Wednesday 26 March 2014

“Critical Thinking Skills” and “Family Values”

“Critical thinking skills” and “family values”:  these days it is typical to imagine that these concepts are dichotomous to one another.  In the binary thinking of those people who espouse strident opposition to binary thinking these expressions are in mutually-exclusive opposition to each other.  In other words, it is assumed that if you have any “critical thinking skills” you cannot believe in “family values.” What strikes me is how much these phrases have in common.

What these locutions share is the fact that their literal, obvious, word-for-word, face-value meanings are no longer what they mean.  “Family values” doesn’t mean that you value family.  "Critical thinking skills" as taught in most universities aren't skills and rarely show signs of clear thinking, though they are invariably critical.  In both cases, these expressions have taken on a level of meaning that the essayist Roland Barthes calls “mythology.”  In simpler terms, their connotations (what these phrases suggest) have become more important, more widely and significantly understood, than their denotations (the literal meanings of the words).  

These days the expression “family values” tends to suggest (more than anything else) the value system associated with the evangelical, religious right in the USA.  This domination and precedence of connotation over denotation is confirmation of the theory associated with Mikhail Bakhtin that how words are used over time affects their meaning as much as the dictionary definition.  In fact, how they are used eventually becomes the dictionary definition. What “family values” has come to mean is a result of the fact that the expression has historically been used to oppose family planning (at the turn of the 20th century it was a crime to send contractive devices through the mail, for example) and as justification for denying employment to women.  “Family values” was another, nicer way of saying “a woman’s place is in the home.”  “Family values” could be used as a basis to attack not only abortion, but homosexuality, lesbianism and various forms of non-procreational sex.

Just as the expression “family values” has come to signal an attitude more than what the words themselves mean, “critical thinking” has become code for left-wing, materialist, feminist thinking and attitudes.  As it happens, I have always been of the opinion that if you exercise critical thinking skills they will eventually lead you to left-wing, materialist, feminist thinking and attitudes.  The problem, of course, is that if I as a professor profess my left-wing, materialist, feminist leanings and conclusions to my students and they follow along and agree with me, at no point are they actually exercising their own critical thinking skills.  I am understating the case.  In fact, university students are measured by the degree to which they reject and rebel against right-wing ideologies, patriarchy and idealism or dualism.  The problem isn’t with the conclusions, but with the process, which is basically that they are being taught a series of opinions as if they were religious dogma.  Having absorbed this teaching, students are encouraged to expect good marks for having the “right” opinions without having demonstrated the logical reasoning skills which led them to these conclusions.

The causes of this malaise are not abstract or purely academic.  The demise of what “critical thinking” should be was provoked by the rise of deconstruction and the concomitant, haphazard decline of university departments of philosophy.   Most of the theory which paraded under the banner of deconstruction was nonsensical.  I saw Jacques Derrida being interviewed on French television a couple of years before his death, and he seemed honestly embarrassed to be the father of deconstruction.  He insisted that it was not a theory of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore.  However, in true Derridean, deconstructionist fashion he subsequently used the word at least a half dozen times in answering the final question of the interview.  I came to understand what “deconstruction” was (and more importantly what it wasn’t) by reading John Ellis’s succinct monograph Against Deconstruction, published in 1989. 

As Ellis points out, when the promoters attempted to define it, they typically defined deconstruction as a attack on or opposition to “logocentrism.”   The challenge then became to try and understand what “logocentrism” was; only to discover that deconstructionists were as foggy and obscure about defining logocentrism as they were about deconstruction itself.  Here is Derrida’s comment on logocentrism from the opening sentence of his seminal work, Of Grammatology

[ . . .]  “le logocentrisme  : métaphysique de l’écriture phonétique (par exemple de l’alphabet) qui n’a été en son fond -- pour des raisons énigmatiques mais essentielles et inaccessibles à un simple relativisme historique -- que l’ethnocentrisme le plus original et le plus puissant, [. . .].”

In English, without the multiple parentheses:  “logocentrism:  the metaphysics of phonetic writing [ . . .] which was at its base [ . . .] not but the most original [meaning earliest] and most powerful ethnocentrism [ . . .].

I have done my best not to play games with the translation.  It is clear that “logocentrism” is like “ethnocentrism” and, therefore, to people like me who live in and admire multicultural society, logocentrism must be something bad.  The single sentence from which I have taken this quotation runs for 400 words.  (Okay, I only counted the first 175 and estimated the rest.)  No, I still don’t know what logocentrism is, but I do know that “logos” is the Greek word for “reason” and “logic,”  and that in the opening sentence of Of Grammatology, as run-on and gobbledygook-ish as it is, Derrida, by attacking reason and writing as Western prejudice, digs himself a hole that neither he nor anyone else can dig out of.

At exactly the same moment, that Derrida was turning logic, reason and clear writing into an object of suspicion, universities were following the established business model and downsizing the study of philosophy on the grounds of a lack of sex appeal.  Logic and reason, of which departments of philosophy were the crucibles, were being hammered from both sides.  The remnants of the collision are the glib or purple descriptions of “critical reasoning skills” on university web sites which bury logic and reason somewhere in the hinterland of a third paragraph or fourth priority.

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