Unthinking Thinking

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Lecturer Paper, Steven C Scheer

Steven C. Scheer

This brief little essay is based on talks I have given to most of my classes in a simple attempt to explain what education is all about. It was inspired by a statement I once made spontaneously in a class many years ago:

“We must unthink our thinking lest our thinking become unthinking thinking.”

During the last few years of my teaching career I had used “We must unthink our thinking lest our thinking become unthinking thinking” as a motto for my philosophy of education. The reason for this is simple enough: the greatest enemy to critical thinking is habitual ways of thinking. The scheme is, roughly, as follows: You are what you say, but what you say depends on what you feel/think/know, and what you feel/think/know depends on what you have learned so far.

Question: Are you sure that what you have learned so far is right, correct, true, & good? (surely you would not knowingly hold onto what was wrong, incorrect, false, & bad? But, like it or not, there is a good chance that there is mixture in you between the right and wrong of things. Question: Where has “what you have learned so far” come from?

From your culture, that is: from your parents, peers, schools, teachers, churches, temples, priests, rabbis, politics, politicians, TV, movies, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, books . . .

It is not easy to give the lie to one’s culture. It is not easy to give the lie to what we habitually accept as true. But that’s precisely what an education should do. One definition of education (as opposed to indoctrination) is that it is a series of inquiries that lead to the student’s ability to think critically – that is, to his/her ability to transcend the prejudices of his/her time and place.

This is difficult, in part, because the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Which is true in either direction. What we have learned may be more than what we have been taught. Or what we have been taught may be more than what we have learned. In the first case we may be wiser than our culture. In the second, less wise. But either case depends on whether what we had been taught is good or bad, right or wrong, in the first place.

Another (and related difficulty) is that some parts of our culture may partake of educative moves whereas other parts may be highly indoctrinative. And it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. One way of defining wisdom, in fact, would be along these lines. Those who can tell the difference have obtained wisdom, those that can’t, have not yet (and may never do so). “Word to the wise.”

An example: in the ante-bellum South many believed that white people had a God-given right to own and sell black people. It is important to realize that in the eyes of many this was a God-given right. In retrospect it is easy to see that this wasn’t a God-given right but a kind of will to power (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche). In any case, the institution of slavery had rested on what we might call a “societal fiction” (in this case the white people’s alleged right to own and sell black people). People in the ante-bellum South who accepted this “truth” at face value were practicing what I call a habitual way of thinking. Or unthinking thinking, if you will.

Such thinking is very, very difficult to change. At times great social upheaval seems necessary to bring about a change. It took the Civil War, for example, to abolish slavery. And more than a century after the abolition of this now admittedly inhumane institution racial prejudices, conscious and unconscious, still prevail among large segments of the population.

Critical thinking is important because without it habitual ways of thinking would never be challenged. Again, the trouble is that forms of unthinking thinking can be deeply rooted in our consciousness. They exist in us in myriads of assumptions and unquestioned opinions. It was with this idea in mind that I ended a section towards the end of one of my published books with the words: ” . . . our least questioned ideas may very well be our most questionable ones” (Pious Impostures and Unproven Words, p. 133).

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