Why We're Doing School All Wrong

...And what we should be doing instead.

Posted Sep 14, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Following his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Marc Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had committed suicide and, in consequence, stabbed himself in the abdomen—only to discover that Cleopatra herself had been responsible for spreading the rumor. He later died in her arms.

"Fake news" is nothing new, but in our Internet age, it has spread like a disease, swinging elections, fomenting social unrest, undermining institutions, and diverting political capital away from health, education, and good government. So how best to guard against it?

As a medical specialist (I am a psychiatrist), I have spent well over 20 years in formal education. With the possible exception of my one-year degree in philosophy, the emphasis of my education has been firmly and squarely on fact accumulation.

Today, I have little use for most of these facts, and though I am only middle-aged, many are already out of date, or highly questionable. But what I do rely on—every day, all the time—is my faculty for critical thinking. As BF Skinner once put it, "Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten."

But can critical thinking be taught? In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says that people with wisdom and virtue are very poor at imparting those qualities: Themistocles, the Athenian politician and general, was able to teach his son, Cleophantus, skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever credited Cleophantus with anything like his father’s wisdom; and the same could also be said for Lysimachus and his son Aristides, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus.

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates says that Pericles, who led Athens at the peak of its golden age, gave his sons excellent instruction in everything that could be learned from teachers, but when it came to wisdom, he simply left them to "wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord."

Unlike wisdom and virtue, thinking skills can be taught—or, at least, the beginning of them can. So rather than leaving thinking skills to chance, why not make more time for them, and be more rigorous and systematic about them?

Logic is a good start, but there is much more to critical thinking than mere logic. Educationalists often amalgamate thinking with logic, especially formal or deductive logic, which is basically an attempt to codify the most reliable or fail-safe forms of reasoning. True, logic is able to provide immediate certainty and the authority and credibility that goes with that. But logic is a lot more limited than many people imagine.

Logic essentially consists of a set of operations for deriving a statement from other statements. In a sense, it merely makes explicit that which was previously implicit. It brings nothing new to the table. The conclusion flows from the premises as their inevitable consequence:

1. All birds have feathers. (Premise 1)

2. Woodpeckers are birds. (Premise 2)

3. Therefore, woodpeckers have feathers. (Conclusion)

What’s more, logic is concerned merely with the validity of arguments, with the right relationship between premises and conclusion. It is not concerned with the actual truth or falsity of the premises or, indeed, the merit or relevance of the conclusion.

Reasoning, in contrast, is a much broader psychological activity which also involves selecting and assessing evidence, creating and testing hypotheses, weighing competing arguments, evaluating means and ends, developing and applying heuristics (mental shortcuts), and so on. All this requires the use of judgment, which is why reason, unlike logic, cannot be delegated to a computer, and also why it so often fails to persuade. Logic is but a tool of reason, and, occasionally, it can be reasonable to accept something that is or appears illogical.

The first few chapters of my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, examine logic and reason, their forms, and their flaws, starting with the basics of argumentation. But just as there is more to reasoning than logic, so there is more to thinking than reasoning, and the book accordingly broadens out to examine concepts such as intelligence, knowledge, and truth, and alternative, non-rational forms of cognition that our culture tends to overlook and underplay, including emotion, imagination, and inspiration. Let’s look at each of these in turn, starting with emotion.

With the decline of religion and traditional social structures, our emotions have come to assume an increasingly dominant role in our lives. It has forever been said that we are ruled by our emotions, but this today is truer than ever. Much more than reason or tradition, it is our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics, and our relation to money, sex, and God.

Yet, remarkably, the emotions are utterly neglected by our system of education, leading to millions of mis-lived lives. Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more. To control our emotions is to control ourselves, and to control ourselves is to control our destiny.

What about imagination? Imagination is the highest form of thought, almost divine in its reach. With enough imagination, we could identify and solve all our problems. With enough imagination, we would never have to work again—or, at least, not for money. With enough imagination, we could win over, or defeat, anyone we wanted to. But our imagination is so poor that we haven’t even imagined what it would be like to have this kind of imagination.

I’m lucky to have received a solid education, but one thing it certainly didn’t do for me is to cultivate my imagination. In fact, medical school, in particular, did everything it could to destroy it. In recent years, I’ve been trying to recover the bright and vivid imagination that I left behind in primary school. For that, I’ve been doing just three things, all of them very simple—or, at least, very simple to explain:

  • Being more aware of the importance of imagination
  • Making time for sleep and idleness
  • Taking inspiration from the natural world

Which brings me to inspiration. Think back to your favorite teacher at school: for me, a French teacher who wept silently as he read to the class from a novel by Marguerite Duras. The teachers whom we hold dear in our hearts, who changed the course of our lives, are not those who assiduously taught us the most facts, or fastidiously covered every bulleted point on the syllabus, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves and to the world.

Despite its importance to the individual and society, our system of education leaves very little place for inspiration—perhaps because, like wisdom and virtue, it cannot easily be taught but only ever inspired. Unfortunately, a person who has never been inspired is unlikely to inspire others. That is a great shame. The best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired; and if I could, I would rather inspire a single person than teach a thousand.

Our schools and universities and wider society privilege knowing over thinking, and equate thinking with reasoning, and reasoning with logic. This has done, and continues to do, untold harm. Instead of digging ourselves in deeper, we need to make more time and space for thinking. And we need to rehabilitate alternative forms of cognition, such as emotion and imagination, that can support, supplement, or supplant reason and return us to wholeness.