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Thinning on the Mind: The Disappearing Art of Critical Thinking
How the Market-driven Approach to Education Nurtures the Vacuum of Analytical Minds
In the pursuit of vocational and market-driven education, the once revered skill of critical thinking is gradually fading away from the nation's classrooms. As schools prioritize specialized knowledge and career-focused curricula, the broader benefits of liberal arts learning, such as cultivating critical thinking skills and fostering informed citizens, are taking a back seat. The decline in college enrollments and the growing trend of eliminating college-degree requirements for various positions further exemplify this shift. As the educational landscape changes, the question arises: Can a society truly prosper without the ability to critically examine its own beliefs and systems? Join us on this journey as we explore the challenges faced by education and the consequences of thinning critical thinking on the collective intellect of our nation.
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The primary objectives of public education in the United States have remained consistent throughout its history.
Objective 1: To prepare skilled professionals for a diverse labor market. In the past, this focused on producing doctors, lawyers, and Protestant pastors at the college level. Over the last century, higher education has expanded to cater to a broader middle-class, white-collar workforce. The limited availability of vocational and technical options can be attributed to cultural biases, as these professions were traditionally associated with lower class and apprenticeship-based training. Despite this, educational institutions have adapted to these societal norms.
Objective 2: To foster informed and loyal citizens. In the past, civics courses played a crucial role in achieving this goal at lower educational levels. However, financial constraints have led to the decline of many of these courses in recent times. Nonetheless, the aim of producing aware and loyal citizens remains a fundamental part of public education's mission.
Middle and high-school history and government courses in the United States were intended to build upon the foundations laid by civics education. However, this endeavor lacked systematic implementation. At the higher education level, enrollment in U.S. history and political science courses has suffered due to a prevailing “consumer” mindset toward education.
Many students view these courses as demanding excessive effort, and they often question the practicality of pursuing a “history major” in their future careers. As a result, business courses have become more popular, driven by economic and class-related factors.
It is essential to differentiate between the goals of producing informed and loyal citizens and graduating critical thinkers. Sometimes, these objectives may conflict with each other, leading to a delicate balance in the educational process.
Presently, public education is grappling with a curriculum crisis across all levels. Some parents express frustration and seek to censor local and national history, limit acceptable literature, and impose constraints on biology education based on their beliefs and preferences.
At the college level, a prevalent “market” orientation has influenced state education administrators to prioritize the “consumer choice” approach mentioned earlier.
As a result, we observe an unusual situation where subjects like philosophy, English literature, and history must compete for student enrollment, merely based on their classification as “humanities credits.” This shift in focus has led to a departure from the traditional ideal of a liberal arts education, where the emphasis was on a well-rounded and holistic learning experience.
Amidst these developments, a growing movement in government and certain business sectors, particularly high tech, seeks to eliminate the college-degree requirement for numerous entry-level positions.
This ongoing trend indicates a shift back to the historical perspective of education as a means to acquire specific vocational skills. Moreover, it reflects a new perspective on the significance of a college degree for demonstrating loyalty to the state.
For instance, on January 18, as one of his initial official actions as the newly appointed governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro officially abolished the necessity for a basic liberal arts college degree in more than 90 percent of the state's government positions, totaling around 65,000 jobs. Maryland and Utah have already taken similar steps in this direction.
In a piece titled “Something very important for Democrats just happened in Pennsylvania,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed that the recent developments indicate a shift in the perception of the basic liberal arts degree's relevance in the job market. He noted that work and life experiences unrelated to traditional lecture hall education are often considered more valuable.
Put differently, the American labor market appears to prioritize specialized knowledge over a liberal arts background, which may be obtained in lecture halls. Whichever way you phrase it, the trend is clear: the U.S. job market is gradually moving away from requiring a liberal arts degree as a job prerequisite.
This shift is widely viewed positively by many, including the editors of the New York Times, who support this transition:
“It would bring a greater degree of openness and fairness into the labor market and send a message about the government’s ability to adapt and respond to the concerns of its citizens. In a country where a majority of people do not have bachelor degrees (63 percent), policies that automatically close off jobs to so many people contribute to the perception that the system is rigged against them.”
The New York Times overlooks the inevitable reality that such “manipulation” is a natural outcome of the class-conscious capitalist system that the U.S. proudly upholds.
A significant portion of the college student body probably welcomes this development, thinking, “it's about time!” Many faculty members at the nation's colleges and universities have long been aware of the uncomfortably high number of students who do not genuinely desire to be in the academic setting. It is the prevailing culture of credentialism that lured them into the classrooms and compelled them to stay for four or more years.
In essence, most students do not find joy in studying and, despite various incentives, possess only a limited range of interests. In a survey conducted, approximately two-thirds of students expressed their preference for pursuing a less demanding path to secure a good job.
Now, let's shift our focus to the insights shared by Philadelphia Inquirer's columnist Will Bunch, who earlier this year attended the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit, a gathering of approximately 50 prominent leaders in higher education across the nation.
Bunch affirms that “the women and men who oversee America's 4,360 four- and two-year colleges and universities are acutely aware” of the crisis surrounding credentialism. They are well-informed about the fact that college enrollments in the United States have declined by one million students over the past two years and continue to decrease.
In fact, given that the reliance on credentialism may no longer be sufficient to drive the demand for a college education, America's higher education institutions are now confronted with a potential “existential crisis.”
Historically, there has been a conventional, though insufficient, response to this dilemma. Bunch cites Robert Iuliano, president of Gettysburg College as follows: “Colleges need to stress not only the economic benefit of an advanced education but also a sense of commitment to the common good, the commonwealth.”
Bunch goes on to highlight the questionable notion that higher education should primarily revolve around careerism, neglecting the broader benefits of liberal arts learning, such as acquiring extensive knowledge and honing critical thinking skills.
This concern about the absence of paths to worldly wisdom, unfortunately, cannot be relied upon to rescue academia, as such objectives were never the primary focus of American schools at any level.
Consequently, the claim that college and university education naturally instills in most students a “commitment to the common good,” “critical thinking skills,” or a sense of human accomplishment over time is, at best, an idealistic view and, at worst, an overconfidence. Consider the following observations:
According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, the majority of college faculty, across all levels, lack a profound understanding of critical thinking.
Astonishingly, about 86 percent of college faculty are unaware of their own deficiency in this regard and believe that they are adequately teaching critical thinking to their students, under the assumption that they already possess the necessary expertise.
Even today, lecture-style teaching, rote memorization, and largely ineffective short-term study practices continue to dominate college instruction and learning methodologies.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni's sixth annual analysis of core curricula in 2014, only 18 percent of the 1,098 four-year colleges and universities surveyed required American history for graduation, 13 percent required a foreign language, and a mere 3 percent required economics.
Michael Poliakoff, the head of the survey, asserts that the absence of a rigorous core curriculum is responsible for the failure to acquire essential knowledge. He emphasizes that the nation's civic and economic well-being is at risk.
While the deficiency in a more comprehensive knowledge-based curriculum may indeed have implications for “civic health,” it cannot be solely blamed for failing to meet the demands of the national economy. The educational system is not primarily designed to address Poliakoff's broader objectives.
Let's delve further into the points introduced at the outset of this essay.
Throughout history, the concept of educational proficiency has always been closely linked to earning a livelihood. Over the ages, students have learned what their economic circumstances demanded, either through apprenticeships or formal schooling.
In contemporary times, the curriculum primarily revolves around vocational subjects, catering to students' career aspirations, whether they wish to pursue business, computer technology, rocket science, or other fields. Everything else that holds critical thinking skills is deemed “elective”, which often faces suspicion from local school boards. By the time American children reach junior high school, many of them have already discerned what holds vocational value and what does not, and they tend to focus on subjects they believe will lead to economic benefits.
Hence, it is not the school itself or the teachers who set the learning priorities, but rather the demands of the local job market that influence the educational landscape.
In light of this market-driven approach to education, nearly all American schools, including those considered “failing,” provide employment-oriented knowledge that is relevant to their local context. While some might question this assertion, it holds true in practice.
Affluent public schools cater to students who, due to their social class (and often racial) background, typically have high expectations of pursuing professional careers. Consequently, they receive an educational preparation geared towards these aspirations.
Similarly, underfunded schools primarily serve students whose circumstances have conditioned them to have different expectations, and they are educated accordingly. It's worth noting that this observation doesn't endorse the situation but simply reflects the reality of how the system operates.
As for cultivating a sense of loyal citizenship, the goal of promoting civic awareness seems to have waned in popularity. Instead, there appears to be a shift towards providing a sanitized and idealized version of the country's history to younger students, reinforcing the belief that it is the “greatest and freest” nation on Earth. This narrative is further reinforced by the broader cultural milieu and media influences.
What about the 32 percent of students attending college? Even among them, civic awareness is lacking, and it's likely to remain that way for most of them. Even though there might be some radical leftists on the fringes of educational institutions, they pose no real threat to the current dysfunctional system.
At a surface level, our schools excel at producing loyal and compliant citizens. The absence of critical thinking in this equation serves a specific purpose and raises doubts about the place of critical thinking in a national curriculum.
Having a nation of critical thinkers could be perceived as a perilous situation from the perspective of citizen loyalty. It raises the question of whether a stable community can exist when everyone critically examines how the community is governed.
If the trend towards a vocational and consumer-driven curriculum in higher education persists, the number of college and university students, along with their faculty, will continue to decline. Unfortunately, those associated with the ideal of higher education as a path to “broad knowledge and critical thinking skills” are becoming less relevant from a vocational standpoint. Consequently, many educational administrators, who themselves hail from vocational backgrounds, are opting to jettison or at least make these subjects optional to keep the consumer-focused academic system afloat to uphold the current state of society.
The true power to shape this world has always lain in your hands. Choose well!
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