Learning Matters – Habits of Thought

Chancellor Carrell

The last year, including this month of March 2021, has held tragedy upon tragedy – from COVID-19 deaths and disparities, to hate and violence. As a person, I’m grieved by every element of these situations – and as an educator, I’m especially determined to understand the learning that has led people to habits of thought that can include hate and indifference.

Scholars have much to say about such thinking and how it can be challenged, and their work is worthy of our deep study and ongoing dialogue. And, at the practical level of instruction, we educators at all levels have not yet been able to broadly teach habits of thought that make such attitudes “unthinkable.” The learning outcome we routinely identify as “critical thinking” can be found in lesson plans from kindergarten through college, and yet – sadly, here we are, living with the many heartbreaking outcomes of something other than that. While some blame social media, the role of individual reasoning cannot be ignored.

When I was teaching persuasion to high school students, we had a standard list of “fallacious reasoning” traps like slippery slope, bandwagon, ad hominem, red herring, false dichotomy, straw ‘man’ and more. Most of my teenaged students could memorize these fallacies, provide examples and even engage in formal debates in which they countered such poor reasoning. These lessons in thinking seem not to be as basic as I once imagined.

The “hasty generalization” fallacy appears especially pervasive – sweeping conclusions based on limited evidence; making assumptions about a whole group based on one atypical example, a small subset or false information. How long would you need to scroll to find this type of faulty reasoning among the comments on your social media feed? Even as I struggle with our societal responsibility as educators, I have recommitted to an ongoing inspection of my own thinking for hasty generalizations.

There are certainly other variables related to environment and enculturation that work against this essential learning outcome we seek; yet, the pursuit of critical thinking, free of fallacy, is central to human progress and perhaps defines what it means to be a life-long learner. The lyrics from the 1949 musical South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…,” remind us that among the range of options for human thought and action, the choices people make are a matter of learning, and indeed, Learning Matters.

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