Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Critical Thinking and American Academic Culture

It goes without saying that there are inherent flaws within the American academic system, particularly at the high school and undergraduate levels. These problems are born of the culture of “teaching (or learning) to the test” present within these systems. I’m not talking about the meritocracy of schools based on standardized test scores (which is, in itself, a massive problem which I will not here address for fear of pulling out all my hair), rather the lack of critical thinking among students and the short comings of methods used by teachers (not across the board; I’ve had several teachers who actually excelled at this, you know who you are) to encourage it.
Firstly, let me say that this problem is in part due to the culture of laziness that has become toxically present in American culture as a whole, which plays a large role in what I will go into here. I will use as examples two classes in which I am currently enrolled; a political science class and a philosophy class. It is important to note that I’m not saying critical thinking is more important in these fields than in others, quite the opposite, it is important in every aspect of life, these are just the examples I am using.
On the one hand, we have my political science class. This class features what would, in a perfect world, be a good method of encouraging critical thinking among students. We are assigned for each class period one or two pieces of academic literature to read, after which we are to think of a thought provoking question to be used during in class discussion. The catch? You don’t necessarily have to read the entire thing to be able to write at least a passable question. This is one example of learning to the test, of doing just enough to get the grade, of being too lazy to do the work thoroughly and properly. I’m by no means saying that I’m not guilty of this, because I am; I am, however, saying that this example represents one of the problems I see in American academia. While this method is intended to encourage critical thinking, it accomplishes the opposite; because it isn’t necessary to complete the reading in its entirety, thereby taking in all the information therein, it is not critical thinking that is achieved, rather a honing of BS skills, and I don’t mean bachelors of science.
On the other hand, we have my philosophy class. This class takes what I see as the opposite approach to critical thinking. The assignments in this course also consist of readings; however the written portion is not some thought provoking question, rather a summary of what you read. Assignments like this have been lamented since middle school for their simplicity, (supposed) lack of critical thinking, and lack of academic merit in general. I would contest, however, that they accomplish the task better than the method explained above. Because getting a good grade requires completion of the reading assignment from start to finish, the student is forced to take in all the information in the text, or at least look at it enough to write a brief summary. While not directly or intentionally targeting critical thinking, this method certainly exposes the student to more information and, thereby, provides a better understanding of the course material.
As I stated above, the real issue is American laziness. Methods like the ones above are necessary because American students, by and large, don’t want to think critically, they want to get good enough grades to walk across the stage in June. It will not be until this overarching cultural issue is resolved that students will learn for the sake of learning, think because they want to think, study to gain knowledge, as opposed to merely going through the motions to get the grade.


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