Are colleges teaching students how to think?

A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus in State College

A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus in State College

“A cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with an education.”—Mark Twain

A friend once told me that he thought the principal value of his college education was to find a job that would provide him with enough money to pay for his kids to have one.

Today, roughly 40 percent of Americans of college age actually do go to college at an average annual cost of $31,000 for a private university and $9,000 for a public. This has placed such an education beyond the reach of many who might otherwise be eligible for it. As Bernie Sanders puts it, “the cost of college education today is so high that many young people are giving up their dream of going to college, while many others are graduating deeply in debt.”

Is all this worth the effort or the cost? Many would say that becoming a plumber would offer an equal fiscal reward over the span of a working life. But then one has to ask: Is the purpose of a college education to enhance one’s earning prospects? Or is it more than that?

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In the 1950s and ’60s about three Britons in 100 actually attended a university. In fact, in those days there were only a dozen or so universities in the whole of the UK — and tuition was free. Today there are more than 100, and the percentage of the population in college is now roughly the same as that in the United States.

Much depends of course on what constitutes an education. Columbia College in Chicago offers a course in zombies in popular media; another, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, offers one titled “What if Harry Potter is real?” and the athletics department of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, offers a course in which students “learn to juggle, starting with three balls.”

I was spared much of that McSchooling at my Catholic boarding school in the UK. To begin with, there was no homework — because nobody went home; instead, after finishing one’s assignments, one was held hostage in a large room whose walls contained the literary classics: Dickens, Scott, Shakespeare, etc. We had no choice but to read before we were set free, a habit that continues to give me great joy.

Moreover, this school engendered my first efforts at critical thinking — or, at least, critical questioning. The place was run by an order of priests of whom I would often ask what was their knowledge of such non-Catholic religions as Judaism, Hinduism, and even Presbyterianism. But I looked in vain for an answer. At university I joined the debating society, which was also a good way of putting a certain gloss on one’s skepticism — critical thinking, possibly of the smart-aleck type.

That university, situated in Ireland, afforded the curious ample opportunity for critical appraisal of the rival claims of the Catholic South and the Protestant North.

But if the real purpose is to imbue students with critical thinking skills, then courses in philosophy, politics, and economics — what is called at Oxford the PPE degree — might be more useful. There are 35 members of the present UK Parliament who hold PPEs. By contrast, only two UK leaders, John Major and Winston Churchill, had no degree of any kind, although Churchill did go to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and went on to write several books, including the six-volume history of World War II that won him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953.

Our education system gives little more than lip service to critical thinking and a system that’s barely cognizant of the fact that a skills-based approach to training inevitably promotes specialization and thus narrow-mindedness, writes Jordan Shapiro in Forbes magazine.

An organization called the Critical Thinking Community found that most college faculty lack a substantive concept of critical thinking. Moreover,
 most college faculty don’t realize this and believe that are teaching it to students. And ineffective methods such as lectures, rote memorization, and short-term study habits are still the standard of college instruction.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment is a test that measures critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communications skills in college students. Researchers have reported that students didn’t improve their scores much after four years of college, and a one-third didn’t improve at all.

Critical thinking makes you ask questions.

But not everywhere. My son, who teaches in a Shanghai business school, says that students in China are encouraged not to question teachers. If teachers ask if the students have any questions, they’re met with silence which, he believes, is due to face-saving. The students don’t want to ask a question that might make them look foolish in front of their peers.

Developing a healthy skepticism about the information doled out in class gives a broader perspective on the world as well as the capacity and the desire to delve into topics that may seem to have no immediate value or relevance. John Maynard Keynes, for example, was strongly grounded in Latin and Greek before ultimately opting for economics, the science in which he was — and remains today — preeminent.

So for those who plan to go to college simply for financial reward and for stuffing their brains with facts, they should think again — critically.

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