When thinking is critical

Is our education system producing citizens who can’t make a tough call?

A recent poll suggests that on the issues of capital punishment and decriminalizing marijuana, Canadians are split. On capital punishment, 40 percent would like to see it come back. 46 per cent oppose the reintroduction.

Fair enough: it’s a tough issue, and though I myself oppose capital punishment, I can see how a reasonable person might favour it. What bothers me about the poll, though, is that 14 percent neither support nor oppose reintroducing the death penalty. On an issue of such importance, an issue that has been debated so thoroughly, why are there so many — more than one in ten — who can’t make up their minds?

My hope is that for most of them, the issue is so thorny, they just cannot find a way through it, struggle as they might. My fear, though, is that most of  them haven’t thought much about it at all, or, worse, imagine that on difficult issues there is no point trying to come down on one side or the other. Indeed, I worry that many of them think it is foolish to try.

I worry about it because I frequently see the same quality of mind in my first-year students. They confuse critical thinking with pure open-mindedness. That is, they want to be open to all points of view (which is good), but they think it close-minded and intolerant to finally accept one and reject others. As such, it is difficult to teach them to write a persuasive essay, since they not only resist convincing someone else of their position, they resist taking a position in the first place.

On the issue of decriminalizing marijuana–not a life and death issue– the undecideds are even greater. Fully 20 percent of Canadians can’t or won’t take a stand on the issue. Why not? If democracy is to have any value, it must be premised on a population capable of reviewing the facts, weighing the arguments, and deciding which position is better. What is the point of a jury of one’s peers if one’s peers can’t take a reasonable position on your guilt or innocence? It is worth pointing out here that for both questions, the numbers of undecideds have increased compared to ten years ago.

Creating a population capable of thinking well is, it seems to me, the main justification for a public education system. If these polls — and my first-year students — are any indication, that system may be failing us.