Does modern education make people less likely to have their minds changed by sound arguments?
That’s Tejenig Topjian’s claim in the aptly titled article “Why Education and Philosophy Stand in Opposition to Each Other.” Debating metaphysical truth-claims has fallen out of fashion lately. Philosophy is no longer able to persuade because our educational system is geared toward “indoctrinating kids about specific facts and theories” rather than teaching the larger “process of knowledge creation, information processing, truth seeking, and critical evaluation.”
In other words, the modernly educated lack the critical-thinking skills necessary to properly evaluate various perspectives. So we don’t engage new ways of thinking with an open mind; we dig in our heels, relying on what we already know. What we lack in smarts, oddly, we make up for in stubbornness.
Elizabeth Kolbert shows how this works in a recent New Yorker article, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” After recounting a number of studies on how “first impressions” are extremely immalleable in the face of new, challenging evidence, Kolbert identifies what she calls a “myside bias.” Essentially, this means humans “aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.”
By not teaching students how to think critically, modern education only reinforces this “myside bias.” In the end, there’s only one path forward for Topjian:
The only way the above two ideas wouldn’t contradict each other is if our education system was in fact built to teach thinking. If we were teaching kids how to think and not what to think, then when they are exposed to new ideas and conflicting information, they will have the mental tools to discern good ideas from bad ones.
As an educator, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Education writ large has abandoned the liberating arts for a more pragmatic, technical sort of schooling. While the education of yesteryear was focused on forming the right sort of person—one able to think for himself or herself—modern education is geared toward training the right sort of professional, one bound to a trade.
This is why C. S. Lewis goes so far as to call liberal learning “for freemen” and vocational training “for slaves.” The former frees the students to navigate truth on their own (thus flourish), while the later simply teaches them to use the tools in front of them (thus function). The former is focused on who the student is while the later emphasizes what the student does.
The net result of this educational shift is that philosophy, logic, and the like find little traction among the modernly educated. They know what they know, but they lack the old tools once used to know how to know. The McDonaldization of education is skilled at giving out fish sandwiches to the masses, but is ill equipped to teach individual pupils how to fish, let alone how to use the deep fryer.
As a Christian, however, I’m not quite ready to give up on our culture. In fact, I would say we uniquely have the tools necessary to answer Topjian’s lament-filled question: “If it takes two decades to teach people how the world works, how is a portion of that learning supposed to be undone in just a few hours of reading or argumentation?”
While our current climate may make the “undoing of learning” through philosophizing difficult, it doesn’t mean persuasion is a hopeless enterprise altogether. After all, humans are complex; no one is a brain on a stick. Even if we can’t appeal to the head, we can still persuade the hands and the heart.
Persuading the hands
Topjian says modern education is concerned with “teaching young people how the world is.” Modern education is tactile, appealing to the practical, the pragmatic. Christians shouldn’t view such a background as a particularly unusual stumbling block. Too often, we’ve bought into the modern lie that reality is “secular” or “neutral.” Insofar as we see “street smarts” as somehow incompatible with biblical wisdom, we’re leaning more on Gnosticism than Christianity.
This world is in fact creation; that is, it has a Creator, God. All that exists is His—even reality. Epistemologist Esther Lightcap Meek puts it beautifully, “Creation is the outcome of a divine conversation, ‘let there be!’ Reality is thus an epiphany—a word of God’s steadfast love.”
So that wisdom gained from bumping up against reality is heavenly wisdom; and that wisdom learned from Scripture is practical wisdom. If someone isn’t immediately drawn to a theological discussion, we must not lose hope! They are walking on God’s territory if they’re fixing a bike, writing code, or organizing a business, not just when they’re thinking through the problem of evil. We must become more skilled at appealing to the concrete logic of the hands. Moving from the practical/tactile to the theoretical/metaphysical is a persuasive, biblical apologetic move. Ask Solomon.
Persuading the heart
At the end of the day, the main stumbling block preventing one from being persuaded by the gospel is not intellectual anyhow. According to St. Paul, we suppress the truth of God for a lie, exchanging the invisible for the visible. Our brains are not idiotic, our hearts are idolatrous. If we come to see evangelistic encounters in this way—spiritual struggles of the heart rather than intellectual sparring matches—we’ll come to see the modernly educated as no different than any other human: bursting with dignity, yet broken and in need of a heart transformation. Of course, this doesn’t exclude philosophical augment, etc. but neither does it depend on such tactics. I’ve always been fascinated by C. S. Lewis’ description of his conversion:
I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.
In the end, I’m discouraged by the lack of critical thought and philosophical inquiry in our cultural moment. There is a real need to shift education back to its liberal roots. However, I have hope that persuasion is still possible precisely because the gospel isn’t about a philosophy, it’s about a Person; and it’s not an argument, it’s an announcement. Lewis’ description of his experience is heartening as we seek to persuade seemingly unmovable minds. The Gospel is divine smelling salts—able to awake the hands, heart, and even the head from the deepest of slumbers.
Image courtesy of alessandroguerriero at Thinkstock by Getty Images.
Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, Texas. Additionally, Dustin is a senior fellow at the Center for Cultural Leadership and the pastoral associate at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, Texas. A graduate of Boyce College and Covenant Seminary, Dustin is completing his doctoral work in religion and ethics at La Salle University.