Natasha Robson on the need for Critical Thinking.

Natasha Robson writes:

Dear reader,

This is a call to action. I have a simple and easily implementable proposition. Recently, there has been talk of and movement towards a restructuring of the history curriculum in the UK – and not before time. I believe now is the time to take action in education more generally, in order for this to have a real, pervasive, and lasting effect.

My research has led me to believe that in the present-day world it is ever-more necessary to promote critical thinking skills in all people and populations. I originally reached this conclusion when writing my specifically racism-orientated MA thesis, which considered the aspects of culture and personal psychology that maintain structures of prejudice within a society. My current work looks more broadly at how the capacity for objectivity and the ability to question received wisdom and assertions of ‘truth’ have become deeply important skills – in interpersonal interactions, in our internal decision-making, in our consumption of media and media-like information. Recent weeks have demonstrated more clearly than ever before (to those that had any doubt) that unconscious bias is still an enormous problem, and without the tools with which to assess and reassess our internalised beliefs the recognition of deeply entrenched and problematic thinking is almost impossible.

Furthermore, the incidence and pervasiveness of ‘fake news’ and targeted manipulation is probably at a higher level than ever before. Countries such as Finland have already implemented educational strategies to mitigate against the effect of this informational environment on future generations. Why haven’t we?

I propose is that a collection of short courses be created and delivered, to secondary-school children at first (and/or perhaps teachers, so that they can add the ideas into classroom vocabulary), in order to supplement the changes being made in the teaching of history. Why? Let us briefly consider what it is to be a human brain:

Lippmann’s Stereotypes – Walter Lippmann asserted around a century ago that humans survive by simplifying the world around them. People to whom they have no personal-experience-anchor are composed of collections of generalisations.

Confirmation bias – If our views and opinions are problematic or prejudiced, we will ignore that which puts this into question, and find it difficult to engage with evidence that contradicts these ideas. Awareness of this trait allows us to combat it within ourselves.

Primary and Secondary Socialisation (Berger and Luckman), Theory of Personal Constructs (Kelly) – our ‘reality’ is in a constant state of reinforcement. If the environment at home in our period of primary socialisation is one of prejudice and hostility towards ‘other’, a simply passively tolerant school environment is not sufficient to challenge these ideologies and prevent their internalisation. An educational environment that constantly challenges prejudice and intolerance and drives questioning and objectivity allows for the individual to develop a more tolerant and questioning world-view. Kelly asserts that we are a product of our lived experiences – the only way to broaden our world-view is to exercise objectivity and expose ourselves to new information and ideas. A flawed conception of ‘other’ might be the product of socialisation and lived experience. Without personal experience of discrimination, it is difficult to conceive of its power or pervasiveness.

Emotional versus rational thinking – our emotional response is far quicker and longer-lasting than our rational response. Research (for example, Hill 2010) shows that not is this the case, but that emotionally-charged experiences are more likely to be committed to long-term memory. Thus, mis- and dis-information that aims to promote an emotional response (such as populist rhetoric etc) is remembered, and therefore has greater power.

Cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold two mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas at the same time. This, like all other ideas presented, is accepted as a fairly universal phenomenon. It is particularly pertinent in current discussions about the existence of systemic and internalised prejudice within our own culture.

This is just a small selection. My assertion is thus: if we are aware of the fallibility of our own brains, we are better able to sort through the complex barrage of information and conflicting ideas we are constantly faced with. With such a general approach, no accusation is being made: humanity’s neurological and psychological fallibility is clear, the impact these predispositions have on our relationships with one another and the world is tangible.

Changing the history syllabus is a huge step, but it will struggle to change ideologies on its own. Critical thinking, while taught to teachers and at HE level (and as an optional A Level), is not in the school-age curriculum except as guidance for PSHE – a subject that many young people will disregard, and one which is often taught by teachers specialising in another subject. It is therefore often only taught where individual teachers find ways of doing so.

Ultimately a core change is necessary – so that all subjects inspire a critical outlook, rather than aspects (for example, the sciences teach us to question and prove, English teaches us to be analytical – but not explicitly) of subjects promoting disparate elements of critical thought.

This is a call to action.

If we do not learn to better understand ourselves and the workings of our own mind, the prospect of further divisiveness, polarisation, reinforcement of prejudice is not simply a possible future, it is the future. If we cannot take control of our own opinion-formation, it will be done for us.

I have begun my own journey towards achieving this goal, working with the university, the council, The Brilliant Club, and as a private freelancer. I have recently begun an academic blog, available here:

My CT Twitter handle is @CT_PhD_Tash


About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
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