Thursday, May 7, 2009

Critical Thinking & Diversity

Apropos of our recent discussions regarding diversity, dialogue, and academia, I recommend to you an interesting article by R.R. Reno at First Things about the search for truth in academia. Reno contrasts two views of the objective of "critical thinking." The first view can be found in Plato's dialogues and St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae. Critical thinking exists in order to lead to the truth--after a struggle. The idea is that

[students] must delay the impulse to rush to a direct and unopposed affirmation of truth—and they do so in order to sharpen and heighten their perception of what makes the correct view the true view.
The second, more modern view of "critical thinking," on the other hand, degenerates into unending suspicion about ulterior motives because it only aims at unmasking any truth claim as serving one's will to power.

[I]t does not clear the way forward to deeper convictions. Instead, the moment of seeing falsehood has become the goal and summit of the intellectual life. One does not so much aspire to critical thinking as critical theory.
I recommend this article because it points quite clearly to the differences between the good and bad types of diversity. The good type of diversity is concerned with learning to think critically and come to the truth, after considering the arguments on every side. Diversity among students, in this case, makes us hesitate before accepting something as true, and makes us less dogmatic, though no less concerned with finding truth. The bad type of diversity simply leads us to relativism, whether by way of accepting everything as valid, or rejecting everything as a mask for some suspect motive. Diversity, here, makes us not discerning, but merely apathetic about the truth.

Diversity, then, is not a value in itself, but only insofar as it forces us to confront other views of truth and grapple with them. It is this grappling which makes acceptance of the truth fruitful. Finally, we must guard against the temptation to equate simply dismissing all truth and grappling with the truth.

Picture credit: Rembrandt's 1659 painting, "Jacob's Struggle with the Angel" (Gn. 32:23-33).
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