Thinking Critically: Pavlov’s Humans

If there’s one thing I rant and rave about in class, it is this: Think Critically.

I’m always after this elusive beast. I prod and provoke, invect and invoke, all in the name of getting my students to stop wearing the blinders of ideology … to stop starting with conclusions rather than facts … to take advantage of the enormous capacity of the human brain and … Think Critically.

I ask, beg, and plead for them to look at the world with open eyes and a rational mind, even if it might (or might not) mean rethinking some of their most cherished compartments of identity. What true value, I tell them, is there to be found in an untested life, a faith of blind acceptance? Imagine the far greater rewards of the reflective life, a faith made stronger by rigor! Think Critically!

Seriously, it’s like a chorus in my classes. I’m borderline unreasonable about being reasonable.

It came up last week in my Mythology class when we were talking about some ancient cosmological beliefs and a student said something to the effect of this: “But that doesn’t make any sense. Why did they accept it was true? Why didn’t they question it?”

My answer: “Well, for the same reason that you probably don’t question the system you’re in, either. Very few people ever do.”

I then tried to explain to my young student that the brain actually likes to not think critically. It likes to go with the flow, to be one more face in the crowd. It’s evolutionary: the brain likes to accept the crowd-sourcing of information in order to more efficiently process the vast data set that is the world around it.

My student stared at me like I was crazy.

So I tried again, and this time I used video. ‘Cause that’s what the kidz respond to these dayz.

This clip is from the excellent three-part series Head Games, which aired on the Discovery Channel this summer. It isn’t the best sequence in that show — the snake in the tree bit was terrific, though I think my favorite was the follow-the-blue-line hilarity — but it worked for my purposes.

“You see?” I told my students. “We’re not so different from Pavlov’s Dogs. Few of us question. Few of us think. We accept what we’re told — by our parents, by our pastors, by our politicians, by our media, by our friends, by our teachers … by whatever system we hold dear. We don’t think critically.”

It’s a sad conclusion to make, I suppose, but it’s one borne out time and time again by the facts (and those who choose to ignore them).

A sobering thought, is it not, as Election Day approaches?

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