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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Uncritical Calvin

Picture 4

Watterson, Bill. There’s Treasure Everywhere: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996. Print.

One reason Calvin and Hobbes has stayed relevant in our culture is the insight it is able to provide with humor. I started reading the comic when I was in second grade. Almost 11 years later, I still find it as fresh as ever. Similarly, it satirizes themes that have stayed significant for decades. In the comic strip above, we see Calvin arguing for learning by “factoid.” Since the strip’s publication over 20 years ago, the issue of how we learn has become even more relevant.

There seems to be a consensus across all disciplines that critical thinking is the best way to understand a given topic. But critical thinking is threatened in modern society by trends in technology. To understand why, we have to first examine exactly what critical thinking is and the process by which we derive knowledge from it. We will see that the rise of factoids creates a cog in the process, thus hindering knowledge.

At its core, critical thinking is an active process by which we use basic tools and mental faculties to make sense of more complex ideas. Also required are construction and internalization — internalization being an individual’s ability to retain information and construction being an ability to extrapolate insights from this information.

The question becomes: how do we apply our tools? It varies between disciplines. Foreign language classes are heavily based on classroom participation; math classes assign problem sets; English classes provide readings to analyze. In a way, these techniques all fall short of the critical thinking definition. They ignore construction in favor of internalization by sticking to a rigid curriculum.

Evidence of this comes after class is over, whereupon students often forget most of what they learned. Some forgetfulness is natural, but more often than not, the little amount that they remember indicates a failure to learn. I wonder, how many students would pass a class they took last spring if I handed out the same final tomorrow?

The issue seems to be in construction; they are not taught to retain the information. Students still remember the basics of a course and hopefully some of the more advanced material. Critical thinking says that this base would really be all one needs to build knowledge and learn. So, why the failure?

The reason construction falters is due to modern conditions. As information (once a form of currency in itself) becomes free, ubiquitous and essentially devalued, a new journalism is taking hold — one that values form over substance. And in this technology-driven society, that means America values information presented sensationally, simply and superficially. The phenomenon blocks construction: Learning by application, a slow and arduous process, is at odds with the modern promise of quick information presented in lists and marketed to personal devices.

If you have a Twitter, you’ve probably experienced the empty, hollow feeling after scrolling through your feed and finding nothing of interest. It’s the epicenter of playing fast and loose with material (like news) that should be a student’s greatest asset in constructing real world opinions based on their knowledge. In this way, construction is not only becoming culturally irrelevant, but functionally damaged as well.

It’s a dismal situation. The onus to fix the problem is on educational institutions, and especially college campuses. In addition to traditional approaches, professors can and should provide material on current trends that are written with substance, from insightful publications (not everything is BuzzFeed). Students should try to learn without the aid of phones and other devices. I’ve often had to physically remove my phone from the room to get work done. Sometimes, the old fashioned ways of doing things make a lot of sense.

Given that the problem of how to learn boils down to cultural phenomenon, there is no one easy solution. Culture vastly changes the psychology of people, and how they react. Ultimately, a cult of proper learning will need to come as a culture unto itself. College has always been “outside of the real world.” But with the growing problems students face at college, such as debt from student loans, the four years are starting to look more and more like post-graduate life. Solving exterior problems will help make college a place of pure academia and a better learning environment.

Don’t take it from Calvin. Factoid learning is bad. Although I will admit that television understands me.

       To make a critical assessment of ELI FLESCH, you can reach him at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @eliflesch

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