The three most important findings of the Grievance Studies Project and The Coddling of the American Mind are; 1) there exists in academia and in Western culture generally an incomplete and often inaccurate grasp of human nature, 2) the near abandonment of critical thinking in both places, and, as a consequence of these, 3) social policy prescriptions that often harm rather than help the very people for whose benefit they are advanced.
Findings 1 and 2 are, in my estimation, the two most significant causes of the political divide about which we can take practical, proactive steps to ameliorate, which should in turn cause improvements in the third.
This essay proposes one such possible action: a high school senior or college freshman course aimed at addressing all three concerns. The course is a practical How-To guide for implementing concepts and addressing concerns I’ve explored in my essays on Areo and Quillette: Understanding Human Nature is the Best Way to Fix Our Political Culture, The Water We Swim In: A Need to Look At Causes As Well As Effects, Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics, What The Coddling of the American Mind Fails To Spell Out. Book Review, and Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and its Postmodern Parentage: A Review.
In brief, the political left and right speak different languages because they think in different ways. The two languages use the same words but attach different meanings to them. Concepts like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness mean different things to each side. Left and right talk past each other without knowing it, and become frustrated and infuriated by the other side’s inability to “get it.”
This course offers language lessons. It provides a common platform of understanding and communication from which productive debates can proceed. The platform has three legs, consisting of
1) expanding and improving students’ understanding of human nature,
2) better defining the different concepts that underlie words used differently by each side, and
3) providing a system for critical thinking that both sides can use to support and defend their positions.
The course uses a two-pronged approach of classwork and student projects. The classwork improves the students’ factual understanding of human nature and of the basics of critical thinking. The projects put that knowledge to use through the application of an easy to follow step-by-step critical thinking system designed to address soft science problems with hard science rigor. With a better understanding of ourselves and each other and with improved critical thinking skills an increase in empathy for one another and a better ability to communicate with each other is practically guaranteed.
The course is tailor-made for a new initiative at Rutgers University recently announced on Twitter by Psychology Professor Lee Jussim (@PsychRabble):
Lee Jussim (@PsychRabble)
I had the most amazing meeting on Thursday. The Social Sciences Dean periodically meets with the chairs. There were 7 chairs there. He proposed a new initiative purposely NOT emphasizing diversity or difference, but, instead, Our Common Humanity.
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. This is why books, movies, and music are so popular; they resonate with us far better than does pure logic, which often feels cold, antiseptic, distant. Thinking in terms of stories and fables comes naturally and easily to us. Many stories, either directly or indirectly, communicate an essential truth about the human condition. There can often be more truth in a good fiction than in a stack of science books.
Critical thinking, on the other hand is disciplined, rigorous thinking. It does not come naturally. It must be learned. It requires a system – a practical step-by-step approach – that can be applied in the real world – which must be taught.
No matter how rigorous the thinking, public policies are likely to be ineffective if the facts upon which they are based are incomplete or inaccurate. Sloppy thinking only exacerbates the problem.
The classwork is divided into two main subject areas:
1) current state of the art understanding of human nature, and;
2) fundamental principles, tenets, and rules of critical thinking, argumentation, and debate.
I published an outline of suggested course content here. It’s intended to communicate the gist of my thinking and to flesh out the course in more detail than is possible in this essay, and to be a jumping off point for further discussion. It is not intended to be the final word on the topic.
The best summary of human social thought and behavior for the purposes of this course is the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. In it he describes the three principles of moral psychology, the evolved psychological mechanisms from which we get our intuitions about good and bad social behavior, the two main types of social thinking, and how left and right differ along these dimensions. By the end of the course each student should be able to name and describe from memory the three principles, the six moral foundations, the two cognitive styles, and how liberals and conservatives employ each of them differently.
Supplementary sources that bolster Haidt’s findings and add nuance and richness to the understanding of human nature include The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by Hibbing, Smith, and Alford, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, and The Cave and the Light: Plat Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Aurthur Herman.
A recommended source for the classroom work on the basics of evidence, argumentation, and critical thinking is A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston.
The seven-step process summarized below is a simple methodology that improves critical thinking. Detailed descriptions of each of the steps are provided in the book Management Decisions by Objectives by George S. Odiorne. DO NOT let the title fool you. This is a book about how to think critically.
Framing the Course
This course is framed by the following two questions:
1) Given our current understanding of human nature, what is the best, or the most, that can realistically be done to ameliorate today’s social ills?
2) How, in concrete, practical steps, can we go about doing it?
Question 1 necessarily requires an answer to the follow-on question:
1a) What do we know about human nature?
The answers to question 1a frame the answer(s) to questions 2):
2a) What are some reasonable, achievable, objectives?
2b) Which one(s) do we want to try to achieve?
2b) How do we know if/when we’ve achieved them?
i) What measurements can be taken before and after we implement our plan to evaluate whether or not it’s been
Only then is it possible to even develop a detailed plan, specifically:
3) The specific steps to be taken
ii) The sequence of the steps, including
iii) How to measure progress
iv) When to measure progress
v) How to if and when we’ve met our objective(s)
The flaw in most analyses today is that they never ask questions 1 and 2 and instead jump straight to answering question 3. We start developing solutions before we have even a halfway decent grasp of the problem we’re trying to solve.
And then, because we don’t have a firm grounding in what we’re trying to do and why, we argue with each other about how to achieve it, all the while talking past each other precisely because we never established any sort of common ground that would have been provided had we answered questions 1) and 2).
The seven steps I describe below happen to be the approach I learned. Educators may know of others that they prefer. That’s fine. But the bottom line is that critical thinking requires a system. Pick one and teach it.
That said, this particular method has served me exceedingly well. It has been a major contributor to whatever success I’ve had in my career. It is so ingrained into my thinking that it is always operating, as if on autopilot, behind the scenes of everything I think, say, or do pertaining to topics surrounding the partisan divide. This should be the goal of any learning.
Learning is the process of transferring information and methods from the rider to the elephant – from conscious reasoning to subconscious intuition – such that they become part of who and what the person is, and happen as naturally for them as swimming happens for fish. This is a major message of the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s also partly why a college degree takes four years. The way of thinking, the HOW, that pertains to any particular discipline, is at least as important, if not much more so, than any collection of facts relevant to the field. Facts can change. New facts can become available. Old ones can be disporved. Critical thinking is the constant; it MUST become ingrained.
Students should arrive at university already steeped in the principles and methods of critical thinking, such that they can then apply those methods to the discipline(s) they elect to study, and hone them to the sharp edge required for success in that field.
The Keystone of Critical Thinking
The crux of the entire process, indeed of critical thinking itself, is to develop a succinct answer to the question “What problem are we trying to solve?” This necessarily requires a crisp understanding of what we mean by the word “problem.” This is offered below.
The failure to ask and then answer this question with specificity is the central problem of the great majority of analyses of which I am aware. We tend to think the problem is self-evident, for example the absence of viewpoint diversty within academia. And so we jump straight to implementing the nearly equally self-evident solutions, like working to increase viewpoint diversity.
The fly in that ointment is that “what’s wrong,” amounts to moral intuitions of dislike, and the solution is to make that feeling go away. In the final analysis the entire approach is quite selfish; aimed more at making our selves feel better than at truly solving the problem.
What follows is an overview of a seven-step methodology for critical thinking. Student should perform each of the steps for their projects. Every step should be written as a separate section of a report. The report itself can be the project, or the report can serve as the evidence and argumentation that’s used to justify and defend the product being produced; e.g., a presentation, a policy prescription, an advertising campaign or a series of public service announcements, a syllabus for introductory classes for the younger grades (after all, one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it). The steps can be done iteratively. That is, the things students learn in later steps may cause them to go back and refine, expand, or otherwise improve earlier steps. Students should anticipate creating a report that’s about twenty pages long, and possibly much longer.
Pay attention as you read these steps. There’s more going on here than just following a mechanical process. Through this method students are learning to think critically. Many of the most important aspects of enlightenment norms of evidence and reasoning are built-in to this process.
Classroom lectures on the details of each step are essential. Topics covered should include what counts as facts or evidence and what does not, what constitutes a valid logical argument and what does not, logical fallacies to avoid, and how to listen actively. The books recommended above should help in this reagard
The Seven-Step Critical Thinking Process:
1) Facts: Document the relevant facts in an itemized list. Including
a) Background information pertinent to the topic at hand mined from sources like The Blank Slate, Predisposed, The Righteous Mind, A Conflict of Visions, The Better Angels of Our Nature, etc. The principles, data, and research that is the basis for the student projects.
b) Specific information pertinent to the circumstances of the student’s projects.
2) Objectives: Write a numbered list of the objectives. Objectives must be verifiable, which means measurable. For example, in the business world an objective of “to increase profits” is unacceptable. An acceptable objective is for 2018 profits to be 3% above 2017 profits after adjusting for inflation. An objective for a project in your class might be for your students to develop a plan through which every high school senior could pass a test on a) the most important lessons from The Righteous Mind, The Better Angels, etc. (i.e., to have a firm grasp of human nature), or b) this methodology.
3) Problem: One of the single most important aspects of this entire process is a crisp definition and understanding of the word “problem.” It is this understanding that provides the focus for everything else. Without a clear understanding of what constitutes a problem, and therefore a succinct answer to “What problem are you trying to solve?” there’s no particular reason to choose one solution over another. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”
For the purposes of this methodology the word “problem” is defined as either a) an unmet objective, or b) two or more objectives that conflict.
Review the list of objectives created in the previous step. Choose one (preferably) that you want to solve, or choose conflicting objectives that you want to deconflict.
State the problem succinctly in terms that allow participants to a) agree on it, 2) measure progress toward achieving it, and 3) know if and when it is solved.
The failure to perform this step is one of the greatest roadblocks to social progress. Instead, we jump straight to solutions, and then we a) fight tooth and nail over why our solutions are right and theirs are wrong, b) are shocked when the solutions don’t produce the desired results, and 3) blame the other guys for “not getting it,” or worse, for having nefarious intent and/or being evil.
4) Causes: This is where we try to separates effect from cause. The students are required to describe, as objectively as possible, WHY the problem exists; why the objective unmet, or why multiple objectives conflict. One “trick” that can be used toward this end.
Look backwards in time to when the problem started. Ask what else happened at that time. Of course correlation is not causation, but merely the process of asking and attempting to answer the question can produce Aha! Moments of epiphany.
5) Solutions: Brainstorm all the different ways the objective(s) might be met or deconflicted. Hint: One possible solution in every analysis should always be “Do nothing.” Identify how, if each solution, if selected, will be measured and evaluated against the objective.
6) Decision: Analyze the potential solutions and select the one you’ll use. This might be a combination of, or the best parts from, two or more of the candidate solutions. List the pros and cons, benefits and costs, of each candidate solution for effectiveness in achieving the chosen objective. Based on this analysis, decide which solution you’re going to use.
7) Action Plan: Develop a step-by-step plan for how you’re going to execute the chosen solution, when and how you’re going to measure progress, and how you’ll know if the objective has been achieved. Begin executing your plan. Monitor progress toward the identified objective. If progress is lacking or off course, redo the analysis and adjust accordingly.
The bad news is that much of the blame for political divisiveness can be laid at the feet of the education system for its failure to produce well-informed, clear-thinking citizens. Our general lack of information about why we humans do the perplexing things we do, and our poor preparation in how to think clearly, leaves us little option but to vilify the other side. The good news is that through that same education system we have the knowledge and the infrastructure with which we can address both of those concerns. The only question that remains is, do we have the will?