Is It Time to Revive Critical Thinking in America?

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There is a myriad of reasons why Americans should be angered by Russian interference in the 2016 election. But rather than being upset with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s actions, we should be angry at ourselves for falling into his trap. The hurtful reality is that our inability to think critically, coupled with a 24-hour news cycle that feeds us information that has been orchestrated by foreign agents doomed us from the start.

In February, The Pew Research Center reported that “U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations” in science, mathematics, and reading. America even trails some developing nations, such as Vietnam, on important educational indicators. Be it science, math, or reading, the scores from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) show that we are producing students who are, at best, average readers. This lack of education – and of critical thinking skills – continues into adulthood, a sad fact highlighted by The Week’s report that, in 2015, only slightly more than 40 percent of Americans read “at least one work of literature, like a novel, short story, play, or poetry collection, in the last 12 months” while “66 percent of respondents went to a movie or attended a live performance.” We line up for concerts, but not at bookstores and libraries. We, Americans, simply cannot lead if we do not read.

The 2016 election introduced the concept of “fake news”, which allowed candidates who did not like stories that were being published about them to dismiss them as “fake”. This created a deeper problem, according to NPR, which reported that many Americans do not know how to process information and how to separate facts from “fake news”. We follow our favorite television personality and believe him or her blindly. Now add Vladimir Putin to this equation, along with his campaign to influence our elections.

According to Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Warner, there “were upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a ‘botnet,’…If you Googled ‘election hacking’ leading up to the election and immediately afterwards, you wouldn't get Fox or ABC, The New York Times, what you got is four out of the first five news stories that popped up were Russian propaganda.” The stream of news these Russian trolls created was extraordinary – an inundation of fake information that swamped a country in which too many of us receive our information from one likely-biased source. Coupled with our inability to critically analyze information and fact check, this was a one-two punch combination that led to an intellectual knockout.

I teach Cross Cultural Communication at American University’s School of International Service. On the first day of school, I inform my students that I care more about how they think than what they think. I tell them that I do not care if they are conservative, liberal, or anything in between. I remind them that as university students they are obligated to put their feelings aside and look at facts. This involves research and the ability to analyze an argument from multiple angles. In the digital age, this approach is critical not just in a classroom, but in our everyday interactions – be they interpersonal or digital.

Putin assumed that Americans, for a lack of a better term, are narrow-minded. He looked at our crumbling schools, our obsession with entertainment and media, in general, over books, and our growing hostility towards having our ideas challenged, and he pounced on an opportunity to sway the election towards the candidate that he believed would be more beneficial for Russia. If we are to ever prevent this situation from happening again, we must think critically and learn to analyze information and separate facts from fiction.

We can do this by re-investing in education and by showing the consequences of accepting information that cannot be substantiated beyond one source. If we fail to do that, we will continue to swell in what Stanford Professor Robert Proctor calls “the golden age of ignorance”. Perhaps, the time is now to create a new age, a “platinum age of critical thinking”.

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