Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Google, Therefore I (do not)Think

This semester I have 90 undergraduate students in three philosophy classes. One of them is Logic, aka "critical thinking" (which is the name of the text I use). I love teaching this class. I feel as if I am giving them skills that can last a lifetime.

From my very narrow POV most students cannot think critically; i.e., they cannot think for themselves. My internet experience (e.g. Facebook; chat room discussions) tells me the same thing; viz., there's not a lot of real thinking going on out there.

There's a lot of "internet research" that mostly involves the following abilities: 1) the ability to "Google"; 2) the ability to cut and paste; and 3) the ability to make it look like your own thinking. How could you spot the non-thinking cut-and-paster? You could do this by actually getting together with them, face-to-face, and dialogueing. In a face-to-face environment we find out what people really have, cognitively.
Here, for me, is an example. A few years ago I reviewed atheist John Allen Paulos's Irreligion. Surprisingly, he wrote me. He was very cordial. He told me he doesn't care to "dialogue" on the internet. But if I was ever in Philadelphia he would enjoy going out for coffee and dialogue together. I think I would enjoy that. Paulos is brilliant, and seems kind. Yet I find some of his reasons to a-believe faulty. But here's the deal, for me. Paulos would find out if I was merely a googling cut-and-paster or could actually reason. The two are not the same.

That's why I give face-toface oral exams in my Philosophy of Religion classes. I find out "what students' got." There they sit, minus their laptops. If they google their own minds will there be anything there? It's tense, dramatic, and rewarding when you meet a young thinker, sans techno-crutches, who can actually reason.

In his new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum "determined that 45% "demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college," and 36% showed no improvement over the entire four years. Including dropouts would have made the findings even worse."  

The Chronicle of Higher Education calls this "the most significant book on higher education in years. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recently published Academically Adrift shows that for many students, four years of college make little difference in their ability to write and synthesize knowledge."

Data is not wisdom. Technology does not equal ability. The following is false: I google, therefore I think.