At a time when so many are lamenting the degradation of public discourse, a conversation about how best to incorporate critical thinking into our schools is long overdue. Our civilisation might just depend on it.
Many years ago I gave a talk at the London Metropolitan Archives in which I outlined my reasons for rejecting the then fashionable theory of social constructionism in relation to human sexuality. In the coffee break that followed, I was approached by a lesbian activist, who claimed to have chosen her orientation as a means to oppose the patriarchy. She demanded to know why I would not accept that sexuality had no biological basis, even though I had spent the best part of an hour answering this very question. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ve already explained why I don’t agree with you.” “But why won’t you agree?” she shouted in response. “Why?”
Primary school teachers are familiar with such frustrated pleas. The anger of children is so often connected with incomprehension, a sense of injustice, or both. When it persists into adulthood it represents a failure of socialisation. We frequently hear talk of our degraded political discourse—and there is some truth to that—but really we are dealing with mass infantilism. Its impact is evident wherever one cares to look: online, in the media, even in parliament. Argumentation is reduced to a matter of tribal loyalty; whether one is right or wrong becomes secondary to the satisfaction of one’s ego through the submission of an opponent. This is not, as some imagine, simply a consequence of the ubiquity of social media, but rather a general failure over a number of years to instil critical thinking at every level of our educational institutions.
To be a freethinker has little to do with mastery of rhetoric and everything to do with introspection. It is all very well engaging in a debate in order to refine our persuasive skills, but it is a futile exercise unless we can entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. In Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, he relates an anecdote about his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. A visiting academic from America gave a talk on the Golgi apparatus, a microscopic organelle found in plant and animal cells, and in doing so provided incontrovertible evidence of its existence. An elderly member of the Zoology Department, who had asserted for many years that the Golgi apparatus was a myth, was present at the lecture. Dawkins relates how, as the speaker drew to a close, “the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said—with passion—‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red.”
This is the ideal that so few embody, particularly when it comes to the unexamined tenets of political ideology. We often see examples of media commentators or politicians being discredited in interviews or discussions, but how often do we see them concede their errors, even when they are exposed beyond doubt? There is a very good reason why the sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer opened his First Principles (1862) by asserting that there exists “a soul of truth in things erroneous”; but such concessions can only be made by those who are able to prioritise being right over being seen to be right. Too many are seemingly determined to turn difficult arguments into zero-sum games in which to give any ground whatsoever is to automatically surrender it to an opponent.
The discipline of critical thinking invites us to consider the origins of our knowledge and convictions. A man may speak with the certainty of an Old Testament prophet, but has he reached his conclusions for himself? Or is he a mere resurrectionist, plundering his bookshelves for the leather-bound corpses of other people’s ideas? Hazlitt expounded at length on how sophistry might be mistaken for critical faculties, noting that the man who sees only one half of a subject may still be able to express it fluently. “You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his chair and throw away his crutch,” he wrote, “as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and think for himself. He clings to it for his intellectual support; and his dread of being left to himself is like the horror of a vacuum.”
The natural human instinct for confirmation bias presents a further problem, one especially prominent among ideologues. Anything can be taken to support one’s position so long as it
is perceived through the lens of prejudgment. We can see this most notably in the proponents of Critical Social Justice, who start from the premise that unequal outcomes—disparities in average earnings between men and women, for instance—are evidence of structural inequalities in society. They are beginning with the conclusion and working backwards, mistaking their own arguments for proof.
Worse still, such an approach often correlates with a distinctly moralistic standpoint. Many of the most abusive individuals on social media cannot recognise their behaviour for what it is because they have cast themselves in the role of the virtuous. If we are morally good, the logic goes, it must be assumed that our detractors are motivated by evil and we are therefore relieved of the obligation to treat them as human beings. This line of thinking accounts for the more depressing aspects of the debates leading up to the Brexit referendum, in which prominent members of the commentariat represented the binary of Remain versus Leave as synonymous with Good versus Evil.