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The Devolution of Thinking

Street protests involving thousands of people have taken place over the past few months in the cities of Ferguson, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Oakland. The purpose of these groups was to protest the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. Many of the protests were accompanied by street violence and civil disruptions. Several blocks of the city of Ferguson were decimated by fire and violence after nights of protest, destroying businesses and properties of residents. The Brooklyn Bridge was shut down during protests, several police officers were assaulted, and tragically, two New York police officers were later killed by a protest sympathizer. It looked like anarchy in the streets of America. This article seeks to look at the spirit behind the street protests; one that seems to result from a devolution in thinking and a rejection of the rule of law.

In a country where the rule of law has prevailed for centuries, formalized by the Constitution, it was disturbing to see groups acting in such an emotional and unrestrained manner. It was as if reason had failed and emotion prevailed. In analyzing why this would be the case, we must begin with the precept that thinking affects actions. Although Michael Brown of Ferguson had just broken the law through robbery, and was killed in a confrontation with police, his death, and those of other men killed in similar fashion, has been seen by some as unjust and unjustifiable. That thinking produced the street protestors’ actions. What is behind this thinking, and why?

To help answer that question, let’s first consider the three levels of thinking. The first is the feeling level. It is the primary and most basic level; infants typify this. They cry when they are hungry (or wet, hot, cold, irritable, scared, and myriad other feelings). The feeling level is the level of emotion, the reactive level of thinking. As children mature, they acquire language and their cognitive abilities increase. They learn language through words, and words communicate facts. The second level of thinking is the fact level. Facts are information having objective reality. The volume of facts learned forms the acquired knowledge of an individual and is the basis for active thinking. Active thinking always involves facts. This factual stage is foundational to learning any subject, regardless of age. The last level of thinking is the faith level. It is the level of inference, of reasoning. Just knowing facts is not useful knowledge unless we have a framework in which to interpret the facts. Facts are interpreted within the framework of our worldview, and all people have a worldview. Thus, all people have faith, which is a belief system that helps make sense of the world around us. The objective world of facts must be made relevant to the subjective experiences of people. Wisdom, which is the ability to use factual knowledge to judge what is true and right, and then to properly act on that knowledge to live life skillfully (a subjective experience), is lacking without a mature and informed worldview.

Why is thinking so important, and how has it changed? The U.S. educational system historically was based on the classical model. The classical model taught students through the trivium and quadrivium and comprised the seven liberal arts based on thinking skills. The trivium utilized three tools of learning and was used for the stages that we would call elementary through high school. The first tool is grammar, which teaches the facts of a subject. Every subject has its grammar: the grammar of language, grammar of math, grammar of science, etc. This grammar level built a knowledge bank for students and provided them much thinking material. The classical model then taught students to reason with the second tool of learning: logic. Students were taught how to think logically so their opinions were valid and based on facts. Note that logic does not necessarily show what is true, just what is valid. The final phase of learning in the classical model is rhetoric. The rhetoric level equipped students to adequately and persuasively convey their thoughts and reasoning through oral and written communication. The classical model was developed during ancient civilizations to produce educated citizens to lead Greek and Roman societies. They were the liberal (free) citizens. The classical model was refined by the European church during the high middle ages and was the model used in western civilization for many centuries. All the historically great universities in Europe and the Ivy League universities of America were established using the classical model.

It was only in the late 1800s that the progressive model in education first came to be adopted and started to undermine strengths of the classical model. The goal of the progressive model, which began in Prussia and was embraced by the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was to develop good citizens of the state. (For additional information, please see John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education.) The progressive model sought to encourage loyalty to the state, to reduce literacy and critical thinking, and to produce workers for the state. Its goal was to reduce factual knowledge and reasoning in students. This decreased the knowledge available for active thinking, and created devolution in thinking, where emotions were substituted for facts.

If you have ever been in a modern classroom and heard a teacher ask a room of second grade students, “How did that book (or poem, or story) make you feel?”, then you are seeing the progressive model in action. The focus is directed away from ‘facts’ and onto ‘feelings’. Because feelings are subjective, there is no one right answer. Thus, all students’ answers are validated to build their self-esteem. The classical model is predicated on the premise that true mastery of a subject builds competence, and competence builds self-esteem. Current standardized tests show that American students perform worse than half of other students in countries of the industrialized world but feel better about their performance than many of the top performers.

The transition in education from the classical model to the progressive model was accompanied by a parallel transition in worldview. While historians debate whether the United States of American was founded as a Christian country, there can be no debate that America was founded upon Judeo-Christian principles. There are too many historical references to the Bible and Biblical methods to argue against that conclusion. Since Judeo-Christian principles have formed the basis for American institutions over several centuries, their precepts formed the cultural mores of Americans. This is not to say that society was sinless. Transgressions, however, were held in check by the infrastructure of the rule of law. And that rule came from Biblical principles. The Ten Commandments are prominently displayed at several places within the Supreme Court chambers, and in the Capitol Building itself; prima facie evidence of the source of our laws. The progressive model in education was accompanied by an attempt to change prevailing worldviews in philosophy, religion, and economics. This new ‘progressive’ morality created a different worldview that embraced higher criticism in religion, socialism in economics, and the basic ‘goodness’ of man in philosophy. The results to society were a diminished respect for Biblical authority, an increase in ‘envy’ economics since the distribution of resources among citizens should be ‘fair’ and equal’, and a view of the criminal as ‘victim’ since his environment, family, or other factors were disadvantages and were a cause of his wrong choices. Just like a tsunami that creates minor ripples on the ocean surface while it is hundreds of miles out at sea, the ripples of this change in worldview were at first small. As a tsunami reaches land, however, the shallow waters allow the waves to pile up to create catastrophic damage. The U.S. is beginning to see the damage to society that has come from this change in worldview.

Traditional cultural mores include respect for authority; belief in the sanctity of life; individual accountability; a rejection of violence (as seen in the proverb: wise men turn away wrath, but scoffers set a city aflame); respect for property rights; honor for all honest work; charity for the needy; and gentleness for the weak, the young, and the elderly. These mores are summarized in the aphorisms “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. The ‘new’ morality rejects established authority, seeks the elevation of self above others, embraces violence, despises property rights, feels entitled to support, expects government to support the needy, and adopts the none-too-gentle “survival of the fittest”. Let’s look at one example to illustrate this change: the embrace of violence.

Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman has written and spoken extensively on the destructiveness of violent video games on America’s youth. His article, “Trained to Kill” highlights how America’s children, teens, and young adults are being desensitized to violence and trained to kill in a systematic and conditioned response because of these violent games. Colonel Grossman cites several studies that show there is a direct correlation to violence perpetrated by the young on society and the prevalence of violent video games. Children and teens are being conditioned to respond to threats with violence-deadly violence. When young people are conditioned to belligerently respond to a threat, even though the ‘threat’ is from a legitimate and sanctioned authority such as police, then the result can be nothing but catastrophic. Escalating force from perpetrators can only be met with escalating force by police.

This takes us back to the street protests. The rule of law has traditionally held that when someone commits a crime and is confronted during or after the crime, there are natural consequences for breaking the law. Grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City did not indict the police officers involved in the Ferguson and New York incidents, apparently concluding that the officers lawfully confronted force with force. When thousands of people protested these lawful rulings made in a lawful and legitimate manner, they were saying that their sense of justice and desire for revenge should be the standards for making an indictment. And if they did not get what they wanted and expected, they would turn violent. They made the first level of thinking, their emotions, the rationale for their actions. Any protests that include obstruction of civil order and violent actions in our cities’ streets bode ill for civil society. When protesting for change and upholding principles, wise men do turn away wrath. That was the power of Dr. Martin Luther King. This is not to say that wisdom should be passive, or a wise man a pacifist. There is a time to fight, and that time is when confronted with evil. But the fight must be a reasoned response to a legitimate threat. Courage, which is the bedrock on which other moral virtues rest, is required to acknowledge and challenge such evil. If we acquiesce and embrace a worldview that calls good evil, and evil good, then we won’t realize that our glasses, through which we see the world, are dirty. It is when every man does that which is right in his own eyes-when he does what ‘feels right’ to himself- that society weakens, and eventually falls.

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