On Thinking Critically

In many ways, the following is a rejoinder to my first Halcyon Days post, Are You Too Smart for College?, but in still more ways it exists as a free-standing entity: a brief, critical treatise regarding the once-venerable “college education.”

Late last week, I posted to Twitter a paraphrased quote from Christopher Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. I said, “We have bought into the idea that education’s end goal is monetary enrichment, not [the development of] critical thinking abilities…” For reasons still a bit unclear to me, this prompted a small kerfuffle on my Facebook page, to where all of my “tweets” are posted automatically.  A friend and classmate of mine, Patrick Ip, whom I respect greatly as an absurdly ambitious and accomplished aspiring politician and education reformer, posited the following: [sic, all over] “Hm, what do you say to students that go through high school and are able to game the educational tests that are given to them. Thus, scoring high on exams like the SAT/ACT and state standardized test. Does that create critical thinking?”

I responded that the short answer to his final question re: the creation of critical thinking skills is “no.” Resoundingly so.  But to see why I responded in the negatory to the latter question, I feel obligated to unpack the former. “Hm, what do you say to students that go through high school and are able to game the educational tests that are given to them, [thereby] scoring [higher] on exams like the SAT/ACT and state standardized test[s]?”

To answer the first part of your question, Patrick, I’m inclined to believe that obtaining the skills necessary to “game” the educational tests is indeed “learning how to think” in the strictest confines of the phrase’s definition, but it is commonly understood–not only by educational reformers such as yourself, but by the greater academic community– that these exams are not only woefully incomplete in their scope (a concession made in favor of scalability), but that the type of thought processes tested for, those that are taught in test-prep courses nationwide, aren’t necessarily equivalent with what might be deemed “intelligence” or “critical thinking skills.” Allow the following quote from the book to elucidate my argument: 

When my son got his SAT scores back as a senior in high school, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math but is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated middle-class Americans do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Reivew–its deluxe SAT prep package costs $7000–who taught him the tricks and techniques of standardized testing. […] The tutor told my son things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting your time thinking about the ideas. [!] Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points, pushing his test scores into the highest percentile in the country. Had he somehow become smarter thanks to the tutoring? Was he suddenly a better reader because he could quickly regurgitate a passage rather than think about it or critique it? Had he become more intelligent? Is it really a smart, effective measurement of intelligence to gauge how students read and answer narrowly selected multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over them? (Hedges, 101-02)

If what Patrick means by “game” is learning how to do a standardized test, I’m inclined to say that this person wasted their time learning a very specialized skill-set that, let’s face it, has little resemblance to how one goes about a successful academic career. I’m also inclined to believe that we all know the sorts of people who really shined on standardized testing, enrolled in the proper extra-curriculars, attained leadership positions therein, dabbled in athletics and ran their admissions essays by their parents, English teachers, college-age siblings, and/or (in the case of a high school friend of mine) a Nobel Prize winning novelist, got into college, tried to play its game like they played high school and summarily and spectacularly failed.  Why is this? The methodology of high-school success–the find-and-fill-in model that can be applied with equal felicity to science lab write-ups, math problem sets, and English and history papers– simply does not work for very long in a college environment.  

If what Patrick means by “game” amounts to cheating, the same rule applies. A friend of mine at UChicago, a second-year who will not be named, was a fabulous student in high school. Talented in math and history, he teamed up with a friend gifted in English and Biology and another proficient in Physics and Chemistry. Each did the work for his two classes, distributed it among the other two to copy, and before exams or papers they would hang out and one would teach the others the required course material. This freed up quite a bit of time for the pursuit of extra-curricular activities and reviewing for the SATs. Again, one is at UChicago, another is at Princeton (allegedly “easy as shit,” according to my UChicago friend) and the other is at Berkley (“tough as fuck. lol.”). Cheating of this grand scale is difficult but possible in the first two years of college, after that it becomes nearly impossible and the student in question encounters the same brick-wall problem as the over-achiever.

If one answers the questions posed by Hedges with any honesty at all, one clearly sees that the current mode of standardized testing selects for modes of thought that might prove counterproductive to “the goal of a liberal arts education:” the genesis and nurturing of dialectic, integrative thought processes that go beyond the superficial search and recall of the ACT/SAT. These “aptitude tests” test for the brain’s Google-like capacity to undergo a keyword based search protocol of the most popular (most plausible) possibilities, find it and fill in the blank. Google often returns gobbledegook when we ask it for specifics.

 If Google is to the test-prepped brain, Wolfram Alpha is analogous to the immense potential of critical thought.  One provides a search engine, the other is a so-called “knowledge engine.” Google can’t properly answer the world’s questions. It will search for silly cat videos on Youtube, free pornography, and Wikipedia articles about the search term. Stephen Wolfram’s creation just might, and he can articulate his vision for the future better than I.


3 responses to “On Thinking Critically”

  1. Though SAT prep may not teach critical thinking (something I think cannot be taught, only learned), it can build a foundation of knowledge and confidence upon which critical thinking can be developed.

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  3. […] longer post, along The Halcyon Days’s vein of early summertime college apathy, is in the […]

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