Restoring Reason in American Culture

Restoring Reason in American Culture

recently discussed why social chaos is spreading across the U.S. The answer, I argued, is that the movement to elevate feelings over reason that began a half century ago has gained control over virtually every part of our culture, notably education and journalism. I ended that essay with this prediction: “The longer America’s exaltation of feelings continues, the greater the social chaos will be, and the greater that chaos, the more certain will be the end of the noblest and most meaningful social experiment in human history.”

The urgent question that prediction raises is what can be done to restore reason? To begin with, there is no quick or simple solution to a problem of such duration and magnitude. What is required is nothing less than dramatic changes in the way Americans view themselves and others and the way they perceive and respond to problems and issues. As important as the changes themselves is the patience, consistency, and determination with which they are pursued for the next few decades.

In this essay I will discuss the changes necessary in education, first by explaining the changes to be made by educators and then the ways in which non-educators, especially the parents of students, can support them. (The changes necessary in journalism will be discussed in a separate essay.)

Changes in Elementary and Secondary Education

Stop telling students that self-esteem is necessary for achievement, and stress instead that working hard leads to achievement, which brings not only self-esteem but also satisfaction and confidence. (Esteeming oneself simply for taking up space in the universe is not only an empty exercise—it undermines effort and openness to learning.)

Help students understand that life is filled with learning opportunitiesthat we can learn not only from parents, teachers, and books, but also from the people around us, including classmates, as well as from everyday experience. Stress that the secret of learning is to focus our eyes and ears beyond our own internal reverie and pay close attention to what is happening outside our minds.

Minimize passive learning—that is, telling students information to be memorized and then given back on exams. This has been the dominant form of teaching for over a hundred years and is based on the false idea that being told things enhances thinking. Thinking is a skill and skills are learned by guided practice. That is why driver education is taught, not by having students sit in the passenger seat and watch the instructor drive, but by getting behind the wheel and driving. It is also why basketball and football are not taught by having players sit in the stands and listen to lectures about historic games, but by drills and scrimmages.

Thinking is taught in much the same way, by presenting students with challenges that stimulate their curiosity, excite their imagination, and encourage them to ask questions and seek answers. Studies show that what is actively learned is remembered longer and can be applied more meaningfully. And the process of active learning instills habits of thinking that are of value in every aspect of life.

More about active learning: Every subject area has developed and advanced over time as new insights have been achieved and old ideas and principles modified. Instead of lecturing students about such developments and having them memorize names and dates and events, teachers should present students with the challenges the pioneers in the field faced and ask how they would have approached them—what questions they would have asked, what lines of investigation they would have taken, etc. Only after students have grappled with the challenges should teachers explain how the pioneers actually met them. Having experienced the difficulties the pioneers overcame, the students will appreciate the actual achievements more fully.

The approach just mentioned is difficult to do in courses with textbooks that present every detail and thus in a real way dull curiosity and imagination. In such cases, a different approach to active learning is needed. Here is one: Every field has controversies in its history; for example, an idea or principle that was accepted for a while and then eventually revised or replaced, or one that is still widely accepted but is at this very time being challenged. Teachers should present the arguments on both sides of and issue and have students decide which side is best supported by the evidence. If time permits, students can present their conclusions and defend them to the class. These are not idle exercises; properly used, they not only deepen students’ understanding of the subject but also develop the same thinking skills and procedures that led to the breakthrough insights.

Changes in Higher Education

The need for change in colleges and universities is at least as great as that in schools and, in one way, even greater. The practice of lecturing is deeply rooted in higher education because instruction there is largely based on the German university model and because a Masters’ or Doctoral degree can create a sense that one’s opinions are not open to question. This explains why many contemporary professors, especially in elite universities, believe they have been anointed not only to lecture on their subject matter but also on subjects far afield from it, including religion and politics. Before such professors can change from proselytizing to guiding students’ intellectual development they must gain the humility to recognize that the purpose of education is not to broadcast their personal views but to improve students’ ability to form their own views responsibly.

The changes that need to occur in higher education are, for the most part, the reinforcement and extension of those made in elementary and second education, most importantly the substitution of active for passive learning. But three additional ones are worth noting.

Devote more time to class discussion and debateThese activities are more time consuming than lecturing, sorofessors will understandably wonder how they can find the needed time. The answer lies in being more selective in what they cover during class. Instead of devoting a class period to each chapter in the textbook, they should choose the most important chapters for class treatment and require students to study the others on their own. The reflexive reaction of many professors to this suggestion will be “That is tantamount to abandoning large sections of my course material, and that would be unthinkable.” However, that need not be the case. The thinking skills developed in class discussion and debate can, in fact, enhance the learning that students accomplish with the other chapters on their own. Professors can increase the chances of this outcome by requiring students to keep a journal of their outside readings and answering for each reading, How does this chapter relate to class discussion of the other chapters? What areas of this chapter do you believe the author should explored more deeply, and why?

Motivate students to listen carefully to one anotherThe motivation to listen carefully to others does not come naturally to anyone, especially when the topic is demanding. Therefore, professors should expect students’ attention to wane, but also keep in mind that one of the best motivations in the classroom is fear of embarrassment. Here is how to put that fact to good use: ask questions randomly during class discussion, and begin as follows: “Tom, please summarize what Martha just said to her satisfaction.” If Tom does so, ask him another question; if he does not, ask someone else to summarize what Martha said.” It won’t take long before everyone understands the practical value of listening carefully. As a result, class discussions will improve dramatically.

Guide students to recognize and avoid errors in thinking. The most important of those errors are hasty conclusion (making judgments without sufficient determination of the facts), oversimplification (addressing only one aspect of a complex problem), poverty of aspect (considering only views and arguments that support our bias), and overgeneralization (presenting as a general rule that which applies only in certain cases). The main emphasis should be on students’ avoiding/detecting the errors in their own viewpoints; the secondary emphasis, on doing so with the errors of others.

Restrain the impulse to commandeer class discussionThis impulse can be almost irresistible to professors accustomed to dominating discussion, especially those who also love the sound of their own voice. To overcome that impulse, instead of adding your comment, the professor should ask another student to comment—“Charles, explain why you agree or disagree with Sue” or (where appropriate), “Did you detect any error in thinking in Sue’s comment?”

The above paragraphs provide a brief picture of how teachers at every level of education can give reasoning the attention it deserves by guiding students to master the skills of thinking. The question is, how can educators be persuaded to change classroom practices they have been trained to follow, are wedded to, and strongly believe are superior?

The answer is by non-teachers demanding the changes and exerting their influence on schools and colleges to comply. The most obvious group to make these demands is the parents of students. Parents of elementary and secondary school students can join forces to make their demands clear to school boards and school administrators and to monitor their actions until they are satisfied the changes have occurred. Parents of high school seniors can help them choose colleges that are committed to banishing the propagandizing students and to achieving genuine intellectual development of their students. (Note: parents should understand that prestigious colleges and universities often have a greater number of propagandizers on their faculties than do other institutions.) Parents of students already in college should join them in reporting to administrators those faculty members who display a greater interest in promoting their personal views than in teaching the subject matter in a balanced way that encourages students to think for themselves.

The restoration of reason to the place it deserves in American culture must begin in schools and colleges, which provide the foundation of culture. The process will be neither quick nor easy, but the survival of American Civilization, and indeed the broader Western Civilization, may well depend on it.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero