On the Critical Need for Constructive Thinkers
“Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence.” So begins Michael S. Roth’s timely article, Young Minds in Critical Condition. As Professor Roth points out, today’s cultural climate (especially on University campuses) tends to privilege critical inquiry while regarding the pursuit of excellence with suspicion. Though this may seem to be a minor shift in emphasis, it carries significant implications, both for our graduates and the world they will help to shape.
As the President of Wesleyan University and a gifted teacher himself, Professor Roth is no stranger to the climate in college classrooms, where intellectual prowess exists in direct proportion to one’s critical skills. Students adept at unmasking, debunking, and calling into question the prevailing assumptions of a given author or tradition are highly prized in this environment. But the complimentary pursuit of giving the benefit of the doubt, or even a sympathetic reading to these same authors and traditions continues to wane.
It is no surprise that in a consumer society that reduces nearly everything to a sales pitch or a marketing strategy, we place a high premium on those who aren’t easily fooled. Indeed, gullibility is the cardinal error for many of today's leading critics and scholars. C.S. Lewis once warned that we should be wary whenever a negative virtue comes to replace one that is positive. He uses the example of the word “unselfishness” replacing “love” as the supreme virtue. In our own day, skepticism has replaced the pursuit of excellence as the defining characteristic of great thinkers, and this is of far more than passing significance.
Whenever they are harmonized, critical inquiry and the pursuit of excellence have ushered in lasting cultural contributions. Whenever they are separated, however, these two yield results that are decidedly lopsided. The pursuit of excellence devoid of critical inquiry is naïve. Likewise, critical inquiry without the pursuit of excellence terminates in cynicism. Our infatuation with critical inquiry has disrupted a necessary balance in our education system. Unchecked skepticism will always stifle the creativity necessary for lasting cultural contributions because it draws all its energy from a source of pure negation. Phrased even more starkly, without anything to arrest its relentless motion, unchecked skepticism precludes the possibility of ever arriving at ultimate truth. Thus the great tradition of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth becomes simply critical inquiry with no end in sight.
Professor Roth puts it well: “Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science.” Of all these qualities, commitment is the one in shortest supply these days. Critical thinking is suffering because many of us are unwilling to settle on an answer. It seems we have unwittingly transferred our consumer mindset over to our intellectual pursuits. Confronted with the manifold choices in the “marketplace of ideas,” we want to keep our options open. But at some point inquiry must lead somewhere; exploration must to give way to discovery; thoughts must go home, so to speak. All sound critical thinking has a destination.
In the natural progression, critical thinking gives way to constructive thinking. And now we come to one of the most salient problems currently dogging our institutes of higher learning: Constructive thinking is risky. It runs the risk of failure; it runs the risk of being met with scorn, derision and rejection. Constructive thinking also requires sacrifice in that it dispenses with the limitless search of pure skepticism in favor of an actual answer, solution, or proposal. The energy necessary to proposing an answer, a solution—to building a better world—requires a level of commitment, participation, and absorption that skepticism alone can never provide. Lone skepticism, keeping our options open, playing the intellectual field—this is undoubtedly the path of least resistance. But it also carries very little hope for improving our world in any tangible or lasting ways. Again, all sound critical thinking has a destination.
In a culture in desperate need of constructive thinkers, one of the virtues most in need of cultivation in our young men and women may just be courage.