It’s time to critique “critical thinking”

“Critical thinking” has become a new panacea—society’s go-to antidote to the spread of fake news, the rise of populism, and the AI-driven atomization of our social media feeds. If no one should control which messages get published and spread (given the priority we place on free speech), then everyone should at least possess the skills to judge the logic and legitimacy of the messages they consume.

And how do we develop those critical thinking skills? Education, obviously.

Yes, the power of lies to mislead whole sections of society may be a big problem. But education can solve it.

Individual fault? Or systemic failing?

That is a comforting thought.

But here’s a discomfiting one. What if “critical thinking” isn’t just a discrete skill that can be taught or trained in individuals? What if it’s also an emergent property of society as a whole—the same way that “intelligence” is an emergent property of the brain, or that “niceness” is an emergent property of certain communities, like Minnesota, USA or Gothenburg, Sweden?

What if the popular power of obvious lies isn’t due simply to the failure to teach specific skills well enough, fast enough, to consumers of social media? What if the real problem is some sort of systemic failure?

Critical thinking requires complex truths

In order for us to exercise strong critical thinking skills as individuals, society needs to supply us with diverse ways of getting at truth. Scientific truths. Moral truths. Economic truths. Historical truths. Rational truths…Thinking critically isn’t just about sorting “truth” from “lies”; it’s often about recognizing that someone is trying to persuade us with just one of these truths (e.g., “Policy X will create significant economic benefits“), then complicating their argument by drawing upon other truths that also merit a hearing (e.g., “But X is the wrong thing to do“).

My years living in China and studying its political system drove home for me this whole-of-society view of where critical thinking comes from. When a single sector of society—in China’s case, the government—lines up all the other engines of truth-making (religion, science, academia, the elites, the peasantry, the media, the market, etc) to generate the same truth, just imagining ways to complicate the clear logic of Policy X can be hard. Finding other people who think your critique merits a hearing is even harder.

Simple truths make lies look legitimate

In an autocracy, the truth is simple—and stays simple. Monopolizing truth is the autocrat’s easiest way to maintain order.

But in a democracy, if a single sector manages to gain a monopoly on truth, society can be thrown into total confusion. The reason is free speech, and the value we put upon it. Think about it. If all the engines of truth-making in a free-speech society stand together on one side of a debate, then it becomes very hard to tell whether that lone free-speaker on the other side is a truth-teller or a demagogue. The truth-teller is someone who is bravely speaking an unpopular truth that has been suppressed because the mainstream finds it inconvenient (Al Gore’s climate campaigning comes to mind). The demagogue is someone who is speaking lies to rally people against the mainstream, in order to profit from the ensuing social chaos.

Both speakers are standing up to challenge a consensus, which in a free-speech society is an act imbued with a certain indiscriminate “merit.” Put another way: When the truth becomes tyrannical, lies start to look legitimate.

And I wonder if this isn’t precisely the confusion in which many democracies now find themselves. I have a hunch that before “Fake News!” became a populist rallying cry, “the truth” had already become too uniform, too simplistic, too monopolized, for our own good.

If that hunch is right, we don’t just need “critical thinking skills.” We need to find and break up that truth-monopoly. If the goal is to produce a society of critical, free thinkers who are not easily convinced by social media or their social group, then society must serve up a truth that is complex, many-sided and endlessly contested. And that means each engine of truth-making needs the autonomy to embark on its own search for truth.

Divided—but in the wrong way

But surely, many would say, we already have that.

Have you seen the state of our politics?!?

Society is more divided than ever by separate “truths”!

My reply would be, “Yes, but we’re divided by lies, not truths. By demagogues, not truth-tellers. And that’s the problem.” (The easiest way to spot the difference is that the truth-teller tries to complicate the truth: “Okay, yes, some Central American migrants to the US do commit violent crimes, but statistically they’re less likely to do so than the average American.” The demagogue tries to simplify the truth: “They’re terrorists!”)

This is not an easy fix. It involves taking a long, hard look at how the truth gets made in society today, and why it’s no longer complex enough to contain all our conversations. But if there’s a silver lining to society’s present-day dysfunctions, it’s that now it’s much easier to see what needs fixing. Deep concerns that were once painfully abstract now reveal painful, concrete consequences.

Is the academy still free?

Take, for instance, society’s core engine of independent truth-making: the academy. Is the academy still free to find its own truths? And if not, what truth has been lost and what real harm has been done?

Classically, the academy has a designated role to play in keeping democratic society from getting too comfortable in its own truths. Just as the ideal role of the justice system is to be blind—to apply the laws that society has set without bias—so the ideal role of the academy is to be naïve, and always ask society “Why?” Even when the answer’s obvious to everyone else.

In this idealized role, the academy performs a public service. By seeking knowledge for its own sake, it adds an independent, evidence-based truth-engine to the fabric of society. It’s free to shake up prevailing wisdom, social taboos and popular groupthink with an aloof curiosity that is faithful to its own logics and principles.

This academy-as-public-good is worthy of public support. In practice, that support level varies. Among the rich democracies, Germany’s academy enjoys one of the highest levels of hands-off public funding. In Germany, university students pay as little as €200 a term in tuition fees. Instead, most of the sector’s core funding is constitutionally guaranteed by the country’s sixteen states, with the federal government allowed to pitch in on a project-by-project basis only. Given Germany’s 20th-century experience with dictatorship, in which the academy—like all truth-engines—was made to serve Nazi ideology, Germans have taken steps to insulate their academy from outside influences.

From public good to private investment

The German model—publicly funded higher education—is rapidly becoming the exception. Most other advanced democracies, including the whole Anglo-American sphere, have reimagined the modern academy to be, not a separate truth-engine free to govern itself by its own logics, but rather an integrated sector of the knowledge economy (governed by the market).

By this (“neoliberal”) thinking, the benefits of higher education flow mainly to those who study and do the research. So, it makes more sense if the users (students), not the general public, pay the larger share of the cost of their education. And for the remaining (public) share, far from being hands-off, it makes more sense for the government to be a hands-on overseer of how public monies are spent by the academy. The public’s return on investment into the higher education sector needs to be made clear and measurable, so that taxpayers can be assured that their money is well-spent—or, if it’s not, so that they can choose to spend it elsewhere.

Exposing the academy to signals like these enables the invisible hand of the competitive marketplace to do its good work: weeding out the poor service providers, driving out waste and inefficiency, and stimulating innovations—all of which will increase the overall value and usefulness of higher education to society.

In a very short time (say, since the days of Reagan and Thatcher), these market logics have come to dominate how the rest of society looks at the academy—and, increasingly, how the academy looks at itself.

The value of a university comes down to its ability to meet workforce needs. The success of an academic comes down to how much grant-money and investment her research attracts. The success of a degree program comes down to the future earnings of its graduates. (Degree programs that don’t produce high-earning graduates are socially impractical and economically wasteful—and, at the student level, irrational, since they burden the student with high levels of debt and limited prospects of ever paying it off.)

There are other judgments we might make of the academy, in service of other values, but it seems quixotic, naïve, even arrogant to defy the way the world obviously works.

Systemic sameness

In the real world we inhabit, it is vital that the modern academy be an engine, not just of truth, but of the economy. This seems obvious.

And yet, if we accept the capture of the academy by market logics, by government oversight, by private investment and philanthropy, then we are also accepting less argument, and more monopoly, over “truth” in our society. We are accepting less critical thinking and more systemic sameness. We are accepting less of the kinds of truth that can’t be measured, and more of the truths that can be measured—and therefore priced, and therefore traded in the marketplace.

So what? Who cares? At least the work of judges, who likewise traditionally enjoy “tenure,” intersects directly with the lives of citizens in ways that makes us appreciate their independence. But the work of academics rarely does. “The academy” has traditionally held itself so aloof from the rest of society that most of us are oblivious to the fact that academic freedom has, over the past few decades, slowly but surely become shackled to market signals. (What do academics actually do, anyway?)

Is this just the tea-time anxiety of political philosophers sitting high in their ivory towers? Or is something real and important being lost here?

Losing trust in the mainstream

For decades now, academics across the democratic world have written and spoken out about how market logics and managerialism are polluting the capacity of the academy to serve its public function as an independent truth-seeker. But it’s always been hard to communicate this loss to the rest of society, if indeed there is something being lost.

Now, however, in a moment when “mainstream media” is widely panned as biased and demagogues shrug off as “fake news” any truths they find inconvenient, we can more easily see the consequences. An academy that merely repeats the truths being told by the market and/or by government lends credence to the complaint that the truth has become tyrannical and can no longer be trusted.

Exhibit A: Public debate on immigration.

Ever since the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, up to the present US debates on border security, immigration has been the site of the sharpest, starkest lies. It’s also the site where truth should be a complex, many-sided and endlessly contested morass of morality, economics, history, culture, reason and psychology.

Given that complexity, and given the academy’s societal role as a complexifier of truth, it’s extraordinary that much of the higher education sector has begun to take a public, unambiguously pro-immigration stance—almost entirely on economic grounds. (See, for example, this recent white paper by Universities UK, which is “the collective voice of 136 UK universities.”)

I happen to agree entirely with the white paper—my own, published stance is radically pro-immigration—but I also recognize that my stance demands serious rebuttal from multiple angles. Instead, what we’re given is a clear example of how society’s diverse truth-engines are failing to generate diverse vehicles for getting at truth.

An undisclosed conflict of interest

Why this failure? The most immediate explanation is that the collective voice of the academy now copies market logics.

Across the Anglophone world, as public support for higher education has fallen, universities have increasingly looked overseas to foreign students (to whom they can charge higher tuition fees) to make up the difference. In the United States, foreign student enrolments have doubled since the mid-2000s. By some reports, the Australian academy now depends on foreign students for one-quarter of its total budget.

A shift in public sentiment toward less immigration-friendly government policies doesn’t just compromise the global circulation of brains and ideas; these days, it threatens the academy’s whole business model.

In the legal system, a judge is expected to recuse herself in the face of such conflicts of interest. Or at least she should reveal the conflict, so that society can view her judgement in the light of that context. The academy, by contrast, in wading into the immigration debate hasn’t been transparent about its own stake in the outcome.

Nor has the academy been frank with the wider public about the mixed results of its efforts to increase the foreign-student intake into the academy. The public story is that everyone wins. Universities become more cosmopolitan places, home to the world’s best minds. Students get to live their best lives, with the opportunity to develop their talents to the full. Society attracts the next Sergey Brin to create wealth and jobs here.

That story may be true—in part. But it’s incomplete. A new three-way market has emerged, with corrupting incentives for each participant.

A critical (cynical?) perspective

The university participates in this market to get money. And this market is highly competitive. There’s a limited pool of foreign students that can afford to pay very high international fees. So admission standards are locked in a race to the bottom. (e.g., All Anglophone universities demand a certain level of English proficiency, but most also relax that requirement if an applicant is willing to pay $X more for a preliminary half-year of overpriced English language training.) And academic rigor takes a backseat to market appeal. Research degrees are self-directed, ambiguous and difficult; taught degrees are step-by-step journeys toward marketable credentials. So more academic resources get shunted into taught degrees with sexy titles and big foreign enrolments.

The student participates in this market to get a visa, to get residency, and to get work. The stereotypical foreign student is on a free ride paid for by wealthy parents or government scholarships. Crazy rich Asians. The typical foreign student took on significant financial risks to buy into a potentially life-changing opportunity for her and her family: spending life savings, borrowing money from relatives and banks, and rarer but, yes, paying bribes or committing visa fraud. Their top priority isn’t a higher education. It’s a credential—followed by a job, followed by permanent residency.

Sham universities have sprung up to serve this market. They do away entirely with the pretense of academic study. They set up however much of a public profile is needed to fool immigration authorities (who, especially in the US, have limited budgets for due diligence) and collect tuition fees from sham foreign students who get absolutely nothing in return—except for a successful visa application. (In January, 2019, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency revealed that one such sham university was actually their own sting operation—from which I infer that the practice has now become so widespread, it is actually easier to catch would-be “foreign students” than it is to shut down domestic so-called “universities.”)

The local economy participates in this market to get labor—casual, vulnerable labor. First-in-line to exploit this labor is often the university itself (which is not only a place of learning, but also a big local real estate company and employer). In the US, most foreign students arrive on an F-1 class visa, which prohibits them from working off-campus. Plenty of studies have illuminated how universities exploit this ample, trapped labor pool to do a range of part-time jobs around campus at low cost without benefits: admin, cleaning labs and offices, staffing food courts, etc.

This (mostly hidden) migrant labor market regularly puts vulnerable migrants in situations ripe for abuse. It dampens the wage-bargaining power of workers in the local service economy. And it further pollutes the academy’s position as an independent truth-engine when it comes to one of society’s most profound and divisive questions.

The big questions

The larger point here is to illustrate, by way of this concrete case, that the critical thinking capacities of democratic society may be weakening at a systemic level. And while we moan about the flashy phenomenon of “fake news” and urge schools to jam “critical thinking skills” into the curriculum, we may be missing the bigger story: the slow, creeping monopolization of truth.

Here are three questions that I think we should sit with:

  1. Is society’s capacity for independent critical thought weakening?

Is the logic of the market taking over too many domains, such that it’s almost impossible to argue against “economic truth”? If this is happening in the academy (supposedly, the most independent thought-zone of society), where else might it be happening? (My hypothesis would be: everywhere.)

Or maybe that’s a good thing? Perhaps we should embrace the market as the best neutral “arbiter of social destiny.” (I can’t remember who said that. Probably an economist. Friedrich Hayek? Personally, I’m in the camp of people who think that the market is not neutral. Most obviously, it weighs in favor of that which is currently being measured, and therefore priced, and therefore traded. It discounts the rest.)

  1. Is “critical thinking” the answer? Or is it the problem?

Count me among those who think it is the latter.

We call for more “critical thinking skills” to challenge the fake news and false reporting that is being used to mobilize support, action or votes. Meanwhile, insubordinate spaces—spaces where people can challenge the basic, governing logics of the system—are disappearing.

The crux of democracy’s problem right now, I think, is that the range of what people can debate publicly (in society, in the university, in the workplace) is far narrower than the range of what people think privately.

More critical thinking skills would be good. But they won’t do much good unless society can supply more insubordinate spaces.

  1. How do we tell the truth from the lie?

What’s the difference between the insubordinate truth that deserves a hearing, and the lie that has no place in society?

For me, the telltale sign is complexity. In any healthy democracy, the truth is going to be complex. If it’s simple, I’m suspicious.

So, if the question is: “Within the set of all possible futures, which one do we want to live in?”

Then the demagogue says, “That one!”

And the truth-teller asks, “Are we doing a good enough job of asking this question? Or have some answers become so dominant, that it’s no longer permissible in society to question them?”

Here’s a new phrase that I find more helpful than “lie” in this context: diseased reasoning. I define it as coming to a position by simplifying away relevancies.

What we want instead is to build a “community of dissensus” (not my phrase) that seeks to work through differences by putting more complexity on the table.