The Death of Thinking
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
I recently came across a series of articles discussing how school principals across the country are silently pulling books from the shelves of their libraries. With many states and school boards placing bans on books that discuss racism and LGBTQ+ issues, these principals are proactively censoring books in an effort to escape the wrath of parents who might complain about a book in their school library being made available to their students. Indeed, principals have gone so far as to revoke their librarian’s authority and have taken on the role of micromanaging every book that is purchased for their school library.
The argument for why such actions are justified is that every parent has the right to determine what their children should and should not read. By making certain books available in the school library, the parent loses control over what books their child is consuming. In this way, the school is violating an unspoken sacred boundary and must ensure that no child is exposed to ideas or literature that could cause undo harm to the children entrusted to their care.
This entire charade is ridiculous for a number of reasons. First of all, given what most kids see on their TikTok accounts, I can tell you that no book they read in school will be more shocking than what they’ve already watched on the social media. Second of all, I have many school librarians who are personal friends and each of them have told me, if you can even get a kid to step foot inside the library, let alone crack a book open, it’s a win. Most kids, if they even read at all, do the majority of their reading online. Moreover, they can get access to any book they want online. Therefore, this notion that removing a book from the library will somehow inhibit them from reading objectionable material is ludicrous.
Clearly, the reason why parents are focusing their rage on school libraries and classrooms is because they’ve already lost the information war. Whether they choose to admit it or not, many parents know they cannot control the flow of information entering into their children’s minds. The moment you place a device connected to the internet in their hands, literally nothing is out of their reach. With a few digital keystrokes, they can find anything their hearts desire and much, much more.
The Loss of Control
Herein lies the problem. For generations, parents could safely fence their children off from knowledge they didn’t want them to consume. If you dislike the public school system because they teach about evolution and you want your kids to believe that the earth is 6000 years old, then then you could always home school your kids. But today, even if you shelter your children by encasing them in bubble wrap, there are simply too many avenues that allow access to opposing perspectives. Even if your kids aren’t perusing Wikipedia for their research papers (which they are), they will be exposed to differing perspectives on social media, YouTube and through chats in the games they play.
Therefore, it is a forgone conclusion that your kids will be exposed to contradictory information. In this case, the only thing you can really do is to shut down your kid’s critical thinking apparatus. Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments to form a judgment. If your children can’t think critically about the information they are reading, then opposing views can never penetrate and alter the perspective taught by their parents. Today, the inability to think critically about information is one of the greatest existential threats that we face as a society.
Let’s use Christianity as an example. When people come to church, the stories in the Bible are often spoken of from the pulpit as if they were factually true. A critically thinking person would ask the question: Did this story actually happen as it is portrayed in the Bible? In many churches, not only is asking such a question off limits, but if you transgress the boundary of posing this question, you will face ridicule, backlash and the possibility of being ostracized from the community.
Why is critical thinking like this so dangerous? Because the Christian faith is often built upon the premise that the Bible is inerrant. If even one of the stories did not happen as portrayed, then all of the main assertions of the Christian faith fall under scrutiny: Was Jesus actually born of a virgin? Was Jesus actually physically resurrected from the dead? Was Jesus actually God in the flesh? Therefore, it should be no surprise that there is a distinct correlation between those who attend conservative Christian churches and a lack of critical thinking skills.
The net result of this type of unfaltering acceptance is that we lose the individual ability to differentiate good from bad information. Because we lack the ability to personally make a decision as to what is factually accurate, we are left to rely on interpretative authorities. In other words, since we are incapable of doing our own research to differentiate fact from fiction, we rely on trusted authorities to provide us with the correct interpretation of the information. This could be in the form of a pastor who tells you how to interpret the Bible or a news broadcaster who tells you how to interpret a world event or a politician who tells you how you should feel about a certain situation.
Since so many adults rely on these interpretive authorities and they have no capacity for digesting alternative or contradictory information, their default position is that any opposing viewpoints should simply be eliminated from the conversation. For instance, if you have been taught by church authorities to believe that being gay is not only a sin, but a choice, then you clearly don’t want your child to choose to be gay. Therefore, you don’t want your children exposed to anything, literature or otherwise, that might influence them away from the choice of being heterosexual.
By teaching their children to rely on interpretive authorities and by never exposing them to opposing viewpoints or by painting those opposing viewpoints as evil, adults are excising critical thinking skills from their children’s mental toolbox. The long-term effects of this lack of critical thinking are already being felt by our society. In a recent survey from the American Enterprise Institute, one in three Americans agreed with the following statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” In other words, if my way of life is no longer the status quo, then violence is justified to return our society to that status quo. This is the kind of thinking that leads to fascism.
Indeed, take the example of the Nazi government. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933. Among their first order of business was banning books that contradicted their party’s point of view. The first major book burning took place on May 6, 1933. The German Student Union raided Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research, where some 20,000 books and journals were publicly hauled out and burned in the street.
Joseph Goebbels delivered an address to 40,000 people where he said: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!” This was the first of many book burnings where the goal was to censor any research or ideas influenced by Jewish thinkers. These Nazi purges were always performed under the guise of maintaining traditional morality, which reflects the reasoning being employed by principals, school boards and legislatures across the United States.
Freedom of Thought
Book banning and censorship is always the first step towards fascism because, by controlling the availably of information, the public is never given a chance to entertain any alternative viewpoints. We see this happening right now in Russia as they shut down every independent news organization so that the Kremlin can control the message being broadcast to the public about the war in Ukraine.
Obviously, this way of thinking is completely contradictory to the American ethos of a free-thinking society. Our country was founded upon the notion that there should be no restrictions upon knowledge, hence freedom of speech and freedom of press. As a free-thinking person, you should be able to read whatever you want and come to your own determination as to whether or not you agree.
In this way, no book should be off limits. A person should be able to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Carl Marx’s Das Kapital, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Malcolm X’s Autobiography and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? without restrictions. These are all competing points of view and each of them paint a very different picture of the world. Of course, when reading all of these books, it helps for the reader to have some context about the history surrounding how and why these books were written. They were not written in a vacuum and each author brings their own experiences to the table.
This is how critical thinking operates. You never take anything at face value. If you’re going to read Mein Kampf, it helps to know about the history of the German Empire, the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, the economic conditions that prompted Hitler to write his book and Hitler’s personal history of being rejected from an art school whose faculty was predominately Jewish. Without all of these elements, you would read Mein Kampf and quickly come to the conclusion that the Jewish people are not only responsible for the downfall of the German Empire, but they are also part of a global conspiracy to control the entire world.
Obviously, we still must render proper judgment about whether a book is age appropriate for the reader. A student should be of a certain age before reading about the horrors of the Holocaust or the evils of American slavery. I started learning about most of these subjects in detail when I was in middle school. I distinctly remember watching footage of the German death camps being liberated by Allied forces when I was 12 years old in 6th grade and reading The Diary of Anne Frank.
However, this is not to say I was never exposed to ideas about anti-Semitism, racism and sexism when I was in elementary school. I was very much aware these problems existed. I have vivid memories of our teachers telling us to never judge someone based on the color of their skin or whether they were a boy or a girl or based on their religion. These seeds were important because they laid the groundwork for my appreciation of the true depth of these societal problems as I became older.
However, as much as I was exposed to some of these issues, I grew in the 1980s and 90s, before people openly spoke about LGBTQ+ issues. I wish I had exposure to this from a young age in the way my children are exposed to it today. There was great prejudice around being gay and lesbian when I was in school. Today, I am aware of how a number of my classmates suffered because of having to hide their sexuality for fear of being bullied by their classmates. Indeed, some were targeted and brutalized for being different.
A Brave New World
For my children's generation, nobody bats an eye at being gay or transgender. It’s just normal. In fact, my sons’ generation will call you out for being homophobic or transphobic. This normalization is what many people fear. I recently had a conversation with an older guy at my gym who said, “When I was growing up, you were either a boy or a girl. This in-between stuff is nonsense.” I replied, “When you were growing up all of these people existed, it just wasn’t socially acceptable for them to voice their perspective, so you weren’t aware of it.” He conceded that was probably true.
The world changes around us without asking our permission. As we age, there are points where everyone says, “I don’t understand the way the world works any longer.” When faced with this reality, we have two options: we can fear that change and fight against it or we can listen, learn and try to understand why the world is changing. I choose the latter because I am a critical thinker and I acknowledge that my way of thinking is not necessarily the right way of thinking. I am always open to my perspective being upended and replaced by something new and better, as long as the evidence supports such changes. Sadly, this is not where we are as a society. Critical thinking skills simply are not being taught at all.
When I was studying at Oxford University, every time I wrote a paper, I had to spend half of the paper articulating the argument of the side with which I disagreed. In fact, I would be failed if I could not articulate their argument as well as, or better than my own. Their reasoning was you cannot understand the weaknesses of your own position unless you fully understand the perspective of your opponent. Often, by having to fully articulate the arguments of a rival thinker, I discovered certain legitimate points that I had previously overlooked and developed sympathy for their position.
Today, we find ourselves in a world where most people have only ever considered their own positions and, frequently, they are simply parroting the opinions of the people who they see as an interpretive authority. Moreover, as I discussed in my article on declining empathy, our society has become hyper-individualistic. We have become singularly focused on meeting our own interests regardless of the consequences those interests exact on others. This is a dangerous combination: lack of critical thinking combined with a sense of entitlement, which brings me back to the beginning of this article.
We started by talking about how principals, school boards and legislatures are removing objectionable material from their libraries for fear of backlash. In reality, the exact opposite should be happening. A library should be stocked with every sort of book, even books with contradictory messages. Our goal should be to expose our children to as many competing viewpoints as possible because then they will be forced to sort through the information and develop a critical thinking mind. I believe strongly in the adage information is power. Indeed, freedom of information is the foundation of our constitution and the very fabric of a democratic society. Let’s do our part to ensure the accumulation of knowledge remains a fundamental aspect of our society for generations to come.