Critical Thinking: The Basis of Scientific Thought

During the sixties, as in the case of Arizona, many people felt threatened it is not easy to give up privilege

By Rodolfo F. Acu??a
Published on LatinoLA: June 11, 2011

Critical Thinking: The Basis of Scientific Thought

Recently, two Tucson Unified School District board members were asked, "Explain what critical pedagogy means to you and does it have a place in elementary and secondary education?"

Although respondents' opposition to the district's Mexican American Studies program was based on the programs use of critical theory to motivate students, they said that they did not know much about it.

Tea party activist Michael Hicks' response was expected. However, I expected more from University of Arizona economist Mark Stegeman since someone with his pretensions should have at least an elementary acquaintance with epistemology.

Stegeman said, "In many of its manifestations, critical theory is heavily influenced by Marxist and post-Marxist theory. Part of the idea here is that the elites which dominate the modes of communication create a reality which prevents the general population from understanding its situation. There is often an emphasis on the subjective nature of
reality and the difficulty of separating it from the language used to describe it. There is also often a strong component of left-leaning ideology and social advocacy."

Stegeman added, "Critical theory is an advanced intellectual exercise. It is obviously important in some fields but is also conceptually beyond what most high school (and
obviously younger) students can comprehend." He added that he was surprised by how social scientists and the humanities blend political judgements into their teachings. According to Stegeman, economists were different: "Most economists are at least, aware of the importance of insulating science from these considerations."

I don't want to argue, but on what planet does Stegeman live?

Studies show that students taking college economics courses are swayed by the professors' political leanings. According to a study by the Federal Reserve's Bank of New York, economic classes shape students' world views.

The field of economics is far from objective; it came into vogue after World War II as a counterpoint to the New Deal. Heavily endowed, its corporate benefactors rewarded the economists zealous support of free markets and their antipathy to government intervention. The field embodied the antithesis of John Maynard Keynes who theorized that capitalism functioned best when managed by government regulation.

Whether Stegeman wants to acknowledge it or not, an international elite exists that forms a global consensus on economic principles that are in turn taught to university students. Studies show that most economics professors are more likely to be Republican, subscribing to the views of neoclassical economists.

According to the cited Federal Reserve study, students taking five economics courses were less likely to join the Democratic party and have more than a 10 percent higher chance of joining the Republican party. These courses impacted the students' civic views, i.e., business majors were less likely than students with other majors to volunteer for a cause, political or otherwise.

The study also found that: "Those who completed more economics courses were more likely to agree that tariffs reduce economic welfare and less likely to think that trade deficits adversely affect the economy. The more economics courses taken the less likely respondents were to believe that government should regulate oil prices, and the more likely they were to believe that the minimum wage increases unemployment. Finally, the more economics courses taken the less likely respondents were to believe that . . . the distribution of income should be more equal."

Most American professors, whether liberal or conservative and regardless of their field of study, share a common world view. They are overwhelmingly Eurocentric: Witness the views of liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Straightening out differences between right and wrong through critical thinking is not a theoretical exercise but a method of study. The question should be, where would be without critical reasoning?

After the near collapse of our economic system, the faith of economists in neoclassical theories should have raised some concern Bernie Madoff cannot be blamed he was not an aberration, just the one who went to jail.

Why do we study the theory of knowledge? Simply to learn if a given proposition is true. We must have a good reason for believing so. Acquiring knowledge is a method that tests a proposition to find out if it is true. This vetting process goes as far back as Socrates who was the first recorded philosopher using critical thinking as a method.

The Olmecas and other Mesoamerican civilizations used critical reasoning to study the cosmos. The search for the truth produced a writing system, advanced mathematics and calendars. The forecasting of the alignments of the stars and planets in the year 2012 was truly phenomenal.

Knowledge as we know it is based on intuition, authority, revelation or science. It can be argued that most progress is based on the latter and that the first three are its antitheses. History shows us that when beliefs trump scientific truths, progress becomes redundant as in the case of Europe during the Dark Ages.

Yet, even medieval scholars struggled against blind faith. Scholasticism, a European Catholic method of learning, was used to test the mysteries of faith. It placed a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning, practicing the principle of negation. It all went wrong when in the end ... faith trumped scientific reasoning.

Auguste Comte and others secularized the study of knowledge in the 19th century by developing new scientific methods to test accepted truth.

In the United States, the search for new methods was vigorous. Increasingly scholars rejected truths based on intuition, authority or revelation alone. Educators such as John Dewey developed new theories, i.e., in "How We Think," Dewey defined critical thinking as "reflective thought."

Later, the physicist Thomas Kuhn added to the study of knowledge by theorizing that science undergoes periodic "paradigm shifts." According to Kuhn, progress is not linear as deductive reasoning inferred but continuous.

In my freshman year, I was required to take courses in inductive and deductive logic or reasoning as it is sometimes called. Granted these techniques were taught from a definite Jesuit viewpoint, which everyone knew and accepted. Learning is part of growing up as is coming to grips with differences.

Deduction and induction are part of critical thinking, and basing of any paradigm on intuition, authority or revelation is anti-science.

By the sixties, an obvious question was, why were the public schools failing people of color and the poor? Many wanted to make society more democratic and reform public education.

The renowned historian Edwin Fenton came up with the "inquiry method" of teaching social studies which was adopted by teachers throughout the country. Fenton held workshops on the inquiry method that were sponsored by state boards of education. He organized over 200 workshops about curriculum development in thirty-one states and nine foreign countries.

The gist of the inquiry method was that it "encourages a student to reach beyond the facts he is given in class and construct his own notions about historical events. It is through this type of historical inquiry that a student will become engaged. A personal relationship will develop between the student and the information."

Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed came out in English in 1970 and was based on successful literacy campaigns in Brazil and other Latin America countries. From the beginning, Freire was demonized and red-baited by the large latifundistas (plantation owners) for teaching their serfs how to read.

It is important to note that Freire was part of the Liberation Theology movement during and after Vatican II. Organizers formed comunidades de base (base communities) throughout Latin America. Liberation Theology attempted to return to the gospel of the early church when congregations were responsible for the community's spiritual and material well-being.

Apparently critical thinking is working in Tucson; it has the establishment nervous. The reaction is reminiscent of that of California Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty in the 1960s who said that the inquiry method was subversive because it encouraged students to question.

During the sixties, as in the case of Arizona, many people felt threatened it is not easy to give up privilege.

Los Angeles Unified School Board Member Dr. Julian Nava in the late 1960s was asked by a contemporary from the San Joaquin Valley, "Dr, Nava, you really don't want to educate Mexicans, do you, who would pick
our crops?"

Well, this is just what critical pedagogy wants to do. It wants to educate students to be able to read and understand the Constitution and help others.

A Postscript:

In Los Angeles, you don't see many Latinas/os panhandling. You see them at the freeway entrances with bags of oranges and peanuts trying to earn their daily bread. This short essay takes a cue from this tradition and asks you to contribute to the Save Ethnic Studies lawsuit in Tucson. It is a struggle against ignorance and the attempt of the Hicks' and Stegemans to put us back in the Dark Ages.

When I interviewed for my first tenure track teaching job in 1958 with the Los Angeles Unified School District, an interviewer failed me because he said that I could not teach public school children because I had been educated by the Jesuits and used the scholastic method.

Although I see the errors of this method today, he was wrong.

After years of study, I realize that what is important is for students to learn. In Tucson, critical theory engages students; they want to learn and this is good. Learning is good,
feeling pride in yourself is good, and helping others is better.


Click onto

Click onto the "Donate" button and Fight Back!

Email the author

   print this


Arts & Entertainment Comunidad Forum People El Editor's Blog

Careers Expresate Hollywood Tecnologa RSS Feeds