It has become commonplace to say that we live in a post-truth era. But this is a misnomer. Truth will be just fine whether we believe it or not.
We, however, are liable to suffer from our disregard for truth. A more accurate description of our condition is that we have entered an era of unreasonableness.
I mean this in the literal sense where to be reasonable is to be amenable to good reasons. A reasonable person is a person you can reason with. Far too many of us are no longer amenable to reason on a broad range of issues.
Of course, many will agree with this general sentiment while thinking mainly of others who think differently than we as unreasonable. This is liable to be more a symptom than a diagnosis of our crisis of unreasonableness. I am just as concerned about the feckless middle among us, those who presume the way to be reasonable is to avoid ever taking a position on issues where views clash. Abstaining from reasoning, no more than reasoning badly, is not a way of being reasonable.
As dismaying as the advent of an age of unreasonableness may be, we can’t realistically expect people to be reasonable when they lack reasoning skills. Every conspiracy theory that distorts our society and every shoddy argument that undermines our ability to understand each other should count as an alarming data point for educators. Reasoning skills are teachable. We just aren’t doing a very good job of it, and largely for lack of trying.
A well-developed curriculum in critical thinking introduces students to an integrated suite of reasoning skills focusing on how to formulate, clarify and evaluate reasons as well as how to spot and diagnose the common errors in reasoning we know as fallacies. A well-developed critical thinking curriculum will instill these skills through tons of practice.
It will also include substantial reflection on the qualities of reasonable minds and communities engendered by cultivating good reasoning skills. A good education in critical thinking will alert students to the hazards of over-confidence, the value of open mindedness, and the socially cohesive benefits of learning how to understand people who think differently.
To be sure, many educators do try to teach critical thinking in one form or another. But at no point in primary, secondary or higher education do significant numbers of students work through a developed dedicated curriculum in critical thinking. It is as if we were trying to teach students algebra “across the curriculum” without the benefit of anyone taking an algebra class in the math department. A class focused on critical thinking skills would be invaluable, both to our students as individuals and in sustaining a free and open democratic society.
At Bellevue College, where I serve as chair of the philosophy department, we do offer a dedicated class in critical thinking where we provide students with a comprehensive and systematic introduction to reasoning skills. By and large, the course is only taken by students seeking entry into one of our IT related Bachelorette programs where the course is a required pre-requisite.
Understandably, students in other programs who are under intense pressure to complete a degree and get into the workforce don’t sign up for demanding discretionary challenges. Degree requirements matter. With few exceptions, colleges have no general reasoning degree requirement.
A good step toward addressing our intellectual public health crisis would be to implement a general reasoning requirement for all college degrees. This would have to happen at the state level, since any school in the state system that attempted to implement required critical thinking on its own would put itself at a competitive disadvantage with students seeking the shortest route to a well-paying job. Adding substantial dedicated instruction in critical thinking at the high school level would reach even more students.
Becoming a more reasonable people would not by itself cure all our social ills. But it would provide us with powerful tools we are currently, needlessly, forsaking. Reasonable people don’t just go about agreeing with each other all the time. Hardly. But what we can hope for from more reasonable people are people who know how to disagree; how to disagree productively, even enjoyably, without destroying their communities, families and friendships.
William Russ Payne is chair of the Philosophy Department at Bellevue College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.