Tag Archives: values

The kind of toughness we need now

The Conversation

By Simon Reich, Rutgers University

I grew up in London during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s. I lived in Pittsburgh during the 9/11 attacks when United Flight 93 was forced down not far from the city. I’m currently in Paris where I live part of the year.

Each of these cities is filled with decent, thoughtful, moderate people: people who care about their families, their communities and their country. They may argue vehemently about politics, religion and sport. But what binds them, overwhelmingly, is their commitment to a modern set of values, liberal-democratic values that its proponents collectively define as “modernity and progress”.

These values are not unique to what their adversaries call “the West”. These values were just as evident among those Arabs and Muslims who protested in the squares of Cairo and Tunis. Those who began the war against Assad in Syria. Those who demanded greater rights in the streets of Hong Kong. Those who clamor for recognition on the streets of Moscow.

Unfortunately, in these cases, the protesters were outnumbered and crushed by adversaries who control the military and the police. They were defeated by politicians who can whip up a frenzy among people who fear the future rather than embrace it.

We will always face threats

In each generation, we collectively face a threat from people who value control and conformity rather than freedom of expression. The source and form of these threats take many forms and those that carry them out vary in their goals.

The Cold War sought to impose a statist political system. Jihadists want to impose a medieval one masquerading as a religious one. But they share common features. They seek to divide and conquer, to rule and impose their values. They seek to quell freedom of thought and action.

Sometimes the threat is widespread and realistic. Soviet missiles really did pose an existential threat. Sometimes it is more symbolic. The Paris shooting, like the IRA in London and 9/11 fits in the latter category. The target was well-defined, and carried out barbarically and with efficiency. It was the quintessence of terrorism.

Sadly, we will always face such threats. And they will always hit soft targets.

The really important question is how we respond. The humanity demonstrated by those who held vigils on the streets of many capitals around the world after the Paris killings was deeply touching and symbolically very important. But it is just the start.

What to do?

Shock and sadness will inevitably give way to indignation, anger and a desire for revenge. The scale of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was much smaller than 9/11. But it would be foolish to underestimate the effect of these killings on the French national psyche, a country that was spared the post 9/11 bombings in London and Madrid.

So how will we respond to each other when the shock has subsided? Today, as I write this story, France is preparing for a moment of silence and the streets of Paris are eerily silent. But will France be able to distinguish the real enemy from those we think look like the enemy in the months ahead? After 9/11, Muslims and people who looked like Muslims (which included Sikhs in turbans to the more ignorant) suffered discrimination at the hands of unscrupulous politicians and violence at the hands of thugs looking for someone to blame. Many Europeans, living in the throes of mass unemployment, are prone to the same temptation – to blame someone, anyone, for their individual and collective woes.

As I sat on the train last night after the attack, there were two women sitting near me. One was an older woman who wore a traditional head-dress. She looked down, unwilling to even acknowledge a man sitting opposite her. The other was a young woman with make-up, painted nails, a short skirt and high-heeled boots. They were obviously both Muslims. These were clearly nobodies’ enemy. Neither is my sister-in-law’s partner, a Jew whose family is from North Africa – and who can be mistaken for an Arab Muslim.

France’s National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has already embarked on a cynical course, denouncing Islam as the enemy. The FN is not alone. Michel Houellebecq, one of France’s most renowned authors, coincidentally published a novel yesterday entitled Submission (in English). Its central plot is that France has become an Islamic state in which civil society capitulates to Sharia law. Prior to the attack, it was the talk of France.

It is tempting to buy into this narrative, one of a clash of civilizations. Europeans from Greece to the UK are ready to do so. But we shouldn’t. Our common cause is with those who embrace common humanitarian values, even though we disagree about so much. Our enemies are those who reject these values. Both our allies and adversaries come in every color and proclaim every religion. It is time to get tough with those who oppose our common values. We’ve been too willing to let others divide us on the basis of color, wealth, religion or politics.

Getting tough doesn’t have to entail fighting more wars, mass imprisonment or the use of torture. The Spanish didn’t discriminate against a whole minority group when it fought ETA – and ultimately ETA faded away.

Real toughness means demonstrating the resolve showed by the English when they faced the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. It entails the kind of dignity showed by those who held vigil in Paris’ Place de la Republique the night of the attack. It entails showing fortitude by sticking firmly with the values that have served us all well over the course of the last several centuries.

Otherwise, whether we defeat the Jihadists or not, they will have won.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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How to teach all students to think critically

The Conversation

By Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills.

The new course would be an elective next year and mandatory in 2016 with the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for education and students Shirley Alexander saying the aim is to give students some maths “critical thinking” skills.

This is a worthwhile goal, but what about critical thinking in general?

Most tertiary institutions have listed among their graduate attributes the ability to think critically. This seems a desirable outcome, but what exactly does it mean to think critically and how do you get students to do it?

The problem is that critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula – it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.

If you ask curriculum designers exactly how critical thinking skills are developed, the answers are often vague and unhelpful for those wanting to teach it.

This is partly because of a lack of clarity about the term itself and because there are some who believe that critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation, that it can only be developed in a discipline context – after all, you have to think critically about something.

So what should any mandatory first year course in critical thinking look like? There is no single answer to that, but let me suggest a structure with four key areas:

  1. argumentation
  2. logic
  3. psychology
  4. the nature of science.

I will then explain that these four areas are bound together by a common language of thinking and a set of critical thinking values.

1. Argumentation

The most powerful framework for learning to think well in a manner that is transferable across contexts is argumentation.

Arguing, as opposed to simply disagreeing, is the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and an opponent with the intention of developing a position justified by rational analysis and inference.

Arguing is not just contradiction.

Arguments have premises, those things that we take to be true for the purposes of the argument, and conclusions or end points that are arrived at by inferring from the premises.

Understanding this structure allows us to analyse the strength of an argument by assessing the likelihood that the premises are true or by examining how the conclusion follows from them.

Arguments in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises are said to be valid. Valid arguments with true premises are called sound. The definitions of invalid and unsound follow.

This gives us a language with which to frame our position and the basic structure of why it seems justified.

2. Logic

Logic is fundamental to rationality. It is difficult to see how you could value critical thinking without also embracing logic.

People generally speak of formal logic – basically the logic of deduction – and informal logic – also called induction.

Deduction is most of what goes on in mathematics or Suduko puzzles and induction is usually about generalising or analogising and is integral to the processes of science.

Logic is fundamental to rationality.

Using logic in a flawed way leads to the committing of the fallacies of reasoning, which famously contain such logical errors as circular reasoning, the false cause fallacy or appeal to popular opinion. Learning about this cognitive landscape is central to the development of effective thinking.

3. Psychology

The messy business of our psychology – how our minds actuality work – is another necessary component of a solid critical thinking course.

One of the great insights of psychology over the past few decades is the realisation that thinking is not so much something we do, as something that happens to us. We are not as in control of our decision-making as we think we are.

We are masses of cognitive biases as much as we are rational beings. This does not mean we are flawed, it just means we don’t think in the nice, linear way that educators often like to think we do.

It is a mistake to think of our minds as just running decision-making algorithms – we are much more complicated and idiosyncratic than this.

How we arrive at conclusions, form beliefs and process information is very organic and idiosyncratic. We are not just clinical truth-seeking reasoning machines.

Our thinking is also about our prior beliefs, our values, our biases and our desires.

4. The nature of science

It is useful to equip students with some understanding of the general tools of evaluating information that have become ubiquitous in our society. Two that come to mind are the nature of science and statistics.

Learning about what the differences are between hypotheses, theories and laws, for example, can help people understand why science has credibility without having to teach them what a molecule is, or about Newton’s laws of motion.

Understanding some basic statistics also goes a long way to making students feel more empowered to tackle difficult or complex issues. It’s not about mastering the content, but about understanding the process.

The language of thinking

Embedded within all of this is the language of our thinking. The cognitive skills – such as inferring, analysing, evaluating, justifying, categorising and decoding – are all the things that we do with knowledge.

If we can talk to students using these terms, with a full understanding of what they mean and how they are used, then teaching thinking becomes like teaching a physical process such as a sport, in which each element can be identified, polished, refined and optimised.

Critical thinking can be studied and taught in part like physical processes.
Flickr/Airman Magazine, CC BY-NC

In much the same way that a javelin coach can freeze a video and talk to an athlete about their foot positioning or centre of balance, a teacher of critical thinking can use the language of cognition to interrogate a student’s thinking in high resolution.

All of these potential aspects of a critical thinking course can be taught outside any discipline context. General knowledge, topical issues and media provide a mountain of grist for the cognitive mill.

General concepts of argumentation and logic are readily transferable between contexts once students are taught to recognise the deeper structures inherent in these fields and to apply them across a variety of situations.

Values

It’s worth understanding too that a good critical thinking education is also an education in values.

Not all values are ethical in nature. In thinking well we value precision, coherence, simplicity of expression, logical structure, clarity, perseverance, honesty in representation and any number of like qualities. If schools are to teach values, why not teach the values of effective thinking?

So, let’s not assume that students will learn to think critically just by learning the methodology of their subjects. Sure it will help, but it’s not an explicit treatment of thinking and is therefore less transferable.

A course that targets effective thinking need not detract from other subjects – in fact it should enhance performance across the board.

But ideally, such a course should not be needed if teachers of all subjects focused on the thinking of their students as well as the content they have to cover.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Love, wisdom and wonder: three reasons to celebrate philosophy

The Conversation

By Matthew Beard, University of Notre Dame Australia

Today is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, a day aimed to “underline the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual”.

However, it was not so long ago that philosophy was the target of university funding cutbacks. Philosophy is commonly painted as a discipline defined by ivory tower musing and abstraction. We don’t often celebrate philosophy and many question its value. What makes philosophy so special?

We might start by saying a little about what philosophy actually is.

As every student who has ever enrolled in a philosophy subject knows, philosophy’s etymological roots lie in two Ancient Greek words: philo – loving, and sophia – wisdom. Thus, literally translated, philosophy is a love of wisdom.

This romantic notion is one that still resonates with philosophers today, but it doesn’t say much about what philosophy does, or what it offers to humanity. To answer that, we need to consider philosophy as an intellectual discipline.

Todd Lappin/Flickr

Aristotle argued that philosophy begins with wonder. In this he is right, but more precisely, philosophy begins when we wonder about something. It is – like every intellectual discipline – a way of asking questions about the nature of things. In this way, philosophy is born of the very basic human disposition toward asking questions.

More than that though, philosophy asks questions of a particular type. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that all disciplines are defined by the types of questions that they have been designed to answer. Again, the study begins with questions.

Most questions that human beings tend to ask can be divided into two categories: formal and empirical. Formal questions as those that can be answered by deduction from our knowledge of axiomatic truths: for instance, the answer to “are healthy behaviours ones that prolong our lives?” is discoverable merely by thinking logically about the concepts of health and life.

Empirical questions, by contrast, cannot be answered without observation of the material world. “Which behaviours are healthy?” cannot be answered without observing some large number of behaviours and tracking their effects on health.

However, there are another set of questions whose answers cannot be discovered either by formal or empirical inquiry. For instance, the question: “why should I be healthy?” or “should I fear losing my life?” cannot be deduced from the very concepts of life and health, nor discovered through observation of healthy, living beings.

These questions demand an entirely different method of analysis. This, Berlin argues, is what defines philosophical questions: ones that “cannot be answered either by observation or calculation.“ This describes our questions about life and health. To answer these questions requires a kind of knowledge that neither formal nor empirical inquiry can attain. In this case, we need an understanding of the value of human life.

Values cannot be observed: nor are they (with apologies to Immanuel Kant) mere matters of deduction from self-evident truths. Rather, they imply entirely new kinds of questions about value, right and wrong, and the relevant context. Today, determining whether, and under what conditions, life is valuable is as pertinent a question as ever – despite all our advances in scientific analysis and a deepening understanding of what life – as a concept – actually is.

Answering a question like this requires more than clinical facts regarding levels of pain, likelihood of recovery, or quality of life. They require serious thinking about questions such as whether existence is always preferable to non-existence, the relationship between death and non-existence, the moral significance of suffering, and the importance of individual autonomy.

Philosophy matters, simply, because the answers to philosophical questions matter. Not only is it a matter of life and death, but a matter of, to name a few examples, the nature of law, the role of language, where morality comes from, whether there is a God, whether there is a self and what constitutes our identity, and what beauty is. What makes these questions important is not only that they help societies to function (although they certainly do), but that they reflect something deeply fundamental about human beings: that we are physical creatures, but our consciousness is not restricted to physical matters. Indeed, philosophy is both reflective and perfective of human nature.

As author and philosopher C.S. Lewis explained, although we are physically embodied, most of the things that give our lives value are less tangible than material reality, and philosophy is among them:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

Aristotle thought that philosophical reflection was the perfection of human living. He might have been overreaching a little bit, but there can be no question of the value that reflection adds to our lives.

There is only so much that talking about philosophy can persuade of its value though.

Today, on World Philosophy Day, I encourage you to give it a try yourself. Find a philosopher – there are plenty on Twitter and every university faculty member has an email address – get in touch and see what it’s like first hand. All you need is curiosity, and the right question.

The ConversationMatthew Beard does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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