In 1980, California State University Chancellor Glenn Dumke issued Executive Order 338, launching California’s critical thinking movement. Because business and industry had complained that C.S.U. was graduating unemployable students who couldn’t think, Dumke mandated formal instruction in critical thinking at all 19 C.S.U campuses.
How well is that movement doing after thirty years? In my view, not well. I say that for two main reasons.
First, we have great confusion over what “critical thinking” means. My own school, Monterey Peninsula College, has an institutional goal to “promote . . . critical thinking across all areas and disciplines,” but it strenuously refuses to define “critical thinking,” an irony since clearly defining the words you employ is the first step in real critical thinking. Some courses that are supposed to teach critical thinking amount to nothing more than severe criticism by professors of ideas they dislike. Students don’t learn how to think. Instead of learning to exercise careful judgment, they learn to mimic their professors’ opinions.
Second, critical thinking ought to mean thinking that reflects the Western rationalistic tradition. Unfortunately, that tradition is incommensurable with other prevalent academic orthodoxies, such as social constructivism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism. The philosopher John Searle has asserted that critical thinking is founded on epistemological assumptions that enable us to build a framework for determining whether a conclusion is legitimate or not. Those assumptions are basic and easy to understand, for example, that “reality exists independently of our representations of it” and that “knowledge is objective.”
The problem is that those ideas are implicitly or even explicitly rejected by many professors today. It isn’t uncommon to hear professors claim, for example, that there is no objective truth because each person creates his own reality.
In an effort to get my students to engage in true critical thinking, I have developed a capstone essay assignment for my critical thinking course. The idea for the assignment came to me after hearing that a former colleague, who has a Ph.D. in political science from an Ivy League university, ran into difficulty while lecturing about the Holocaust to students in the Middle East. She gradually realized that she was the only person in the lecture hall who believed that the Holocaust actually happened—but she had no idea what to say to her doubting students.
That’s sad, but not surprising. Having been marinated in social constructivism, relativism, multiculturalism, and all their pluralized “histories,” “truths,” and “realities” throughout her education, how could she know what to say?
Recognizing her difficulty, I decided to introduce my critical thinking students to the Holocaust and then have them carefully examine the arguments of authors who deny that it actually occurred.
After weeks of reading books such as How to Think About Weird Things and Crimes Against Logic, and screenings of the films such as You Can’t Say That and Triumph of the Will, and lectures on historiography, logic, and semantics, I present the capstone essay question:
Professors and students have argued that history should be taught from as many points of view as possible. With that in mind, I would like you to decide whether Holocaust deniers should be invited to present their point of view when classes consider the Holocaust.
Having Holocaust deniers present their point of view is a complex question involving issues of historiography, free speech, academic freedom, evidence, effects of emotion and memory, confabulation, eyewitnessing and testimony, pedagogy, cultural positioning, infotainment and docudrama, relativism, postmodern epistemology, historical revision, and even aesthetics. I would like to see a deeply-considered, extensively informed opinion, demonstration of research, use of critical thinking principles explained in your texts and my lectures, and examples from your readings and films.
For use in the assignment, I supply a handout on Holocaust websites, Holocaust denial websites, Holocaust denial rebuttal sites, and so on. In the library I place on reserve films such as Survivors of the Holocaust, Holocaust, Death Mills, Adolf Eichmann, Memory of the Camps, Witness to Genocide, The Eternal Jew, as well as books including Denying the Holocaust, Lying About Hitler, Images from the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews, Mein Kampf, We Were in Auschwitz, The Hoax of the 20th Century, and more. We view and critique Nazi Designers of Death, about the evolving architectural plans for Auschwitz, and Holocaust On Trial, about the David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel case.
Through all that time, I make a point of not telling the students what to think.
Since students actually know so little, I must explain the differences between Holocaust deniers, Holocaust minimizers, and Hitler rehabilitationists. I must explain propaganda and euphemism and anti-Zionism. I must acquaint them with fascism, eugenics, Romantic struggle and surrender, Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommandos, the Wannsee Conference, and so on. I must do so informationally and dispassionately, employing locutions such as “the Holocaust believer would say” and “the Holocaust denier would reply,” and “my understanding is.” Such reticence is necessary because it is essential that the students decide the capstone question for themselves.
Students are dubious or indifferent about most things. Because of our digitized world, they are predisposed to think that documents are faked (think of Dan Rather’s manufactured Texas Air National Guard memos), pictures are Photoshopped, memories are unreliable, testimony is coerced, and so on.
The reason for the capstone paper is to prepare students to recognize the methods employed by malicious or unhinged deceivers: 9/11 truthers, religious cultists, UFO abductees, and so on. I want them to learn to test claims with the use of logic and evidence rather than relying on their feelings. I want to erode the intellectual laziness that lets students adopt all-purpose answers they have been offered to the world’s problem, whether it’s “the patriarchy,” capitalism, or the Jews.
Besides the significance to students’ own lives, there is more to this capstone question. The Holocaust has been described as the most documented crime in history. If the mountains of evidence (records, photos, films, testimony, artifacts) which converge to support the currently accepted interpretation are not sufficient grounds for belief in its reality, then what would be sufficient? That is really the question my colleague in the Middle East should have asked her doubting students: What would convince you that the Holocaust did happen? They would have been forced to admit that nothing would convince them because their conclusion that it didn’t is based on belief and authority, not on reason. My colleague could then have fruitfully pursued the difference between the West’s demand for fact and evidence and their own system of faith in received doctrine.
In their essays, most of my students come to the understanding, carefully and methodically, that Holocaust denial is inconsistent with critical thinking. Where they struggle most is in deciding whether something both disingenuous and baseless—the position that Holocaust deniers hold--should be included in curriculum. This is, as they say today, a high stakes question. How do you decide what deserves serious scholarly endorsement? Students have been hectored to “honor all voices,” been taught to use “free speech” as bludgeon, and been bathed in academic positions denying that there are such things as objectivity, reality, and truth.
Together, these have produced such an intellectual passivity that students are predisposed to say that anything and everything should be included. I believe it is important that students, on their own, come to understand that bringing any and every opinion into the classroom is both mistaken and impossible (slavery denial? World War Two denial?). They must also understand how sensible people establish intellectual criteria and standards to discriminate between legitimate viewpoints and indefensible ones.
This assignment produces the best papers I’ve ever received: judicious, objective, dispassionate deconstructions of the Holocaust denier arguments. In the 15 years I have been assigning this paper, only one student out of hundreds has ever come away granting Holocaust denial any legitimacy. The application of critical thinking’s processes and methodological objectivity simply won’t permit such a conclusion. With the right approach, American students can learn critical thinking.