Last month, in the journal First Things, senior editor R.R. Reno confessed his participation in "An Error Worse Than Error," namely the purported goal of higher education to question everything. "Students are trained-I was trained-to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequences: an impoverished intellectual life."
Reno must know he's late to the party. The premise of Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is that "almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative." In The Abolition of Man (1947), C.S. Lewis described how the exchange of skepticism for truth created Men without Chests. In Chesterton's parable of the lamppost, widespread zeal to tear down a public source of light (because it's out of fashion and inconvenient) leads to men arguing forever after in the dark. All three authors were contemplating the effect of dismissing foundational principles as an aim of education. John Dewey already occupied that dark public square, passionately arguing that "education as such has no aims" beyond equipping workers to work.
So the idea has been around for a while, but in order to seem fresh and relevant, it's tricked out in a new name: "critical thinking."
To think critically is a useful, often necessary tool; "critical thinking" is a noble concept that's lost its dignity after a mauling by ed-school theorizers. Like a gullible servant thrust onto the emperor's throne by manipulative handlers, it's become a figurehead: a catchphrase for deconstructing old received truths in order to replace them with new received truths. No child is to be left behind: Roger Kimball recalls a parent orientation meeting at his 5-year-old's school, where the virtues of critical thinking were eagerly promoted for the crayon set.
If old standards are overthrown, what will take their place? The recommended substitute is "creativity"-no one noticing, apparently, that "creative critical thinking" is an oxymoron. Critical thinking is essentially destructive; it's all about tearing down. To tear down false presuppositions is good and necessary but not complete; in education, the only valid purpose for destruction is to rebuild. That's where creativity is supposed to come in. But creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum-like skepticism, it's a means, not an end. It cries out for a theme. To treat creativity as an end in itself is to assume godlike character for humans, as though they could somehow create ex nihilo.
Of the many consequences of the critical-thinking fad, two stand out. One, if the destruction is allowed to stand, educated humans will be in the same situation as the man from whom one demon was cast out only to have seven others take its place. Declaring the great truths to be purely subjective (and therefore, ultimately, untrue) is not progress. Instead, it returns us to paganism, where moral authority belongs to the elites and the masses fall prey to superstition. As the saying goes, "He who stands for nothing will fall for anything."
Two, skepticism about major premises leads to over-reliance on minor ones. When the international website Wikileaks posted thousands of classified documents regarding the war in Afghanistan, it did so with the purpose of exposing American malfeasance. Wikileaks had the facts-lots of them. But focusing on isolated incidents obscures the larger issue of what we're fighting about. Is the aim of one side-to destroy or neutralize an enemy that threatens world order-superior to the aim of the other side, which is to impose its radical agenda on an ever-larger slice of the globe? Facts can be marshaled or manipulated to support any contention, but without a common commitment to such basic ideas as freedom, order, and individual responsibility, they won't prove anything.
Foundational principles can't be proved; they must simply be believed. Critical thinking can be useful in helping a student determine the truth. But it isn't truth, and it won't give him anyplace to stand.
Email Janie B. Cheaney