Thinking the unthinkable

Frank Furedi was the guest speaker at an event at York St John University today, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable: the Loneliness of the Critical Thinker in Higher Education (Exploring the importance of Critical Thinking in Higher Education).

As is often the case with such events, there was something of preaching to the converted. Nonetheless it was a worthy talk. Without wishing to undermine the need for skills (Furedi was quite clear we need skills), the main argument was that critical thinking should not be allowed to be hijacked by the current vogue for teaching skills. Indeed, the point is that critical thinking is not a skill as such. Furedi tended to consider it a broader engagement with a subject or field. And one member of the audience suggested we consider it a disposition. There is something vague in these formulations, but the underlying point is to regard critical thinking as a culture of engagement, different to a toolkit of skills to be applied to specific situations. Two of Furedi’s remarks illustrate this point, and raise concerns about the current climate, which has seen an undermining of intellectual life in general (see his books, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism; and Wasted: Why Education Needs To Be Saved From Itself). He noted that the current propensity in schools to push hard on literacy is having the desired effect of raising standards, but does little or nothing to raise children’s appreciation of literature and books general. In effect, literacy becomes more about handling information, than anything about reading and writing.

He also remarked upon the certification of ‘soft’ skills. Learning how to fix a car engine, do plumbing, or attend to a patient, are vital ‘hard’ skills we all need, or need access to. But there is a culture of offering training on pointless or overly obvious skills such as using a telephone or other so-called ‘people’ skills (as if somehow we weren’t quite a full person until trained up). As Furedi put it, what do you do on a telephone skills course, you learn how to dial and say hello? To make matters worse, at the end of these ‘courses’ you get a certificate, which he rightly pointed out is a perfect example of alienation. We are given back what we already possessed, but as if we have acquired a new skill or attribute. Should we feel grateful for this recognition? The certificate is an underhand way of disempowering us, because it gives authority to something we should have had authority over for ourselves.

Of course the problem is not simply about being controlled from on high, as if there is some group who exercise this power. The situation is far worse. We are all partaking in this system. In a seminar session following Furedi’s talk, one participant described a sign she had seen at a supermarket check-out. It asked the customer a series of questions to check up on the level of service (including asking if you have been greeted, offered bags, given a receipt and told to have a nice day etc). If anything on the ‘script’ is found wanting the customer is encouraged to make a complaint, with a free batch eggs offered as compensation. So, not only is the customer encouraged to catch the member of staff out, the whole ‘bad faith’ of a script being delivered is foregrounded as if a virtue. It is too simplistic to see this as the supermarket controlling its members of staff, since it is unlikely that the giving away of a batch of eggs is of any specific concern to managers. It is all just part of a vacuous process of customer service, in which we all dance however badly.  The whole thing reminds me of that wonderful line Woody Allen delivers in Annie Hall about ‘needing the eggs’:

It was great seeing Annie again and I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her and I thought of that old joke, you know … this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken,’ and uh, the doctor says, ‘well why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and, but uh, I guess we keep going through it…because…most of us need the eggs.

No matter how much we think about things, it is unthinkable not to want those eggs! So, how can things change? One participant asked Furedi how he felt critical thinking related to the rise in importance of the broader ‘student experience’. It just so happened he has written a piece for the Times Higher Education Supplement on this question, published this week. The case is very clear:

…the ethos of consumerism directly contradicts the fundamental premise of an academic education. From the standpoint of service providers, the customer is always right. It is not the service providers’ job to question or challenge the tastes and values of potential customers. By contrast, academics are often in the business of educating their students’ tastes and encouraging them to question their values. Indeed, one of the most distinct and significant dimensions of academic and intellectual activity is that it does not often give customers what they want. Academic dialogue and instruction does not provide the customer with a clearly defined product. It does not seek to offer what the customer wants, but attempts to provide what the student needs. That is why forcing universities to prove themselves to their customers fundamentally contradicts the ethos of academic education. (Furedi, THES, Now is the age of the discontented)

A significant facet of critical thinking is that it is rarely comfortable or stabilising, as such it is never really going to become institutionalised – indeed that would generally be a contradiction in terms. Put another way, critical thinking only exists because of the difficulties and inequalities that surround us. Critical thinking’s raison d’être is to stand up to the unacceptable and the unthought-through. It is that action of ‘standing up’ that is most particular to critical thinking, rather than offering up specific solutions – since solutions are only likely to need further critical attention someway along the line. Rather than asserting change (which will only ever likely be change for some and not all), it is more important we remain ever vigilant to what goes on around us.

One significant ‘goings on’ as we sat in the lecture theatre was the country voting in the European Election. A ritual vigil, at least a media vigil over the next few days will ensue, not least as the Prime Minister’s standing is as much implicated as are the seats in the European parliament. In light of the Election Day, the event organised a ballot of its own, to nominate the most significant Critical Thinker (in up to 30 words). A grand prize was awarded by Frank Furedi for the best nomination at the end of the day. Whilst it was a secret ballot, this was my entry:

Why her? (…and not him?)
Non-theoretical / theoretical
Palpable / inteligible
Pathos / Logos
‘Once upon a time…’
She speaks to me without opposition
Makes ‘me’ thinkable

Needless to say I didn’t win.

(In case you are interested, the winning entry was for Hillaire Belloc with:

He inspired the critical use of honey.
‘I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
It makes my peas taste funny
But it keeps them on my knife’

…so, there you have it.)


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