Is Critical Thinking Dead? (can Donald Trump pass the Turing Test?)

Is Critical Thinking Dead? (can Donald Trump pass the Turing Test?)

I joined a few dozen CSULB faculty members to grade the WPE today. Except now it’s called the GPE. The old WPE, pronounced “Wippie”, was the Writing Proficiency Exam. The new GPE, pronounced “Guppy”, is the GWAR Placement Exam. A GWAR, pronounced “GWAR”, is a Graduate Writing Assessment Requirement. An acronym within an acronym is a macronym. Or maybe an Acronymception?

The new exam is mostly the old exam with a new informational element. I think this new element tries to consider a student’s synthesis of ideas and information. Does it foster critical thinking? In the informal ramblings after we finished grading one faculty member opined that kids today are not critical thinkers. They don’t read books. They only skim. It’s all the same tid-bits surfed over superficially.

two "heads" with a spaghetti sort of line flowing between their brains

Kids Today

Although I haven’t been a kid for a long time, I tend to bristle at observations that include statements like “kids today.” They tend to feature a romanticism for some earlier, “better” times.

2016 is far from perfect. It’s hard to believe that here in 2016, in the global north, we still have to do Black Lives Matter. It’s crazy. But I don’t think it’s worse than back when we had slavery. Or back when women couldn’t vote. Or when children worked in factories. Or before penicillin. If you think it was better when kings died of things that rich and poor are routinely cured of today, then you can go back. I’ll stay and see how it goes.

illustration with a WhatsApp icon and a Book icon. Under the WhatsApp icon is the caption "last seen 8 seconds ago" and underneath the book icon is the caption "last seen 8 months ago"

Is Reading an elitist activity?

The idea that young people and college students today don’t read is a popular one. I think a lot of college students agree with it. Lament it.

Here’s the thing: young people today read more words per day, every day, than their parents or grandparents ever did. And most of that reading is followed by a response. Sometimes superficial. Sometimes profound. But give or take a few lurkers, reading today isn’t passive, it’s interactive. At least if you count all reading as reading. If you deem that some reading is more equal, then there’s an issue. Is reading novels printed on paper the only real reading? What about a novel on a phone? What about an engineering textbook? What about a blog post? What about a Tweet? Who is the arbiter of what reading is real reading? Or is all reading reading?

“Progress” is always trade-offs. Always gains and losses. Depending on your cultural ideology you might prefer to favor the gains and minimize the losses. Or lament the losses and minimize the gains. For me it’s mostly just different. But I do tend to favor the gains a bit. Of my beloved New Media I’m fond of saying that it isn’t necessarily “better,” or even “as good,” but that it is “new,” and that is powerful. I’d rather do a bad job of exploring the new than a good job of recapitulating the past.

In Magic & Loss: The Internet as Art, Virginia Heffernan considers our various chauvinisms about reading, offers that the books we hold up as the highest form of reading today were once shunned as not real reading, that only navigating your way through the complexity of a scroll was real reading, and finally she offers:

Let’s just call it all reading.

photo of Jean Piaget with a quotation

Unintended Conformity

The last time we read Guppy exams, back in July when it was still called Wippie, I wrote that it had become an unintended instrument of conformity.

  • Lack of Critical Thinking
  • Unintended Conformity

Who are the Millennial Generation students enrolled at CSULB today? Who will be the Homeland Generation students enrolling at CSULB in just a few years? What world do they live in? What do they know? What world do they want to live in? What do they want to know?

It doesn’t behoove an emerging generation to placate the world view of those who came before them.

Hennessy Youngman, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011

cover of the text "Critical Thinking Handbook", for K-3rd grades

Machine Century

Every time I grade the GPE / WPE I wonder

  • When will a machine be able to grade the GPE / WPE?
  • When will a machine be able to write a passing GPE / WPE paper?
  • When will a machine be able to write a deep, thoughtful, analytic, compelling GPE / WPE paper?

We have long existed as enhanced human-machine cyborgs.

  • Do you wear glasses?
  • Walk with a cane?
  • Use a chain saw to chop down a tree?
  • Take aspirin?
  • Use a photograph, book, or website as your Offline Memory?

You are the nexus of biology and technology. You are a cybernetic organism.

The 20th century was the century of muscle machines. The 21st of mind machines. I suspect software that could replace we GPE / WPE readers already exists. But there aren’t so many of us and we don’t make much money, so it probably isn’t anybody’s top priority so far. We like the collegiality of it for the time being.

But what about when a machine can write a passing essay?

If doors open themselves in the future, people will forget how to open doors. Does that make our future progeny stupid? Somehow less than we were? Or just efficient in the reality they live in?

Machines excel at structure and should be able to do great writing for us soon enough. So far, machines suck at creativity and innovation. Is the GPE wrong to emphasize form over content? Structure over critical thinking? Does the GPE emphasize form over content? I think it tries to emphasize both. Still, my belief about this exam is that brilliant insights with poor mechanics will not pass, whereas agonizingly mediocre insights with adequate mechanics will pass. At base, I perceive the GPE to be a test of mechanics.

Do people who “don’t read” know mechanics? Should they? We already have spelling checkers, grammar checkers, and Write-like-Hemingway checkers. Could someone with a powerful insight, poor mechanics, and a little patience use the tools of today, or tomorrow, to write a clear, concise, and compelling essay?

Cover of the book "Critical Thinking for Dummies"

Wither Critical Thinking?

I began by asking whether “kids today” are critical thinkers or not. In a world where Google can find any journal article, Wikipedia can explain any concept, YouTube can teach any skill, and MOOCs can deliver the world’s knowledge for free or low cost, a 4-year education needs to be more that it’s been in the past. Cyberspace has already replaced much of what we did in the past. Yet I’d call this the golden age of education. The golden age of knowledge. The golden age of creativity and innovation.

If our students are not thinking critically, it is our greatest failure. But is it a failure of instruction? Or a failure of perception? Have we failed to teach them? Or failed to understand the evolving nature of critical thinking? Are our students optimized for the world they live in? Are they looking out the driverless car’s front windshield while we’re busy looking through the rear view mirror?

What do you think? (critically)

I appear to have finished without saying anything about Donald Trump passing The Turing Test. It’s an interesting thought experiment. I’ll have to consider that sometime soon.

Comments? Questions? What great art did you see, make, or experience today?

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