roommates, we thought nothing of it. There was the occasional racist remark -- sometimes by an outsider, once in a while by one of the guys -- but we shrugged it off. Too many other things were more important. And it was easy not to take it personally because we were so clear about its stupidity. We knew racial animosity existed just as other animosities did, such as the guys you didn’t like because of the elbows they threw on the basketball court. “He’s a racist” didn’t stand above “He’s a waste case,” “He’s a sleaze,” “He cheats” and a dozen other bad judgments.
I was lucky. The combination of we’re-all-the-same-race at home, getting pushed around a bit at work and enough diversity among friends to realize that diversity works best when we stop thinking so much about it saved me from overreacting to human vices of the social kind. That included attitudes and language that count today as politically incorrect and offensive.
Students in selective colleges who fret over the implications of Trump’s victory had no such formation -- at least, not as far as I can tell. Instead of embracing the universalist thrust of the civil rights movement -- which spoke of “integration” and not “diversity” -- students today are taught to uphold identity differences (e.g., the iniquity of declaring “All lives matter”). We no longer tolerate bullying and harassment in the workplace -- a positive good, of course, but one that frees youths from learning to cope with a jerk in other ways than complaint. And not only the K-16 curriculum but also the entire cultural sphere and reigning political idiom has taught them to remain ever mindful of racial and sexual identity, no matter how liberal and unbiased they are.
They feel the scrutiny all the time. Having seen others punished by the authorities for saying or writing the wrong thing, and watching their peers turn on a dissenter and hammer him on social media, they know the wages of forgetting diversity etiquette. Teenagers can be savage, and when you add political sin to cliquishness, you have a ravenous hegemony. Youths who are ambitious, the high achievers, observe the taboos as though their wariness were a key to success.
And so when Trump says the things he says, millennials are darn certain that something awful is going to happen. A sexist remark that gets out in public means catastrophe. Vengeance must follow; the violator must be punished. But Trump hasn’t been punished. He’s committed a hate crime … and he's become the most powerful man in the world.
The distress that students now feel runs deeper than fear of what the Trump administration plans to do. His triumph signifies the fall of the diversity-sensitive propriety that has guided their academic careers and, among the successful students, their social lives. One of their gods has failed, and even if they didn’t choose and worship that god themselves, the loss of him means that the universe has trembled. It’s disturbing.
The way to help students through this revolution of the heavenly orbs is to provide them with a story: the story of diversity. They have grown up in the diversity era and experienced it as bare, self-evident truth. It is up to us as teachers to explode this ahistorical condition. We must lead students through the genesis of diversity from the melting-pot civics of the early 20th century to the 1978 Bakke decision to today’s diversity bureaucracy and regulations in public and private institutions. We should include in that history criticisms of diversity in its definition and its implementation, along with empirical challenges to the actual benefits of diversity programs in higher and lower education.
Once students understand diversity as a social theory, not a sacred goal, once they see sensitivity not always as a necessary and proper condition, they will alter their expectations. Instead of regarding Trump and the 60 million people who voted for him as a new reign of terror, they will accept them as part of the inevitable swings of political fortune. There are other outlooks available besides diversity sensitivity, and they aren’t apocalyptic.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.