Terra incognita: The dictatorship of critical thought

"Critical thought" comes to light in recent case about left-wing teacher sharing his views with his class.

By
January 28, 2014 22:48
Shai Piron

Education Minister Shai Piron.. (photo credit: Courtesy Education Ministry )

 
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"A teacher interested in encouraging critical thinking is liable to anger some students,” explained Education Minister Shai Piron on Sunday. In recent weeks the left-wing press has been up in arms about the case of a teacher in Israel who was reprimanded following complaints about extreme left-wing views he allegedly aired in class.

The case has brought to light an issue regarding “critical thought” and how essential it is to teaching these days.

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“Critical thought” of course meaning thought that is neither critical or thoughtful, but rather indoctrinated, leading to the production of automatons incapable of inquiry or analysis.

The case in question began at an ORT school in Kiryat Tivon in northern Israel.

The teacher was accused of often interjecting his personal political views into classes, arguing for example that the IDF was immoral, or claiming Israel belongs to the Palestinians. At a hearing about complaints regarding his conduct the teacher stated that in the course of a class discussion he had said: “I thought the army commits immoral acts.” According to reports an ORT official noted that it is official policy for staff to not express personal opinions.

What is significant here is not what did or didn’t happen in the classroom, which we will in any case never really know. What is important is how people responded. The Knesset Education committee chairman, Amram Mitzna, claimed that “an experienced teacher should be able to raise any issue during a lesson.” The former army general even supported the idea of criticism of the army, and was quoted as saying that, “As an army general I can testify that the IDF commits immoral acts as well.”

Isaac Herzog, the head of the opposition Labor party, claimed “the fact that a man expressed his opinion should not constitute a threat to his livelihood.” He also claimed “the State of Israel’s history from 1967 and onward is not being taught. It is okay to teach.” Michal Cohen, director- general of the Education Ministry, noted that students must “learn to formulate their positions in a detailed and critical fashion.”

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Haaretz editorialized that “the education minister cannot and must not stand aside when a teacher is punished for trying to engage in education.”

THE ARGUMENT has been framed by the media as a teacher suppressed for “engaging in education.” One website compared the teacher to Alfred Dreyfus, and his students have been accused of “political persecution.”

But most of the arguments hinge on the importance of critical thinking.

Critical thought is supposed to mean “the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.”

It includes rational analysis and opening the mind to new ideas. One is supposed to gather evidence through observation and martial information to come to a conclusion.

The idealized version involves identifying and rejecting “false ideas and ideologies.”

Critical thinkers are encouraged to take into account their own flaws and biases.

Cherished beliefs must be challenged. One must have curiosity. Explanations must be testable. Skepticism is holy, as are doubt and suspension of judgment. Social pressure must be discounted. Black-and-white binaries are bad. The goal is intellectual independence.

All this sounds well and good. But the reality is that most students subject to the dictatorship of “critical thought” are not even provided with this idealized basis.

What “critical thought” often consists of in practice is a cherry-picked version of this ideal. Instead of mitigating the influence of bias and entrenched ideology, the critical propagandist merely browbeats students with the idea that it is their values and upbringing that were wrong, and decides for them which specific ideologies are wrong. Dogmatism, not curiosity, is cultivated in this manner.

When I was an MA student at Hebrew University one professor began his class by saying, “You have all been raised as Zionists.

I am going to provide you a critical view of Israel.” When asked after class why he assumed all the students – who were mostly non-Israeli – were “raised as Zionists,” he simply claimed, “In the past they all were.” His “critical thinking” obviously had nothing to do with gathering evidence through observation. No, for him, critical thought meant teaching only anti-Zionism, with “all the students are Zionists” merely serving as a way to excuse and legitimize his own bias.

Real critical thinking would neither accept Zionism nor reject it, but rather examine both positions from as objective a perspective as possible. In this class – and many others – there was no skepticism.

Where the assumption exists that only certain ideas are correct, there can be no real critical thought. Consider the example of an economics class in which one is only allowed to criticize capitalism, for instance.

ALL THE MKs that lined up to support the “Dreyfus from Tivon” did so because they view this kind of “critical thinking” an ideological and political tool. When most of them say critical thought they actually mean left-wing dogma.

Let’s imagine that the teacher had challenged the acceptance committees in Israel, and asked students to debate the practice of kibbutzim, the heartland of the old Left, discriminating against people who want to live on them? What if a teacher supported a discussion about ending national conscription in Israel.

Say the teacher brought up testimony from famed economist Milton Friedman’s 1970 argument with US General William Westmoreland where the general told Friedman at the height of the Vietnam war “I don’t want an army of mercenaries” and Friedman replied “would you rather command an army of slaves [draftees].”

What if a teacher in an area with a large proportion of Ethiopian Jews dared to ask the students how learning that 40 percent of Ethiopian men in Israel end up in IDF prison during the course of their service changed their attitude toward the army? Would those types of criticism be acceptable, or would the Mitznas and others rush to silence the debate? Left-wing society demands “critical thought” at elite schools, but fears critical thought among the poor in Israel, which might lead, for example, to students wondering why their parents, through a course of an entire life of work, could never save money or afford an apartment.

The day Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Edmund Burke are in the classroom, the day students are encouraged or even permitted to engage in real critical thinking, that will be the day we can stop being skeptical about the ideological dictatorship disguised as “debate.”

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