AM McEwan – Education is about teaching people to think critically

What then became crucial Thierry is we are getting back to the skills. Now the skills and education, higher education, should – I mean if education is about nothing, certainly at post-graduate level, it’s about teaching people to think critically. You know there is nothing else. It’s not about the content, it’s about how you engage with the content, and it’s about what you do with it. It’s about you critique it, it’s about you adapt, it’s how you use it and it’s about how you reflect on it.

You know and that, those are the skills, the very skills that I think in our connected information-rich world… I want help Susan Greenfield, a much derided neurologist. I don’t deride her. I think all she does is ask questions. – And here is another thing; on the internet, critical thinking, asking questions is a dangerous thing sometimes. Because it takes you against the flow and if you go against the flow, my god, people are going to cut you right down. –

So she has been painted, I think, as being this bad woman, who says, you know social technology is bad for you. They change your brain. Look what she is saying is, let’s ask a question, that when children are young, and their minds are malleable, let’s just be careful, let’s just… So she said, that we live in an information-rich world and a question-poor world. And I think that’s absolutely right. And that phrase: information-rich question-poor, that to me cuts to the heart of education, higher education in particular, because it’s about teaching to ask questions. And it’s about teaching to frame questions; it’s about teaching to select what we are going to pay attention to. And yes, I mean, for me, this goes all the way back to my undergraduate days.

I went to university late. So I was in my mid-20s by the time I went to Warwick, and I remember doing a… the history of the industrial revolution is one of my electives. And I learned more from that, than probably anything. And I remember one particular tutorial and Maxine [Maxine Berg] she… and we were looking at a paper, and this paper was about the contribution that the cotton industry had made to the Industrial Revolution. And, you know, to the dynamics of the Industrial Revolution. And it was pivotal actually. From memory, the statistics that was being thrown around then – it’s probably wrong but let’s just use it for an example – was that, the cotton industry was contributing between 5% and 10% of GDP at that point. All the commentator, all the academics, were saying this was significant. This paper that we were reading was by an author, who said that the cotton industry was ONLY contributing between 5 and 10% of GDP.

Maxine said to us, “did that make any sense?” and we all went,” “no”. She said: “do not ever, ever, ever, ever anybody let do that to you”. She said: “if you remember nothing” and I picked up, and she said, that we were doing there has changed it, changed it entirely. And it turned out that this particular academic, and she had given us this paper to read specifically, was well known for having racist tendencies. So it was very, very interesting, what she was teaching is, was: who is telling you what, what are they not telling you? What’s the language that they are using? And that word only, entirely changed the meaning. Because you know it was like, well it’s only 5 or 10%…

So, getting back to your question about education. Education, formal education has been failing if it hasn’t taught people, how to interrogate data, how to interrogate information, how to make sense of information, how to look for bias and how to test it. There is no other purpose of either doing an undergraduate or a postgraduate degree. And if we find ourselves now in situation, where critical thinking skills are lacking, then higher education has been lacking.

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