The news is filled with evidence that common sense is increasingly uncommon. Here are a few examples:
“Sanctuary Cities” like San Francisco refuse to follow federal law and federal officials ignore the offense. (Common sense suggests that laws should be enforced or repealed, never ignored.)
An illegal alien murders a young woman and some commentators blame Donald Trump for the crime because he previously said illegal immigration is increasing crime. (To confuse expressing a judgment with advocating an action, let alone with taking one, is absurd.)
A growing number of schools allow on-campus prayer privileges to Muslim students but deny them to Christians. (Common sense suggests such favoritism is grossly unfair.)
Reportedly, Planned Parenthood illegally sells body parts of aborted fetuses. Many liberals find this less troubling than people publicly protesting abortion. (Common sense requires greater concern over a violation of law than over the exercise of a constitutional right.)
What is causing such shallow and even fallacious thinking? And what can be done to solve the problem?
The simple answer is that logic has been out of fashion for a long time and the consequences are growing more obvious and serious. The process by which this has occurred, however, is more complicated.
- At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of psychologists known as hereditarians persuaded American educators that the vast majority of citizens are not only mentally deficient but also incapable of raising their intelligence levels. As a result, teachers abandoned the development of students’ thinking habits and skills and instead emphasized merely providing information.
- This approach not only became the standard teaching methodology; it also governed the textbook and testing industries. As a result, textbooks were designed mainly, in some cases solely, to present factual information for students to remember. Similarly, tests were designed to measure how much information students were able to recall. As a result of these emphases, higher level mental skills were ignored. In other words, students received little or no help in developing the most important skills in genuine learning and everyday life—asking relevant questions, identifying problems and issues, finding and comparing differing points of view, separating logical from illogical thinking, and forming careful judgments.
- Numerous scholars pointed out the deficiencies of mindstuffing in almost every decade of the 20th century. They proposed a variety of approaches that would instill in students both appreciation for and competency in sound thinking. The most significant of these proposals was the Critical Thinking movement, which was present in almost every decade but most prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. The core approach was to have textbooks and classwork present problems to be solved and issues to be researched and evaluated, and to have tests measure students’ skills in those activities (rather than their ability to regurgitate information).
- At the very time the Critical Thinking movement was poised to transform education, a very different reform arose, one that emphasized emotion rather than reason. Students were urged to express their feelings—and to do so without evaluation or criticism from teachers—in order to develop their “self-esteem.” (Borrowed from Humanistic Psychology, this approach held that reality is subjective, every student should develop his/her own “truth,” and no one’s “truth” is better—or more reasonable—than anyone else’s.)
The new approach not only undermined reason and critical thinking, it made the age-old educational discipline of debate obsolete—challenging other people’s ideas to test their validity, the goal of debate, was considered harmful to their self-image. Also obsolete were grammar, syntax, and usage—if people’s ideas are sacrosanct, the argument went, the language they use to express them must also be.
Throughout all these 20th century developments, the central—and entirely false—idea, that intelligence is fixed and cannot be raised, has remained in place. Of course, political correctness has made it unfashionable to express that idea. But the educational approach it spawned—stuffing minds with facts rather than developing their mental skills—has remained a constant. With relatively few exceptions, teaching methodology, textbook writing, and test making continue to be based on it.
The decline of common sense can be traced to the schools’ stuffing students’ minds full of information rather than teaching them how to think. And the solution is to implement an entirely different approach to education, one based on an optimistic view of human potential and that aims to develop in students the mental habits and skills necessary to think well. Achieving this solution will not be easy. Teachers, textbook writers, and test makers must be persuaded to put aside methods they have become comfortable with and to adopt new, more challenging approaches.
But this much is certain. If we do not change our educational model, common sense will surely continue to decline, social problems will continue to multiply, and it will become increasingly difficult for America to regain its leadership role in the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved