Posts tagged ‘why college’

It’s Not About the Answers (part 2 of 2)

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

So, critical thinking is more about asking good questions and less about having all of the answers. As stated in my previous article, the “School of Hard Knocks” may gain you considerable experience, but it often does little to develop critical thinking. Rather, it can insulate you into one particular point of view: yours.

This isolation can be intellectually dangerous.

I was inspired to write this two-part blog entry because of two events that happened recently. The first, which I addressed in part one, was a political candidate’s assertion that her education had come from the “School of Hard Knocks.” The second event was the appearance, yet again, of an e-mail hoax. The e-mail, forwarded to me by a 75-year old relative, stated that the planet Mars would appear “as large as the full moon” at the end of August 2010. In other words, the e-mail declared that the night sky would have the equivalent of two full moons. The family member who forwarded the announcement added that this was “something to think about.” This family member, who is perfectly delightful and fun to be around, has, by virtue of her age, accumulated a treasure trove of experiences. She has lived in Europe and in various locations around the United States. However, the critical thinking skills she has acquired throughout her life often have not served her very well. In fact, she is known to forward warnings about a myriad of potential threats to life and computers only to discover that these, too, are hoaxes.

So, what’s going on here?

I recall the flurry of Communication research that was done after the famous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, the producer/director/participant of the radio program, had announced at the beginning of the broadcast that the audience was about to hear a dramatic play. The program was also listed in the newspaper’s regular schedule of radio programs, much like television programs are listed today. Actually, the play was an episode of the weekly series “Mercury Theatre.” Yet, about one million people panicked and believed that Martians had invaded the Earth.

The overwhelming majority of those who panicked had tuned in late and did not hear the announcement that the program was a play. However, there was one other factor that was a common thread among those who feared for their lives: their level of education. The majority of those who succumbed to fear had a high school education or less. In fact, the percentage of those who became afraid decreased as the level of education increased. Why? The answer lies in their inability to draw on critical thinking that has been honed by knowledge outside of their own points of view.

Does this mean that all persons who have not pursued education beyond high school are doomed to live in fear? Of course not. It also does not mean that the level of education is a reflection of intelligence. What it does mean is that research has shown that there is a correlation between education and the ability to think critically.

Higher education takes you into realms of the unknown, the unfamiliar. As you broaden your realm of knowledge, you also broaden your perspectives of understanding. This, in turn, leads you to ask questions in pursuit of both clarity and answers.

It is this seeking of knowledge that is a wonderful inherent quality of being human. We are a curious species. We need to know. In that search for knowledge, we end up addressing what we do not know. The more we learn the more we realize that what we do not know is considerable. Sometimes people are afraid to go beyond their own comfort zone of knowledge, believing that what they know is sufficient. It can be. However, it also can be a narrow view of the world that isolates you into intellectual tunnel vision. Education gives you the confidence to embrace all that you do not know. It is through this realization that questions are born and critical thinking becomes a lifelong tool of intellectual inquiry.

It’s Not About the Answers (part 1 of 2)

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Recently I attended a forum that gave local people running for Congress a chance to voice their platform through a series of questions and answers. One candidate in particular caught my attention as she repeatedly stated that her education had come via the “School of Hard Knocks.” Apparently, she had no formal higher education – which, in itself, is not noteworthy. What is noteworthy is her defense of her high school G.E.D., even though it was not being challenged. As a Communication researcher, this told me that she was self-conscious about vying for public office and possibly ending up in a political forum where the majority of those elected to public office did have some form of higher education. Because she has not been a student at a higher academic level, she drew a parallel between personal experience and formal education.

This parallel is a familiar one to me, as is the “education” one gains through the “School of Hard Knocks.” My father, armed with a high school education and a fanatical love of books, felt perfectly equipped to “debate” anyone. He used to brag about how he could defeat my brother-in-law (who had two Master’s degrees in Education) in an argument. What he did not realize, of course, was that my brother-in-law would often just throw up his hands in frustration. My father’s love of books took him through works that agreed with his point of view. He did not have the ability to understand or create counter-arguments. He felt threatened by any opinion or idea contrary to his own. (To his credit, though, among his extensive library were the masterpieces of literature, such as the epic The Iliad and the works of Shakespeare.)

While I agree that there is no substitute for personal experience, I also know that higher education gives the Non-Traditional Student (NTS) a chance to view those experiences through both an enhanced and objective lens. That lens is critical thinking – and there is no substitute for academic training in this area. Critical thinking is a skill that develops arguments based upon structure and evidence, rather than emotion or intimidation. The evidence comes from the student’s expanded palette of information.

A formal education forces you to read and write about subjects, topics and issues which you would never have noticed or cared about on your own. This intake of new ideas immediately begins to expand your range of thinking. You become aware of other perspectives, which lead you to questions (rather than answers) you may never have asked had you not been in a classroom setting. Part of a well-structured argument is often a well-structured question.

So what’s the big deal? Maybe you have been going along just fine without this awareness of other perspectives. Perhaps you have developed your own critical thinking yardstick, and you feel it has served you well. There’s an old saying that goes “You don’t know what you don’t know.” This means, how do you know you are being well served by your own yardstick if you do not know what the others look like?

Recall all of your personal experiences that took you a little beyond your comfort zone – a crisis, perhaps, or maybe even just the fun of travel. Suddenly, you were given a different lens. In my own case, by the time I was 27, I had never been further west than Cincinnati, Ohio. I had lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland and upstate New York, and really had developed a kind of East Coast bias. (I had, after all, lived in 3 of the original 13 colonies!) But, at 27 I visited Las Vegas, Nevada. My plane ride took me over the Rocky Mountains and I was dumbstruck! The landscape was as foreign to me as the moon. And then, there was Las Vegas! During those 5 days there, I felt like I had become so cosmopolitan! My experience changed my perspective in that the small city of Schenectady, New York suddenly seemed so quaint, and insufficient. However, my lack of other experiences (i.e. I was so young) and formal education meant that I had only two perspectives from which to view the world – the East Coast and Las Vegas. Fortunately, the year I first visited Las Vegas was the year I would return to school as a NTS.

I remember my reaction to the knowledge I had gained with my very first course – “Marketing I.” I was dumbstruck, yet again – but this time because the landscape of my understanding of business was beginning to change. I felt cosmopolitan (again) as I now learned the importance and the intention of the “four Ps”: price, product, place and promotion. (I am amazed at how I can recall that knowledge 30 years later!) I had been given another lens through which to understand my world. Of course, this information just led to so many more questions. And that’s the point.

… to be continued