Improving Rationality through Culture rather than Education

Last summer I got the opportunity to work with a Philosophy and Critical Thinking Summer Camp put on by Ohio State’s Philosophy department. My role was to figure out ways to evaluate whether the summer camp made any measurable improvements on the student’s ability to “critically think.” It was a great opportunity but a complicated role. By itself it is ridiculously difficult to really define critical thinking and then meaningfully measure any improvements in it. But, taken during a summer camp where we are constrained by limited samples and a need to make the testing fun and short enough that it doesn’t negatively impact the camper’s day, it is nearly difficult to get good, meaningful data. So we did our best with what we had. We went through IRB, created a basic battery of critical thinking tasks for the frontend and then backend of the week. Some of the results were encouraging. We saw students make meaningful gains in debate ability along with improvements on tests of motivated reasoning and cognitive reflection. But, for the most part, it was only a pilot. It may have helped inform the summer camp for the next year, but I wouldn’t count it as a significant dive into whether and how philosophy impacts critical thinking.

The question sounds pretty specific, but when you zoom out a little it’s clear that the question is actually about the fundamental problem in education: how can we use education to improve student critical thinking? Many people push “critical thinking” curricula into K12 schools, and many of my friends and professors push for more philosophy education in K12. We all want to make sure that K12 isn’t just some passive pushing of facts and rote memorization on kids. We want to make sure that what gets taught actually sticks and that it can actually be used to help kids navigate their life and be more rational, productive citizens. But, of course, that’s really hard.

Some people, like Bryan Caplan, don’t think that education has ever done this and don’t think that it will ever really be able to do it. In his book Case Against Education he argues that transfer learning — what we are basically talking about when we talk about critical thinking, or the ability to transfer lessons across subjects so that, for instance, our lessons in civics actually transfers to inform our decisions day-to-day — is basically impossible to do. For the most part, some people have it and some people don’t, but education and psychology doesn’t know how to actually teach transfer learning. They have been trying to do it for many years, and still no one has cracked the code.

This sort of view is deeply pessimistic, but sadly convincing in a lot of ways. Although we glorify education as this almost religious institution that is making our citizens better, although we think of our education system as absolutely central to our democracy, it isn’t always clear whether our system is truly able to make appreciable changes to our student’s ability to critically think and engage with the world. Now that is not to say that it isn’t impossible. It’s just to say that it is hard and it is hard to show how that happens in the economic and psychological data.

I would like to make a proposal for another approach for teaching critical thinking: don’t teach it, instead embody it in the culture and norms of your schools.

Though we weren’t able to draw many conclusions from the summer camp data, one thing was clear: students didn’t change their minds on almost any moral and political topics. We probed them on 8 topics at the beginning and the same 8 at the end. These were things like affirmative action, representative democracy, and abortion. With the exception of one topic, obligatory donation, the students unanimously buckled down on their original positions despite receiving many lessons about tools for rationality, along with lessons outlining arguments for and against each topic. You see this sort of thing a lot. Though you may think that teaching numeracy and logic to students may make them more open to evaluating and being open to the other side of a debate, it is often used to make their own arguments stronger. Truly changing your mind is very difficult.

Paradoxically, teaching straight logic and critical thinking can actually make polarization worse. So instead of doing that alone, I think you may be able to improve rationality by approaching it from the values and norms that students hold about rationality.

We typically value certainty and steadfastness from our political leaders. When a major figure changes their mind on a topic, we don’t applaud them, we think of them as a “flip flopper.” We pretend like this proclivity to changing their mind signals something about them being untrustworthy. Instead we tend to put a lot of value into stubbornness. Just look at Bernie Sanders. He is frequently applauded for having the same views for the last 40 years. Instead of thinking of that as insane, we somehow think that’s a worthwhile goal for other politicians. Not only is this completely irrational, it’s part of a whole slew of other ways in which we impress values of stubbornness and irrationality on our students. We literally construct norms that make it much less desirable to listen to other views and change your mind.

So, maybe, if you want to improve student rationality, you have to attack the culture that fosters the irrationality rather than trying to equip students only with the tools. We need to create new norms and values that can encourage students to make more informed decisions.

These values could be a whole host of things, but here are some easy ideas. (1) Highly value epistemic humility and devalue arrogance and assuredness. It should be okay for students to not have the answer, and it should become more normal for students to not take strong stances on moral and political questions. Agnosticism can be seen as a virtue, rather than just the trait of unreliable and dishonest people.

(2) We should highly value people who are able to change their mind, and devalue people who are steady in their convictions and opinions. This is a huge and horrible bias within our political media. We constantly create and then support hit pieces on people who have changed their mind and have denounced past opinions. When people get called out for unsavory things they thought in the past, they are often incentivised to defend themselves by saying that they were hacked, or that “it was just a joke”, or that “it was taken out of context.” What does this signal to students who are watching this play out in the media? It teaches that people can’t change, and that there is something wrong with those of us who do change and improve our opinions. That is toxic and as a culture we ought to not validate the muckrakers who try to divide us by playing off this awful instinct. Instead, we ought to renormalize the simple excuse that “I changed my mind and I’m different now.”

(3) And last we ought to value people who have limited opinions, and we should devalue those who have a strong opinion on everything. I am guilty of this. I have a pretty good understanding of a few things, but I am curious about everything and it can be easy for me to think that I have a worthwhile opinion on many things that I barely understand. I often have to take a step back and just realize that I’m full of shit in a lot of ways, and I need to be way less confident about the majority of my opinions. I don’t think it’s bad for people to have many interests, but I do think that, for whatever reason, we can sometimes overvalue people who have many strong opinions. That can signal that people need to be informed on a lot of things they probably won’t have the time to understand, so of course people often just internalize and regurgitate the views of the people they associate with. I see this all the time with education debates. People will frequently come in with extremely strong opinions about charter schools because they value social justice and the other people who value social justice don’t like charter schools. Talk to 90% of these people for five minutes and after hearing some boilerplate about “the evils of privatization” and how “charters gentrify the education system” you will quickly realize that they don’t actually even know what a charter school is. Mood affiliation is awful, and if we normalize having opinions on everything, we will most likely only make it more likely that folks will fall back on the ideas of their group.