Today I was posed this question by a media personality in Ireland and asked to write my comments for an upcoming TV show on this topic. Here’s my view …

The Western education system teaches students to be logically irrational rather than creatively rational. We teach our children to debate and defend their viewpoints rather than to escape and find even better ones. We teach our kids to lock themselves defensively inside the square rather than take an innovative leap outside the square. This makes them very slow thinkers.

Of course, in spite of all this, there are always a few exceptions and, depending on our mood, we either sing their creative praises or we single them out for judgment and correction. Interestingly, there are deep historical reasons for why we do this in our schools and in Western culture a lot can be traced back to Plato’s thoughts about the concept of TRUTH. There are basically two strategies when it comes to TRUTH: defence or search.

Pre-enlightenment thinking was about the DEFENCE of truth. “There is only one truth”, “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong”, “God is on our side”, “Do what we say, or else”, “We know better than you because we have authority and rank”, “Our truth is the right truth”, “We have THE TRUTH so stop looking elsewhere. Just do as you’re told”. “Kill the infidel”. etc.

This authoritarian approach to ownership and defence of THE TRUTH got going in a big way after St Thomas Aquinas embedded a somewhat distorted view of Plato’s thinking into the Church at a time when the first universities were being set up. And, later when the European education system was being disseminated around the world by Roman-controlled missionaries, this Greco-Roman logic became the basic cognitive operating system for all of Western education.

In Australia, Greco-Roman Logic was imported here about 200 years ago along with rabbits and various other European delights. Even today, our children are still taught the ‘right/wrong’ system of sorting information. “This-is-right-and-that-is-wrong”. Logic is somewhat useful for sorting out the past but totally inadequate for designing much safer and more productive futures. We have come to call this kind of Greco-Roman Logic, ‘inside the square’ thinking.

So what do we see? We see grown-ups deeply trapped in irrational logic in business, in economics, in our legal system and in our parliament. In Canberra, for example, all the adults on one side of the House say “We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Meanwhile, all the adults on the other side of the House say, “No. We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Many of these members of the parliament are highly educated people; lawyers, journalists, business people and teachers. Watching it all on TV can be a most cringing experience. Electors in Australia are deeply dissatisfied with the performance in Canberra and are leaving the established political parties in droves.

Yet there is another strategy for TRUTH other than its mere logical defence. Since The Enlightenment we now have the innovative and scientific SEARCH for truth.

To encourage this strategy I use the formula: escape + search = think. If we can first escape from the righteousness of historical or traditional or authoritarian truths we can then search, experiment, and design much better truths. This is an ongoing and never-ending process.

Science offers us the search for much better truths than we currently have and we have developed very powerful tools to assist us in this search. Post-Enlightenment we now have The Scientific Method. We also have Darwinian Thinking. We have the use of evidence. We have the technology for observation and measurement. We have the forensic power of questions. “Why is this so?”, “What is the evidence?”, “What other possible explanation could apply?”, “How do you know?”, “What else have you tried”, “Give me ten other options”, “What are ten other possible explanations?, “Who is doing this differently?”, “How can we make this faster?”, “Why not do an experiment in order to see what happens?” etc. We often call this kind of thinking, ‘outside the square’.

It’s been my experience that although many highly educated Western people do know about The Enlightenment and might even be able to write a short essay on it, they are still very much pre-Enlightenment logical thinkers. Curiously, this is not the case in China. My experience there is that most highly educated Chinese people are post-Enlightenment thinkers and this is giving them a big advantage over their Western competitors. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next decade.

In short, Western education has been about teaching kids to learn and logically DEFEND THE TRUTH (as revealed by their teachers) rather than giving them the thinking tools to discover much better truths through searching and measurement.

Evidence of this is in the type of questions that teachers ask their students in school. There are closed questions that seek a correct answer. e.g. When was the Magna Carta signed? There are open or authentic questions where the teachers can provide an opportunity for the student to do some fresh thinking. e.g. What might have happened if the Magna Carta was never signed?

In one Harvard study of a large group of the top teachers in the US, the teachers were asked to estimate how many authentic questions that they had asked their students in the first semester of that year. The shocking results were: less than 1!!

So, on this very big question about Western education my experience has been that: We do not teach our kids to think for themselves. We teach them to learn what we tell them.

As a consequence of that, when we become adults in business, in law, in the media and in government we spend an extravagant amount of our time and energy defending what we believe to be true rather than discovering what we are capable of finding out.

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6 thoughts on “Is our education system teaching us to learn but not to think?

  1. Great article and worthy of duplicating in leading Australian and New Zealand and other global newspapers and media outlets.
    Most of us think we think, but if most of us actually thought before we spoke we would remain speechless.
    Your CVS to BVS helps change this without a doubt, but if I’m totally honest, my old habits are engaged far more quickly than my desire to get my thinking brain recognizing that my first view is not likely to be my best view. ie Current View of Situation – To – Better View of Situation.
    “When habit and intent clash, habit wins hands down every time”.
    Please keep chipping away though Michael and team because I may yet develop that new thinking, as a habit.

  2. We have grown so unaccustomed to questioning our own thinking, I find that too often people have trouble distinguishing between facts and their assumptions (based on their beliefs). Scary. Those people vote too!

  3. I believe that I have always been an independent thinker. Partly because we did not get electricity until I was 16 years of age. We did not have a radio or television, but I read avidly. I used to read about three books a week, and a t least two of them would be classics.
    I learned from some of the great writers and thinkers and developed my own way of thinking. This , at times, led me into conflict with other people, because my views were different to theirs.

  4. As we grow older we foster and grow in our lack of ability to think for ourselves. We come to rely more and more on others with specialized opinions given to us as fact rather than doing our own research; especially when some of the statistics or reasoning given comes from sources of authority.

    Learning how to diagnose positions of validity are often lost through educators, religions, politicians and media outlets. We are quoted disciplined facts that usually come from grants for research, which are more interested in their own agenda than the science. There is valid physical science out there, but few know how to recognize actual science from a coordinated itinerary of misinformation and deception.

  5. Agreed, and therefore Multatuli -a Dutch writer- accused schools of being pernicious. But that was some 140 years ago.

  6. the idea of designing and creating more and more useful” truths” might be fun too. “Searching for truth” smacks of finding ptvs and could drag us back into defense again. In a “maybe” universe we could be encouraged to create hypothesis and test them out. creating might not have to rule out old stuff. maybe we could move directly into bvs and or creating ( as you say) fresh , new possibilities. remembering that some philosopher once said that all perceptions are gambles.