“HONG KONG — They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control.” New York Times, September 1, 2019
The problem as Beijing sees it, is critical thinking. The students in this civics course are being taught how to think for themselves about right and wrong, and how to analyze political and governmental systems from the basis of shared values and the values declared within those systems. It is not a skill that dictatorships prize.
As we watched television and videos, I used to ask my children on a regular basis what the advertisers wanted us to think and why. Less often, but still on occasion, I would casually wonder out loud, for example, why the Sea Hag was made to look the way she did when the Little Mermaid was depicted as she was. Sometimes they would entertain my questions but even if not, the seeds of questioning were planted.
I do not know if STEM education can or does include critical thinking skills, but it should. All along the way, students should be asked to think about the science, math, and technology they are using and developing, its potential for good and ill effect, and how to create safeguards for best practices. All of our engineers and scientists need to wonder through the process, about the shadow side of what they are working on, and the social implications of their work. The laboratory should no longer be isolated from the social context in which it is embedded. Economists should not be espousing theories that do not consider real-life, measurable human behavior and the absolute guarantee that human beings frequently do not act in their own best interests, which is what economists typically postulate.
So many of us have allowed our critical thinking skills to atrophy, or we never had them nurtured in the first place. Liberals and progressives as much as conservatives and right-wingers. It is so much easier and more comfortable to begin each day and conversation from the same assumptions and never ponder underneath them. Why do I think that? Who gave me this lens to wear? Did they know it was just one of many lenses or did they think it was the only way to see this subject? What do we know now or know differently than we did when I first began thinking about this subject? Why do I feel resistance building in me every time my point of view is challenged? There are so many small, simple questions we can ask to help us ford the moat around our assumptions, or in the process perhaps confirm and deepen them.
One thing is certain. To engage critical thinking and explore the source of our assumptions, and question whether they are still the ones that make the most sense from our experience, we need to be engaged in conversation with other people making other assumptions – or even the same assumptions for different reasons. There is no substitute for diversity of thought when it comes to nurturing our own thinking.