Like most Americans, I went to grade school. In grade school I memorized and regurgitated, with a heavy dose of socialization. Most of what I memorized was carefully chosen to avoid controversy and any challenge to authority.
Like some Americans, I went to college. As an undergraduate I mostly memorized and regurgitated, although a little of what I memorized was challenging to authority, and there was a tiny sprinkling of training in critical thinking.
Like a few Americans, I went to graduate school. It was here that I actually learned to challenge myself and others, to question and probe beyond distractions and rationalizations. Every proposition had to be supported, not with rhetoric, but with reason and evidence.
Think of how much of your adult life (if you aren’t an adult, take my word for it) is outside the realm of what you learned in grade school. You have to navigate through a maze of financial decisions and sales pitches. Every single day there are people who are trying to take advantage of you, to separate you from your pocketbook. Learning the rules of the economic game is usually a painful process of trial and error. Many of us never learn them. The same is true of political decisions. It’s not hard to vote against your own best interests, when politicians can exploit your own biases and tell you exactly what you want to hear. One might think that in this environment, our educational system would arm people to tools to defend themselves against this. But there is a problem.
Suppose you’re a 7 year-old boy and I tell you, you can’t wear your hair too long. I ask “why not”? You say, “Because I say so.” This kind of socialization of children goes on all the time. No reason is given. Children are coerced to obey authority without question. A lot of this is of course understandable. A small child isn’t usually aware of all of the dangers in the world, and a certain degree of conformity to basic rules is necessary to have a functional society. However, by the time a child is a teenager, they are more than capable of understanding the reasons behind rules. The time has long since past when recourse to authority without explanation is justifiable. Of course each child is different. But as a generalization this is true.
When that child becomes a teenager, they are only 5 years from being eligible to vote, and may very well get a job sooner. So do we get serious at this point about preparing them for the realities of decision making? On the contrary, as their hormones begin to rage, we get even more preoccupied with socialization and conformity. Instead of encouraging challenging questions and giving reasons for rules, we merely put greater emphasis on discipline and “responsibility.” How can a person have responsibility if they don’t have choice? We are merely indoctrinating them to an uncritical attachment to authority. Often, predictably, they will “rebel” by choosing the authority of their peers. Parents often see this as a rejection of authority, when in fact it is anything but. It is merely substituting one authority for another.
In order for a person in a democracy to become a functional adult, they have to achieve self-discipline. In order to be free, they have to have choice. Many people seem to be under the impression that freedom and responsibility are opposites. They are exactly the same thing, just expressed in different ways. Freedom does not mean “I get to do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts.” Freedom means EVERYONE’s rights are respected. The path to freedom is personal responsibility – consideration for the rights of others. The path to personal responsibility is self-determination – the ability to make one’s own decisions, rather than engaging in uncritical authority-following.
The question remains, why? Why is critical thinking always pushed aside? I think the answer is simple. Critical thinking is not good for business. Huge sectors of our economy are built on selling people things that are bad for them, or have no effect beyond that of a placebo. Whole industries are built on people’s fears. Many American businesses still depend on cheap human labor. Educated people tend to have low tolerance for being exploited. They see through half-baked arguments, faulty logic, and questionable claims. All of this is bad for business, if your business is persuading people to buy crap they don’t really want and don’t need. And I’m not just talking about goods and services. The same thing applies to ideologies and theologies. It’s easy to get you to vote for me, if I pander to your fears, your prejudices, and your ego. It’s easy to get you to join my religion, if I merely reinforce the baggage you’ve grown up with, tell you I love you and accept you, and give you a sense of belonging, especially if the “us” you’re joining is a highly select, very special group.
Edward Bernays is often considered the father of public relations. He considered the masses of people to be irrational and dangerous, due to the “herd instinct.” His solution? Public relations. He helped the tobacco industry overcome one of their biggest hurdles in the early 20th century – women smoking, particularly in public, was a huge social taboo. Many propaganda techniques, familiar today, were invented by Bernays – for example, making an advertisement look like a news program, with a “journalist” interviewing an “authority.” Bernays’ opinions about manipulation and democracy were not ambiguous. Here they are: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
This is not some radical philosopher or ideologue talking. He is considered the father of public relations, a man who pioneered techniques that permeate our society today. Since Bernays’ time, the underlying science behind public relations has become ever more refined. Politicians, religious figures, and businesses have developed sophisticated propaganda techniques that carefully market their messages, often using such things as focus groups and branding to appeal to people’s feelings, even subconscious, rather than their thought processes. The creation of large numbers of informed, educated citizens, armed with the weaponry of critical thinking, is an anathema to this.
In all honesty, the founding fathers did not trust the masses either. When the United States was founded, by and large only white males with property could vote. The founders rejected monarchy, but only because it was based on inheritance rather than merit. However, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the “natural aristocracy,” men who were intellectually and morally superior. These men should rule because only they were informed and educated, and the founders firmly believed that an informed, educated electorate was necessary for democracy. But the history of America has been an ever-widening enfranchisement. This has proceeded more quickly than ever-widening education, for the reasons I have stated above.
There may no longer be much room for the blissfully ignorant in American society. Many commentators have noted that jobs requiring little education are starting to fade away. Outsourcing has to a great extent eliminated many jobs in America formerly held by poorly skilled, poorly educated workers. Robots will undoubtedly take many such jobs in the future. But education that merely consists of specialized training for a specialized job does not necessarily translate into critical thinking skills. It may simply translate into having more money in your pocket and making you a more attractive target for hucksters and charlatans. It’s up to you to develop the skills to defend yourself.