Why Johnny Can’t Think

educationTuesday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal carried a disturbing opinion piece by Jonathan Jacobs titled, “As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture.” Mr. Jacobs is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Jacobs maintains that the inability of so many college students today to think clearly and to construct logical arguments will not only dim their chances for success in the future, it will also undermine the quality of our civic life. “A liberal democracy,” he writes, “requires a certain kind of civic culture, one in which citizens understand its distinctive principles and strive to preserve them by addressing issues and one another in a responsible manner. That is essential to the mutual respect at the core of liberal democracy.”

Unfortunately, he says, many of today’s entering college students are the product of an educational system that has endowed them with high self-esteem and high expectations but very little capacity to reason. As a result, “Even after three or four years of undergraduate education, many students still cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely ‘saying something’ and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument.”

To that, I can only nod in sad agreement, having spent several semesters as an adjunct instructor at a local college attempting to get today’s students to think. It was a vain effort. Not only do undergraduates resist thinking, they seem to see no need for it. Years of grade inflation have persuaded them that they should get top grades merely for showing up and for turning in some kind of work product, however flawed.  And woe to the instructor who demands more from them than that!

I will never forget the first time I tried to guide twenty freshmen through a course on rhetoric and public speaking. The course was about communicating effectively, but it also had a strong civics component; it was intended to help turn these students into responsible, participating members of a democratic society.

One day, a student whom I will call “Jimmy” was giving a required five-minute persuasive speech on a public issue. He had chosen to argue against the death penalty. During his talk, he cited what he claimed was a study by the University of Michigan Law School to the effect that 22 percent of the inmates on death row were innocent. From that, he concluded that “with an error rate this high, we can be sure that many innocent people have been put to death.”

The 22 percent figure instantly struck me as fishy, but I had no evidence at hand to challenge it. Instead, when I critiqued Jimmy’s speech, I said that he had committed a non sequitur. Specifically, I told him that even if 22 percent of the inmates on death row were found to be innocent, that does not prove that “many innocent people have been put to death.” Where, I asked him, is the proof? Where are the studies exonerating inmates who have actually been executed?

In reply, Jimmy berated me for ”giving him a hard time” after he had “worked so hard” on his speech. He also appealed to his classmates, asking if they found the argument persuasive. When they did, he took that as evidence that he was right and I was wrong. The dismissal bell ended what had become a rather heated exchange of views, but I fact-checked Jimmy’s speech over the next couple of days, and when the class met again I was ready to give them a real lesson in critical thinking.

I began by asking the class what protections our system of justice gave to accused persons. The kids knew about Miranda warnings from television and some of them knew about the right to trial by jury and other key provisions of the Bill of Rights. Then I asked them, “Given all the protections that our system of justice accords to accused persons, is it reasonable to believe that 22 percent of the inmates on death row are innocent? Remember, 22 percent is more than one in five?”

Dead silence. Obviously, they hadn’t thought of that.

Then I asked them how the University of Michigan Law School, one of the leading law schools in the country, could have published such a suspicious finding as fact. When they couldn’t come up with an answer, I informed them that the law school had actually never published such a finding. I knew that because I had looked up the study.

The study, I continued, spanned the years between 1989 and 2003 and covered exonerations for all serious crimes, not just capital crimes. The study found that there were a total of 340 exonerations out of a peak prison population of 1,404,032. Furthermore, of these 340 exonerations, only 74 were for persons on death row, out of a peak death row population of 3577.

“Now then, ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “I’m not very good at math, but it seems to me that 74 cannot possibly be 22 percent of 3577. In fact, if you do the arithmetic, it’s just 2.07 percent. Can you help us, Jimmy? How did you get 22 percent?”

At this point I was beginning to feel like a bully. Was poor little Jimmy going to break down and cry under this remorselessly logical demolition of his argument?

I needn’t have worried. Jimmy appeared to be only mildly bemused by my wrecking ball. He said that he hadn’t read the study itself, but had found the 22 percent figure on a web site showing a graph based on the study. In reply, I pointed out that 74 death row exonerations was 22 percent of 340—the total number of exonerations covered by the study. Apparently, Jimmy had misread the graph.

As the period drew to a close, I suddenly asked my scholars how many of them knew who Thomas Edison was. Out of a class of 20, only six could identify Edison as the inventor of the light bulb.

I told them that Edison had a favorite quotation that he had framed and hung on a wall of his laboratory. It was from the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. I wrote the quotation on the blackboard as their lesson for the day: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

After reading Mr. Jacobs’ op/ed, I realized that I had given those students the wrong quotation. I should have used this one from Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Class dismissed. punditwire

HGordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.


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  • powerful and chilling piece.

  • Anne E