Teaching Critical Thinking in an Irrational Age

Twenty years ago, when I began teaching writing, I tried to  teach critical thinking by presenting two opposing arguments and letting students work their way through each of them. I quickly learned that with certain arguments this led nowhere fast. Reason meet faith; debate over.

Many of my students are profoundly ant-intellectual. It’s not youthful sloth or ignorance or posturing, although there’s plenty of those things, youthful or otherwise, it’s a specific set of ideas they have been taught. It isn’t every religion, and it isn’t all Christian sects, but too many are raised to mistrust reason.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the Christian fundamentalist rejection of all substantive debate as such. This rejection, often termed the belief in the literal truth of the Bible, conflates faith with reason, and makes attempts to foment substantive intellectual discussion moot. It’s apples and oranges every time.

I think most of us deal with this problem by focusing on the language of debates that are more or less off of the radar of the Christian right. No more course sections on abortion, for example. The problem of Christian fundamentalist anti-intellectualism has only grown worse in the last decade, however.

We’ve reached a point, I think, where so much right-wing thinking is so dominated by this Christian fundamentalist thinking that much of our contemporary life seems off the table, from evolution to economics. How can you debate issues in evolution when one side believes the Earth is only 3,000 years old?

One solution is to find debates within arguments that are often seen as monolithic. The debate over gay marriage hides a less obvious critical  argument over marriage,  for example, a debate epitomized by  Queers for Economic Justice. It’s a good resource for framing a productive argument.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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