Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is your question?

When I pick up the New Yorker, I first scan through starting at the back, because I am most interested in the cartoons.  With the rest, like the latest issue of the Scientific American, it is like any normal person's method--a progression from the front cover.

I am barely through a couple of pages, when I feel like I have already realized that issue's worth.  The "Forum" piece was all about critical thinking, and opens with the line that I always tell students in all my classes:
A democracy relies on an electorate of critical thinkers.
In every class that I teach, especially the introductory general education class, I often point out that I have a selfish interest, which has nothing to do with my paycheck. "I want my fellow-citizens to be able to think through" and, therefore, I am one insanely serious professional underneath the facade of a jovial personality, I tell them.  Democracy depends on critical thinkers is exactly what I, too, tell them.

But, what is the point in having such an essay in the Scientific American, right?  We need this in People magazine, on Facebook status updates, and in between television shows.  In the Scientific American, it is the proverbial preaching to the choir!

The piece hits even more of the same ideas I share with students.  The second line:
Yet formal education, which is driven by test taking, is increasingly failing to require students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions.
Oh boy, am in heaven, as opposed to the misery that often drives me to seek company!

I mean, only recently, I wrote in my note to the online class:
Education is not at all about the tests that the faculty gives, or about the grades you end up with, but is all about what you have gained in terms of knowing something about the world--whether it is the Subcontinent or genetics or Hegelian philosophy.  All these then help us create an orderly understanding, as much as possible, of the chaotic world outside.
Unfortunately, education--from the first grade and well into higher education--is so test-driven, so much so that a typical student's question is "will this be on the test?"

If that weren't enough, the "Forum" essay highlights the importance of informal opportunities to develop critical thinking.  Amen!  A few years ago, I wrote, in the context of Honors Programs, that learning happens all the time.  "A way of life" is what I called it.  Learning even at the dinner table:
[Discussions] related to a movie such as “Bend it Like Beckham” will evoke from honors students not only images, story lines, and details about actors but also ideas that might range from the physics behind the trajectories of the footballs kicked by Beckham to the transformation of Britain by globalization or the role of religion. A movie no longer is only a movie, and honors becomes a way of life.
All because of critical thinking.  The Scientific American piece concludes with the same points that I emphasize in my classes:
[People] must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions, about their own medical treatment, say, or what we must do about global energy needs and demands. For that, we have a robust informal learning system that eschews grades, takes all comers, and is available even on holidays and weekends.
As I tell them, education is not merely what happens in a class.  In fact, what happens outside the class is a lot more important.

Maybe I should hand every student in my intro class a copy of this Forum piece. Even if it means that as they leave the class they might toss the paper into the trash can.  As long as it is the recycle bin!

And I still have plenty of pages to read in the Scientific American.  Good for me!


Ramesh said...

You know why this is in the Scientific American rather than on People or Facebook ?? Only the readers of Scientific American care about this.

As HL Menken said "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Sriram Khé said...

Yep, getting the message across to the unaware is a challenge ...

For a lack of a better alternative, we will have to make do with the collective wisdom; I am trying my best to make at least a couple more people think about this ;)

Rob and Sara said...

Your efforts aren't wasted: The more people who learn to think critically, the greater the collective wisdom.

Baby steps.... Even though what we really need is a giant leap, we have to start somewhere.

Haven't seen SA in quite a few years, but I used to <3 it when I did.

Sriram Khé said...

About time you commented here, Sara, so that we can have conversations outside of Facebook too ;)

Baby steps, yes ... but, I worry that education is increasingly not even that much ... All I can say is: don't blame me for trying!!!!