What in the World Were They Thinking?

What in the World Were They Thinking?

For years the news has filled with reports of behaviors by people in influential positions that make the rest of us scratch our heads and say, “What in the world were they thinking?” In some cases, they explain their thought processes, but often as not they don’t, at least not in a clear and satisfactory way. The number of those reports seems to be growing larger and the underlying rationales less clear. In such cases we are left to figure out their thought processes (and intentions) from the results of their actions.

A current example is the matter of relaxing criminal justice

In many cities around the country, elected officials have paroled criminals before they served their sentences, have changed felony crimes to misdemeanors, and have dismissed some misdemeanors as too minor for prosecution. What in the world were they thinking? Probably that in the past some people who committed serious crimes received unreasonably harsh and/or unfair punishments, and that such wrongs would be made right by releasing the individuals. Also, that the harshness of penalties should, in the interest of compassion, be reduced in future cases.

That reasoning is not without merit . . . as far as it goes. But at least one essential step should have followed it—considering whether the proposed changes would solve the criminal justice problem or make it worse. Further thought would have raised questions such as, “Has history shown that “softer” policies discourage or encourage crime? Are there ways to reduce the incidence and severity of crimes before they are committed—for example by improving family life and educational opportunity.” The failure to ask these and similar questions did incalculable harm.

Another example is the matter of reforming policing

In recent years a popular response to police irresponsibility has been reducing or eliminating policing by downsizing the force or defunding the agency. What in the world were the reformers thinking? It is difficult to answer this; they seem not to have been thinking at all. From the beginning of time there have been people who have taken advantage of and harmed others. Police forces were created in every society, large and small, rich and poor, to protect citizens, and governments have had the responsibility of ensuring that the protection was effective. The notion that reducing or eliminating policing will improve public safety is as absurd as the idea that closing hospitals, schools or government agencies will improve their services to the public. If policies are unsound, they should be changed; if the policies are sound but some employees are violating them, those employees should be fired.

A third example is college administrators’ attitude toward learning

For most of the past century, learning was understood to mean increase students’ understanding of a subject. Accordingly, they were encouraged to keep their minds open as they encountered unfamiliar ideas and theories. This entailed learning to withhold judgment until they had compared and evaluated conflicting views. Judging rashly thwarted the process. Of course, professors who were themselves closed-minded thwarted it as well. Administrators had the difficult job of dealing with inappropriate behavior on the part of students and/or faculty. Not only has that job become more difficult in recent years; administrators have, in a number of cases, made decisions that make fair-minded people wonder,“What in the world were the administrators thinking?” Here are two cases in point:

Dr. Johnson Varkey taught science at a San Antonio college for twenty years. Then one day recently, while explaining “human biology,” he stated that life begins when a male sperm unites with a female egg and produces a zygote. The resulting chromosomes, he continued, determine the sex—xy for a male; xx for a female. At that point, as he later explained to Rob Schmitt of Newsmax, three students picked up their books and left the classroom. Subsequently, Dr. Varkey says, they complained to a college administrator about his lecture and he was fired. The college reportedly stated that their action was taken because he had engaged in “religious preaching, made discriminating remarks about homosexuals and transgender individuals, and used anti-abortion rhetoric and misogynistic banter.” The professor flatly denied those charges.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that his dismissal came after the students left his class in apparent protest. However, if the administrators simply chose to side with the students’ closed-mindedness over scientific fact, they did a disservice to those students and the college’s reputation. With careful thought and a modicum of courage, they could have turned a difficult situation into a learning experience for the students. All they had to do was invite them to find a reputable scientist that disagrees with the professor and then show their findings to the professor. Of course, they would have found no such evidence and thus learned a valuable lesson—that thinking people don’t coddle their feelings; they test them for compatibility with truth.

Penn State University administrators reportedly demanded that Zack DePietro, an English professor, teach his students that “the English language is ‘White Supremacy” and a “Religious Cult,” and when he refused to do so, they fired him. [Fox News, 6/27/23] What were they thinking? It is hard to tell, but they surely did not consider that their demand violated the very purpose of teaching—to train minds to think logically rather than filling them with political slogans or propaganda.

Yet another example is the practice of allowing biological men to compete in women’s sports

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating that any school that receives federal money either allow biological boys who identify as girls [emphasis added] onto the girls’ sports team, or else face the loss of that money, without which the school cannot survive.” Some states passed laws rejecting the mandate, but a number of news agencies supported it, as did the National College Athletic Association (NCAA).

What in the world were all these people thinking? The best I can figure is something like this: “Whatever we ‘identify’ as is what we are, so boys who identify as girls should be allowed to join girl’s swim teams.” There’s nothing wrong with entertaining such an idea (or any other idea), but the next step, a crucial one, is to question it by asking whether people really are what they identify themselves as. Might they be confusing wishing with reality? Might they be delusional? The next step is to consider whether approving biological men’s requests to compete in women’s sports would have any negative effects; for example, giving men such an unfair advantage that women are discouraged from competing in sports. Also, to consider whether the rationale, if applied elsewhere, would produce even more questionable results. For example, middle-age men competing against children in Little League or even in Tee-Ball, or be eligible for ballerina roles in dance groups, or to be allowed to serve as nuns in convents.

If President Biden and his staff had thought carefully about his idea before acting on in, they would have recognized it as foolish and spared countless women athletes unimaginable frustration and disappointment. And even if they ignored common sense, thoughtful criticism by the media and the NCAA could have diminished the harm done to women. As it was all of them behaved irresponsibly.

In all these cases, the people involved were either careless in their thinking or didn’t think at all but instead followed their feelings or impulses. Unless the schools and colleges return to teaching critical thinking in their courses, as they did several decades ago, and the public demands it of leaders in every field, we can expect dramatic increases in the unfortunate consequences and attendant misery described here.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero