The first of a three-part series outlining a 100-year plan to save America through applied critical thinking. A new Age of Reason requires a return to a way of thinking rather than the rigidity of musty old documents.
Part 1 -- Return to Critical Thinking
by Ruth Catchen
The federal government has grown in scope and complexity, and its inefficiencies and inequities sap the freedom and vitality from a nation that was once seen by many of its citizens as the greatest on earth. Its very size hobbles its most noble roles as champion and protector of individual rights, as champion and protector of equal opportunity, and as champion and protector of the common good. Well-funded interests have contributed to the complexity of government, creating a few big winners and millions of losers. Many ideas have been put forth to address this issue, most of which suggest a return to some point in our history. I reject all such regressive ideas, because our very history has led us directly to the mess we're in today. We need a new solution.
I have that new solution, offered to you here in just three steps.
Adopt critical thinking as a national value.
Apply reason at the most fundamental level to assess every public policy.
Simplify every public policy so that it serves the people and nothing more.
Don't look for quick fixes here; real solutions will take a very long time. Short of another bloody revolution, generations will pass before our little tangle can be unraveled. Quick solutions are the domain of politicians who make empty promises to gain electoral leverage and power. Distrust anybody who claims that today's political and economic problems can be solved by quick fixes. Distrust anybody who advocates solutions that take us back to some magical point in our history. Instead, understand that real solutions are likely to take a century or more. After all, the real problems evolved over millennia of human interaction. We can only get a clear picture of the problems we face when we look directly into a mirror.
In a state of nature, according to Thomas Hobbes, human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Unlimited freedom leads to lawlessness and dominance of the powerful, and this comes from the very depths of human nature. The Social Contract, by which free people gain civil rights by accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, is necessary to deliver us from our own nature. I believe that the ideal government is the executor of this Social Contract. Government must be strong enough to defend the rights of its citizens, but not so strong as to usurp those very rights. Government must be right sized.
Okay, you may have figured out that these concepts were lifted from Rousseau, Kant, Locke, and of course Hobbes. Their thinking largely defined the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, during which reason and individualism began to ascend over tradition. I'm not proposing a return to the 17th century, but a look at the valuable philosophical concepts that can help us sort out our 21st-century problems. Remember that these people were the progressive fringe of their day. Their biggest problems were the twin tyrannies of monarchy and religion, both of which had ruled for centuries with oppressive authority.
This bunch of radicals loved reason -- critical thinking, as we call it in its more developed form today. This age not only produced reasoning philosophers, it also produced the founding fathers of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Francis Bacon espoused empirical logic, and among those he influenced were Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Yes, they were among the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, and we can learn much more from their shared way of thinking than we can from the documents they left behind.
You may have guessed that I am a progressive. And although I may wave the flag and declare my affection for the founding fathers, I do so in a way that must be carefully qualified. Neither the Magna Carta nor the Mayflower Compact, nor the Declaration of Independence, nor the US Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights, nor even Age of Reason are sacred writs. Each of these reflects the age in which it was authored, and the failures of each respective age. For all of their many virtues, these manuscripts are carriers of the viruses of slavery, racial bigotry, sexual oppression, aristocracy, conquest and subjugation, and religious dogma. But the thinking behind each of these documents is worthy of honor; I insist upon drawing a distinction between innovate critical thinking and the fruits of that thought from any particular age.
Let me also confess that I am a capitalist. More specifically, I believe in free-market economics, provided that a framework is present to ensure fair competition for resources. I believe that we need a basic understanding of economics in order to apply critical thinking to political problems with any positive effect.
The historical relationship between economics and political philosophy is a close one. In fact, the study of economics was not regarded as a separate entity until Adam Smith differentiated it in Wealth Of Nations. Published in 1776, Wealth describes a consumption-centric system controlled by an invisible hand of competition that facilitates economic growth. Selfish motives, in effect, create a benevolent whole.
This was the state of economic philosophy into which the new republic of the United States was born. The fathers of our country could select from the traditional vassalage of aristocracy, the traditional privations of the church, or the radical new ideas of the brand new science of economics. They chose well, under the circumstances. They didn't have at their disposal the thinking of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to explain why there were poor people, or John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) to explain unemployment cycles, or Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) to explain why both central-economic management and laissez faire are both errors in public policy. These all came later, and to one degree or another affected the development of the uniquely American economic system.
One could easily imagine that, given the rational bent of our founding fathers, there would be widespread popular support for critical thinking in America today. More than just support, but rather an integral part of our national character and identity -- a national value. Keep imagining -- the reality is very different today, as there has been a resurgence of the very traditional forces against which the founders of the new republic rebelled. In 1776, the dominant tyrannies were religion and monarchy; today they are religion and wealth.
Religious faith is sometimes seen in conflict with critical thought, and it may certainly be a barrier. Among the majority of practicing Christians, the conflict may not be much of an issue; but among fundamentalists even today, the literal authority of the sacred scripts trumps the empiricism of observation and logic. This conflict is often played out in our classroom, even in public schools. There are those who would include creationism in science curricula, proving that the conflict between faith and reason is alive and well today.
The conflict runs deep, and the religious right has figured out that critical thinking, as a discipline, is a threat to traditional Christian teachings. The platform of the Texas Republican party of 2012 reflects this threat, explicitly stating, "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs, which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."
Big Money may have an interest in suppressing critical thinking as well. Any tradition protects itself by thwarting any challenges that might threaten it, and institutional wealth is no exception. Banks and corporations can overtly support political candidates and causes today, and while financial support is scattered broadly across the spectrum as a hedge, most of it lands in the hands of conservatives. Most of this money goes toward protecting the status quo, and a little of it gets funneled into explicitly opposing the instruction of critical-thinking skills.
So critical thinking is under attack today, even in the context of the institution most adept at equipping our kids to think, and the attack implicitly extends to critical thinking as a national value as well. If schools aren't permitted to facilitate the development of reasoning skills, where are we supposed to pick them up? From parents who were denied the development of reasoning skills in their own education? The very parents who prefer that children be taught what to think rather than how to think?
The restoration of critical thinking as a value within American culture is an essential starting point if any improvement is to be brought about in the effectiveness and efficiency of our institutions. This applies most fundamentally to the institutions of government, which themselves are subject to manipulative forces seeking political advantage at the expense of others. But a critical-thinking populace would be well equipped to advance the cause of American democracy by evaluating public policies and reforming them to better serve the people. Part two of An Impractical Guide shows through example what form such an evaluation might take.
Thirty five years as a small business consultant, CFO, and university educator specializing in quantitative business and economic modeling - a suite of experience now focused on economic inequality. Carefully attributed data, thoughtful analysis, and tangible policy proposals are offered for your consideration.