Sunday Sermon: The Need to Know Things In Order to Think Critically About Them

Because the Mad Biologist isn’t nearly curmudgeonly enough, especially about things like education [/snark], I thought this post by Ed of Gin and Tacos hit the right notes:

Should our educational system emphasize information retention or “critical thinking?” Here’s the problem. We do neither. Exams like this are no longer given, at least not commonly, but has it been replaced with anything more useful? In my limited experience we are producing wave after wave of students who reach adulthood utterly unable to distinguish between their puckered assholes and a hole in the ground but with access to information they lack the desire or ability to use. They’re loaded to the gunwales with iPhones, laptops, and 24-7 access to all of humanity’s collected knowledge, and they can’t do basic research on Google to save their souls….

There is value in knowing basic facts. Should we be encouraging kids to memorize the 435 members of Congress or pi to 100 places? No, that would be a pure waste of time. But I shit you not – and I wish I could have a student verify this – I just quizzed my Presidency class, all junior and senior political science majors at a college with an average incoming SAT score of 1400, on the Bill of Rights and not one of them named more than half. Not one. Most could only stammer out a partial description of the 1st Amendment, maybe something about the 2nd. This is bad. “Memorization” for the sake of memorization probably would not help our educational system, but can we start sending people to selective universities with a grasp of some incredibly basic goddamn facts? I do not ask a lot. Call it rote memorization if you’d like, but I’m comfortable making a judgment call here: people should know the Bill of Rights.

This is my argument about the educational system in this country as a whole. We have spent 40 years trying to build pretty houses without building a foundation first. If people are not graduating from high school with a grasp of basic math, the ability to intelligibly express a thought in English, and perhaps a rudimentary understanding of American government, nothing else matters. It is all irrelevant if they lack that basic foundation, and trust me, most of the kids I deal with lack the everliving hell out of it.

In my experience, students who are thought to ‘lack critical thinking skills’, once someone takes the time to figure why these skills are missing, actually are lacking a basic educational foundation: you can’t do algebra if your basic arithmetic skills are poor. And I’ll add one thing to the list: a basic understanding of the scientific method (sadly, I think many students have a hard time distinguishing between that and the basic lab report format…).

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10 Responses to Sunday Sermon: The Need to Know Things In Order to Think Critically About Them

  1. llewelly says:

    Memorized facts are your intellectual building materials. It’s true that having huge loads of building materials won’t automatically enable you to create the Sydney Opera House. But it’s equally true that if you have few building materials, or they are of shoddy quality, you won’t have enough to experiment with, you won’t be able to learn how to build, and you’ll never create fuck-all.
    No matter how widely it is hated, no matter how tedious it is, the “rote” memorization must come first; without it, people have nothing to think critically about, and no amount of pedagogical sophistry will teach them how to think when they have nothing to think about.

  2. Yes this is true. In fact critical thinking is a bit like good musical improvisation, or good scientific experimentation. You need to learn and practice scales and modes, to improv freely, you need to learn technique and mathematics to experiment in a useful way. So knowledge is a pre-requisite to critical thinking.

  3. Jim Thomerson says:

    I agreement with all above. One thing that baffles me, a 20th century person barely computer literate, is the widespread ignorance of various things which are easily found out. Is Google really all that unknown?

  4. Korny says:

    It’s not that Google is unknown, it’s that kids don’t use it. I am forever reading questions on forums that could literally be answered with the first return on Google for any sensible combination of keywords. And when you ask them if they Google’d it, they go “oooh, no, I never thought of that.” Makes me want to scream.

  5. 6EQUJ5 says:

    Example of critical thinking: Realizing that the Seventh Amendment lost its any legal force over a century ago.
    If you can get a case to small claims court, forget your ‘right to a jury’. It’s not going to happen, and it doesn’t matter what the Constitution says. And, in small claims court, if you win, it doesn’t mean you get the settlement: the judge can order the settlement, but nobody will enforce the judgement. Cops can’t be bothered with upholding the law, they’re more into revenue enhancement, violence, narcotics, and bullying.

  6. GrayGaffer says:

    rote: we drilled in the “times tables” from 1×1 to 20×20 every morning for 1/2 hr from the age of 5 through 8, back in the 1950’s in the UK. It has been a serious foundation for mental arith ever since, including computing tips and checking sales receipts. I now perform multiplication from a mental lookup table, and I really don’t know how anyone could do that, or division, without having had that table embedded at an early age. Do the kids still get that these days?
    From what I hear, here and elsewhere, I have to consider myself most fortunate I went through schooling in a time when thinking for ones’self, knowing math, algebra, and predicate calculus, and the Scientific Method, were considered basic requirements, and were taught and expected of all students up until the age of 16 when one took ‘O’ levels and then specialized (Predicate Calculus was when I was 13, for example). If you think that narrow, I would add that the Arts were equally represented, just not my forte.

  7. skeptifem says:

    This isn’t a good argument for school directed memorizing.
    I know of the exact kind of college student you guys are discussing, I know a lot of them. The reason they act this way is because their education is seen as a means to get something for themselves, it is a series of obstacles in order to get ___ (job, money, status, acceptance etc) instead of learning for its own sake. They are concerned with passing tests or getting scores on sat’s instead of learning things. Being able to think critically isn’t worth a lot if you don’t have knowledge as the goal instead of letters after your name and figures in a salary. It is a by product of consumer culture imo. anyway.
    Having a love of learning creates the need for people to memorize things in order to reach a goal that they have set for themselves.

  8. davemabus says:

    Kicking in the heads of atheists one at a time…
    PZ, I thought the Morris Police Department was going to save you from the wrath of God…

  9. There is no such thing as “the scientific method”.

  10. resimler says:

    I agreement with all above. One thing that baffles me, a 20th century person barely computer literate, is the widespread ignorance of various things which are easily found out. Is Google really all that unknown?

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