Education’s Struggle against Critical Thinking

By Alexander Pralea, Editor-in-chief

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From the onset of our educational journeys, we fall victim to a paradox: on one hand, we are free to explore all possible answers to an open-ended question, as each provides a different insight. On the other hand, we often believe that there is but one right answer; when expressing a personal interpretation, we tend to eschew an opinion opposed to the teacher’s, fearful of social tension or a lower grade.

Part of this problem is inherent to group dynamics. Social psychology illustrates that conformity compels humans to go beyond common sense or observations to fit in with the rest of the group. Therefore, subscribing to normative social influences is viewed as necessary to avoiding rejection or gaining social approval; at its extreme, this scenario motivates humans to follow authority figures, even when they know that such actions are wrong. Through the reproduced Milgram obedience experiments, social psychology has demonstrated that “I was just following orders” is a frequent ground through which normal, ordinary people carry out shocking atrocities. In these experiments, when encouraged or ordered to inflict increasing fake voltages on confederates, more than 60% of participants complied completely, going so far as to shock confederates to “death.”  Though this study demonstrated deception, stress, and other ethically questionable decisions, it supports the belief that orders by legitimate authority figures lead us to defy our conscience.

Still, even if we are in the small minority that does manage to write papers opposed to the beliefs of our teachers, we often unleash their unconscious biases.  By marking ourselves as different from teachers through a different opinion, we make them fall victim to ingroup bias, a favoring of their own group, at the expense of out-group members. Historically, this approach was evolutionarily beneficial; by forming deep relationships with one’s small social group, one could easily “otherize” enemies as “barbarians” and improve social cohesion. In today’s culture in which pre-existing tendencies toward normative social influences are exacerbated, this unleashes prejudice and in-group love rather than fairness and justice.

Throughout discussions with many of my friends and colleagues, I have heard repeatedly their belief that by adhering to their teachers’ views, they believe they avoid conflict and get better grades. Critical thinking is unnecessary; instead, regurgitating the teacher’s own words is the best way of getting the results we are conditioned to value (good grades, rather than actual learning). Though a large portion of this belief can be attributed to a desire to confirm, implicit bias still plays a noteworthy role in shaping our opinions and beliefs, especially about what is different or seemingly contradictory. Our educational system, therefore, is merely symptomatic of a broader, societal epidemic partly due to human nature. As a society, we have an obligation to undergo a paradigm shift in how we construct our social identities; rather than ignore the existence of implicit bias, we should focus on an education that limits bias as much as possible. Moreover, by encouraging critical thinking more than conformity in our educational activity, we can ensure that we stay open-minded to all interpretations and opinions, even if we may disagree with them.

Source: Meyers Psychology for the AP Course 3rd Edition

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