Mark Yuray is stirring up the waters with his latest post, “Rote learning Rocks, Critical Thinking Sucks“. It’s one of those berserk, no-holds-barred, fuck-everything-that-has-ever-existed assaults on a major progressive meme, so it is to be respected for that reason alone. Rock on, Yuray!
That said, in his desire to slaughter this sacred cow, he goes a bit overboard and swings his pendulum of death a bit too far to the other side.
His first step is to point out that the end results of what progressives say they are trying to promote with “critical thinking” are eerily similar to the consequences of intelligence:
I have a reactionary’s contempt for this new notion. Let’s review what critical thinking is supposed to cover:
– Solving complex problems
– Organizing information
– Communicating ideas
– Questioning dogma critically
Interesting. It almost sounds like someone who goes through “critical thinking” education is supposed to come out intrinsically more intelligent. Reminder — the elements of an IQ test:
– Verbal comprehension
– Working memory
– Processing speed
– Perceptual reasoning
Yuray makes a very proper point here: that what progressives are actually fetishizing is intelligence (this seems like the proper point to remind everyone that it was originally the progressives who promoted the idea of eugenics to bring about a smarter population). Yuray makes a mistake, however, in conflating “intelligence” completely with “critical thinking”.
Intelligence is a natural property. Critical thinking is what you do with it.
Think of the mind as a vehicle. Intelligence is the engine. Critical thinking is all the parts that transfer the energy of the engine to the rest of the car. The set of parts you get at first can be made more efficient, but they are not the engine, and the engine is not them.
The first two qualities that Yuray mentions “Solving complex problems” and “Organizing information” in particular can be improved by focused instruction in various schema and logical algorithms designed to aid one in achieving those ends. Intelligence is certainly needed to solve complex problems, but having a varied set of tools in your mental toolbox is also a boon. To use a fairly dramatic example, think of how well you could solve various complex problems if you did not have math and language as your tools.
Courses and even university degrees in “Public Speaking” and “Leadership” already exist (despite the fact that both are obviously inborn abilities) and the whole educational system from kindergarten to doctorate programs rests largely on the assumption that all students have the potential to become intelligent, and are all equally capable of doing so.
I spent four years doing high school theater. I’ve seen what happens when you take a shy, nervous, tongue-tied person who can’t even string a cogent sentence together in casual conversation and teach them how to breathe, how to enunciate, and how to pace themselves. I’ve personally trained shy, nervous, tongue-tied people in how to breathe, enunciate, and pace themselves. I’ve seen the dramatic improvements they made not just in stagecraft, but in public speaking. I tell you now that anyone who says that you can’t teach public speaking is flat-out wrong.
Public speaking is one of the oldest subjects to have been taught. The Greeks did it. The Romans did it. Men like Demosthenes would spend hours each day training themselves in the art of public speaking. The reason they devoted such intense energy and devotion to mastering the craft is public speaking is exactly because it can be taught and it can be mastered.
Yuray says that public speaking is like critical thinking in that it cannot be taught. I say that critical thinking is like public speaking in that it can be taught.
If Yuray wants to make the argument that a man’s absolute potential in such matters is innate, he will face no disagreement from me. I firmly believe that not only is potential fixed, but that most people do not have the potential to be good at “critical thinking” (or public speaking, but here I digress too much). His argument, as stated, is that not only our potential is fixed, but that our ability to make good on our potential is as well. I think this is absolutely incorrect.
The best reading I can give of his stated position is that education can’t improve someone’s potential, it can only give them an opportunity to make good on it. I would agree with this completely. Perhaps Yuray meant to say this, but I will not be so condescending as to put words in his mouth. I refuse to disrespect him by acting as if he is incapable of clarifying something if he so chooses. For what it’s worth, I think he means what he says and said what he meant, which is praiseworthy, not shameful.
I agree with Yuray at least 90% here. Progressive insistence on educating everyone to become critical thinkers is horribly misguided. Critical thinking is, for the most part, something that cannot be improved. My sole point of departure is that I believe that certain aspects of critical thinking can be improved in certain individuals.
Not everyone has the innate capacity to be a surgeon, but those who do can end up doing a hell of a lot of good for the world if that potential is nurtured and developed. Practice is without doubt the most important factor, but that doesn’t mean that properly applied instruction cannot expedite the learning process.
Olympic athletes do not win medals based on genetic potential, though they absolutely need that to succeed. They leverage their innate ability with intense practice and carefully chosen coaches to help them know how they can progress even more quickly. I view critical thinking in much the same light, with the caveat that winning an Olympic medal is dependent on many factors and critical thinking boils down to just two (innate intelligence + the schema & logical algorithms you are applying).
Finally, I would like to end this piece by saying that although I do not agree fully with Yuray on the topic of critical thinking, I do agree with him that there is much to be gained from rote learning, and that for people who are already fairly rigorous thinkers, this is probably the avenue down which they should direct their energies. I myself like to memorize poetry, and the first poem I ever memorized was Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice, which I recommend as a nice, simple start for anyone who wants to get into this habit.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
VIVERE EST COGITARE