Revised: Critical Thought, Humility, and Wisdom in Education

(I have revised this post on the basis of feedback and deeper thought on the issue. I always appreciate feedback and correction; please continue to serve me in this way. As a result, I think I have a much stronger and better-written post, now.)

Probably the most frightening thing about getting an education, for me, is that it is wholly possible to go through this entire exercise while largely cheating the system.

I have said this elsewhere:

If you have not learned these two non-negotiable things by the end of your university education, then I would suggest that it has ultimately failed you: The first is the discipline of critical thought – the ability to think through a matter carefully, thoroughly, and with balance: to think responsibly and with integrity. The second is a permanent awareness of, and a commitment to respond to, the limits of your critical thinking: your biases, your weaknesses, and, most importantly, your pride – in a word, you must have learned intellectual humility. Paradoxically, it is only after this essential education that you are truly teachable.

The fact is, you can consume many ideas and facts, and give them back to your professor on paper, all without learning much very much of substance; these things enter your mind, you use them, and then they are gone – just like a shopping list. You can wholly side-step learning to think critically if you choose instead to be lazy.

At this point, having read an earlier version of this post, Dennis Venema (Ph.D. Biology) pointed the following out to me: “If that’s true, your profs are short-changing you. They should be testing you on your ability to think critically.” I think Venema is right to press me on this, and I think that I over-stated the possibility of actually going through an entire university degree without learning to think critically at all – so I appreciate the correction. It can happen, but it isn’t very likely. What I’m really trying to say here, is that although it takes some wisdom to engage in critical thought, it is yet possible ‘go through the motions’ of critical thought without learning important wisdom from the process.

So let’s differentiate between the two:

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating an idea with fairness and without prejudice. It means a rejection of both excessive gullibility and excessive scepticism.

A good illustration comes from Peter Kreeft, a prominent Catholic philosopher. He relates the following in a podcast concerning C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book, Till We Have Faces beginning at 26:50 (Although, this example has nothing to do with Lewis’ amazing book, which you should all read.):

“you can’t really answer any problem unless you face it honestly and go into it totally and deeply. […] an experiment I do in my classes often when we have course in philosophy of religion, and the question of the existence of God comes up: I ask the class, ‘How many of you think you can prove that God exists and how many of you are either sceptics or unbelievers?’ And, it’s always about half-and-half or one-third and two-thirds, so I say, ‘Okay, all of you who think you can prove God’s existence get over here; all of you who think you can’t – either because you’re sceptics or you don’t believe – get over here. And now we’re going to have a debate.’ And kreeft-bcthey separate and only then do I tell them, ‘Now, all of you, who think you can prove the existence of God, argue that you can’t, because there is no God; you’re the atheists. And now you who don’t believe, you be the theists; you give them their best arguments. They say ‘Why did you do that? That’s not fair!’ – ‘Oh yes it is. If don’t you understand the other person’s point of view, how do you have a right to criticize it?‘ Okay so they try. I’ve done this three or four times; the result is always exactly the same. I’ll bet you can’t guess what the result is: the theists, who are pretending to be atheists, win the argument; the atheist arguments are always stronger. The fake atheists’ arguments are stronger than the fake theists’ arguments. The atheists who are pretending to argue for God give ridiculously weak arguments for believing, but the theists, who are pretending to be atheists, give better arguments for atheism than the atheists could give. And then we have another debate: ‘How come that happened?’ So, the atheists who are pretending to be theists say, ‘That’s because you made us argue for this ridiculously weak position, like Santa Clause.’ And the theists who are pretending to be atheists said, ‘No, we’ve seen both sides; they’ve seen neither.’ And we argue that. Well, you know which it is.”

    • IfYouCannotArticulateThe theists in Kreeft’s class knew about both sides of the matter, but the atheists did not. I don’t think the atheists had employed critical thinking skills with respect to theism; therefore, I think that a good measure of being able to think critically is how well you understand a position with which you disagree: if you cannot clearly, fairly articulate a good, persuasive argument in favour of your opponent’s viewpoint, bring it into thoughtful interaction with your own, and logically demonstrate why yours is the superior viewpoint, then you are not thinking critically; more likely, you are a pawn in someone else’s argument and do not truly understand your opponent’s position.

Wisdom gives the reason for critical thinking.

The reason is that we must have mental humility: one’s assumptions may be wrong.  But wisdom also goes beyond critical thinking, into the realm of application – moral humility is necessary: one’s mental assumptions may still be wrong at this point, but, even worse, so may one’s life-application of the conclusions drawn from critical thinking.

So, while it is not possible to engage in critical thinking without at least some small measure of wisdom – namely, enough to know that you ought to understand both sides of a matter in order to understand the matter (mental humility) – wisdom is also required for the proper application of the conclusions drawn from critical thought (moral humility).

Having studied both in the sciences and in the humanities, I’ve observed that ideas can be treated just like equations; logic can be treated like math: it is possible to run a new idea through your mental machinery and generate conclusions just like points on a graph, all without actually learning or reflecting on anything beyond whatever subconscious impression was made on you by the process. You can forget the new idea just like you forget a mathematical function once you’re finished with it – or worse, you can wholly accept the new idea uncritically; excessive open-mindedness is just as bad as excessive closed-mindedness. It takes work to sit back and truly reflect upon what you’ve encountered, to evaluate it critically, and even more work – and moral humility – to apply it with wisdom.

The following story is illustrative. It is found in another podcast by Peter Kreeft, called “Pro-Life Philosophy” (Best to just find it on iTunes; there is also a text version here):

“I was arguing with a very intelligent pro-choice feminist and I argued, ‘Give me one argument that defends abortion that doesn’t also defend infanticide.’ And we argued for a while, and I felt it was going nowhere, but afterwards she came up to me and said, ‘You know, I didn’t think you could do this, but you convinced me, you made me change my mind.’ I said, ‘Oh really? Congratulations, you’ve seen the logic.’ She said, ‘Yeah, now I’m for infanticide.’ So, sometimes logic is dangerous.”

  • So, although this intelligent feminist was certainly had the mental humility to engage in critical thought, she allowed herself to go against commonsense moral wisdom: namely, she ignored the fact that it is wrong to kill an infant. And this sort of thing is precisely the danger that I am trying to underscore in this post: it is dangerous to never engage in critical thought – because you refuse to question your assumptions – but it is even more dangerous to go through the motions of critical thought, receiving the label of having become “an educated person,” while still, somehow, being blind to moral truth and wisdom.

Beginning at 48:51 in the audio version of the same Pro-Life podcast, Kreeft says,

The smarter you are, the more clever you are at hiding from yourself. […] You’ve gotta be very clever to not know something. […] There was a Harvard sociologist who, in the ’80s or ’90s, made a study of the people who actually did the work in the Holocaust – in the death camps – and she paralleled it with their level of education. And she thought she was going to show, statistically, that those who were more educated – whatever their beliefs for or against Hitler – were more reluctant to do the ‘dirty work,’ because they had sensitive consciences, or at least sensitive feelings, and that the ‘grunts,’ the ‘pig-like’ people did the dirty work. It was exactly the opposite…exactly the opposite: the more educated you [were], the more fanatically pro-Nazi you were, because they were educated in Hitler’s schools; the power of propaganda.

  • This shows that being educated can be a dangerous thing, for even if you have the mental humility to run through the mental machinations of critical thought, you may, in fact, lack moral humility; you may be simply arming yourself with greater resources with which to shield yourself from the possibility that your moral assumptions may be wrong.

My fear is that, in education, we can largely side-step learning to think critically and apply wisdom if we are lazy.

This can happen in a number of ways:

  • You can wholly ignore the opportunity to critically examine your own assumptions, and simply wave the banner of those assumptions throughout your entire education, dismissing alternative viewpoints whenever you encounter them. (Venema is right to point out that this would be a significant failure on the part of the professors, and this possibility is by far the least likely.)
  • Or, you can wholly abandon whatever assumptions you brought with you and accept everything your professors say to you. (This strikes me as more likely.)
  • But even more sinister, is the possibility that you do learn to “simulate” critical thinking – to others and to yourself – by merely running ideas through your mental machinery and writing the process down on paper for marks; it is still possible to lack the wisdom to actually be open to the idea that your assumptions could be wrong, even if you gain the ability to “mathematically” describe both sides of an argument, as it were. (This, to me, seems to be a reality in the world around us.)

None of the above is an education, in my view. But the worst part – the most frightening part – is that when you obtain your degree, people call you “educated,” and they think of you as wiser than they, or as having obtained some sort of authority. And then they give you jobs in government and other places of leadership. But instead of a wise person being in charge, you have someone who, by virtue of his or her education, is – ironically – licensed to be ignorant – morally if not mentally.

I would maintain that being “educated” is (or ought to be) largely a qualitative measure of having learned to think critically and with wise humility – not merely a quantitative measure of books read, papers written, labs completed and lectures attended. A general labourer who spends a little bit of time to read and listen to those with whom he disagrees, and learns to think critically and with humility, is, in my view, more educated than most. My definition of the word “educated” may need some work, but I do not think that my concern is unfounded.

Of course, some rote knowledge is important: I submit that no one has any business not knowing some basic history, geography, or politics in the Western world, and that there are also basic disciplines to which university students should be exposed (grammar!), but these words of wisdom still ring as true as ever, far above all projects of humanity, showing the importance of mental humility:

Prov 18:13 “He who gives an answer before he hears,
It is folly and shame to him.”

Prov. 26:12 “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

James 1:19-20 “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”

These are words of wisdom, and wisdom is the key – not mere knowledge of facts. What are you doing with your knowledge? It is not the untrained worker with a full set of tools who is an electrician; it is the one who can skin a wire and connect a breaker with his or her key-chain, in a pinch – right? Skill itself is a physical form of wisdom (cf. Ex 31:2-5).

Do not waste your education; use it as an opportunity to grow in wisdom – the skill of living life well, in accordance with “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8; I’m using it out of context.) use your knowledge and understanding in service of such things. In regard to making moral decisions, I think that wisdom is the skill of knowing how to act appropriately in the light of God’s truth, with an awareness of the limitations of the human heart (a.k.a. humility). I laid out the limitations of the human heart in my last blog entry:

We must take the warnings in Scripture seriously: we cannot trust our hearts completely (Jer. 17:9); there is a way that seems right, but leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12); many will surround themselves with false teachers, who tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3); “woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26); “all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Additionally, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

In conclusion, wisdom is the ground of critical thought, and it should also be its goal: we need wisdom in order to have mental humility – which we need for critical thought – and we need wisdom to have the necessary moral humility to apply the conclusions drawn from that critical thought in an appropriate manner.

How can we get wisdom?

Proverbs 2:1-6

My son, if you will receive my words
And treasure my commandments within you,
2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom,
Incline your heart to understanding;
For if you cry for discernment,
Lift your voice for understanding;
If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the Lord
And discover the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

“5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”