America Needs More Critical Thinkers
“The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” That warning comes from Dr. Timothy Snyder, author of Tyranny and professor of history at Yale University. Dr. Snyder may have faith in our modern society, but I tend to be more pessimistic. History has taught us how fragile democracies can be, but having that knowledge doesn’t necessarily protect us repeating the mistakes of the past.
That would take work, energy, time and critical thinking. American culture does not teach self-reflection. Here, we are not encouraged to think critically or creatively. We are taught quite the opposite. Our education system recognizes only the tangibles, such as math, science and business acumen. Rarely do you hear a child say they want to grow up to be a great thinker, a philosopher or a poet. Anything in society that encourages introspective thought is frowned upon.
Not long ago, Democrats and Republicans all believed in the benefits of higher education. Learning how to think critically, and question authority, was a bipartisan source of pride and common ground. Not true anymore.
Today, the GOP has set up a culture war between college-educated and non-college-educated people, and it has worked. In a recent Pew Research poll, 59 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents said they had a negative view of our nation's colleges and universities. To be clear, attendance at higher institutes of learning is not an indicator of intelligence. Intelligence is developed at a young age when one is taught these basic skills. But our children are not being taught how to be critical thinkers, and the consequences are beginning to show in alarming ways, most notably in the way wild conspiracy theories have successfully proliferated.
America isn’t the only country in the world that educates this way, but we do proclaim to be the most dynamic forward-thinking nation. In this case, we are not. We may or may not have been the greatest country in the world at one time. That is up for debate. But here is what is not up for debate. Nobody outside America see us the way we see ourselves.
What this nation is attempting is, in fact, extraordinary. Our “melting pot,” is an experiment other cultures have yet to accomplish. That’s why we remain a central global source of fascination.
“What we are actually endeavoring to do right now is to become a kind of society that has seldom, if ever, existed in history. Which is to become a majority-minority, democratic superpower,” said Anand Giridharadas of The Ink. Giridharadas argues that we want to be a country that represents the world, a country without a center of identity, without a default idea of what a human being is or looks like, without a shared religious belief or without a shared language.
This is reason enough to end this culture and political war. To truly learn from the past, as Dr. Snyder hypothesizes, we must think reasonably and critically. We should look at our past mistakes with horror, regret and hope for a future filled with neither. We should learn from other nations that have failed, and study what to avoid.
Imagine living in a country whose leading philosophy encompasses logic, reason and empirical observation? If that is taught, and our education system actually worked for all, it’s attainable.
We are rightfully the object of amusement internationally. How does a country with so much wealth have so many people living in third-world conditions? More than 10 percent of the population was living below the poverty line in 2019, according to government figures, and that was before the pandemic hit. How can a nation with so many top universities have such a large percentage of the population believing in “magical” thinking? For that to change, we must focus on rebuilding and rethinking our education system. We must reward our educators; give them fair pay, improved training and the resources they need to shape the future.
Do we want to be the greatest democracy in history, or do we want to end up a cautionary tale? We need to decide and elect people with a shared vision.
Remember, history is continuously being written. On which side we end on is up to us.
I know which side I want, do you?