My colleagues and I, teaching in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, frequently observed that most of our students lacked serious critical thinking skills. They were much more comfortable with memorization and rote learning. As an instructor, you rarely encountered serious questioners and independent thinkers, the kind that were the heart of discussions in my high school, college, and graduate school classes.
Peer pressure was used, especially on young women, to conform, to be obedient and modest, to not draw too much attention to themselves or their dress, as exemplified by these drawings on the Zayed University/Abu Dhabi closed circuit television promoting, not so subtly, a dress code. Students wouldn’t be sent home for violating the dress code, but they knew there would be whispers. They were encouraged to make “good choices” each day. In many ways, teaching on the girl’s campus at ZU felt a bit like teaching at an old-fashioned convent of nuns in the West.
In my communications classes at ZU, however, critical thinking was encouraged. I never told students what to think, sometimes to their discomfort. Using the Socratic method, I asked questions in hopes of getting them to think for themselves, and freely express themselves. This takes some doing in countries with “collectivist” mindsets where freedom of speech is not a given.
Once students were persuaded that I was not judging them, and certainly not reporting them for “incorrect” thinking, they relaxed enough to speak their minds. The range of opinions was broad. Some were almost libertarian in their belief that anybody should be free to say and do almost anything, some were almost completely authoritarian, asserting that the government should dictate all thoughts and there should be no such thing as personal privacy. But most students fell somewhere in the middle between the libertarian society of, say, Holland and the brutally authoritarian society of Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
Even so, I encountered very bright students who believed that 9/11 was an “inside job,” the moon landing was a hoax or other conspiracy theories. I tried to make them think this through. “If you have a deep, dark secret and you tell one person, do you think it will remain secret?” I asked. They nodded. “If you have a deep, dark secret and you tell five people, will it remain a secret?” Probably not, they agreed. The number of people required to keep a big conspiracy is usually a lot more than five, I pointed out. Somebody will almost always tell the truth.
I’m not sure they were convinced. In societies where asking questions and demanding transparency can have very negative consequences, I sort of understood where they were coming from.
In 2017, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed a new school curriculum that de-emphasized the country’s long decades of secularism created by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It seemed to be an attempt to insure that conservative religious views of the world prevail in a society that once enforced a strong division between religion and government. A leading Turkish teachers union called the new curriculum an effort to stymie the raising of “generations who ask questions,” The New York Times reported.
I cannot help but think that short-sighted thinkers in the governments of Turkey, the UAE and other Islamist states will expand memorization and rote learning and discourage critical thinking, because it is far easier to control citizens who do not ask questions, by simply making them fearful of more powerful forces “above” them who could penalize “incorrect” thinking.
And yet if students do not ask questions, do not engage with ideas, they will not have the capability to resist extremist propaganda and will not truly absorb the depth and the foundation of the great Muslim religious thinkers. As an Emirati diplomat, Omar Saif Ghobash explained in his 2017 book, Letters to a Young Muslim, critical thinking is essential to ending terrorism.
Much learning in school is presented to students “as divine instruction but in fact reflects choices that other people have made for us.” He called on young Muslims to embrace the “structural principles in Islam, such as the search for knowledge and the command to use one’s mind and think about the world around us.” Each Muslim should be allowed to express his or her individuality, should be encouraged to develop an independence of mind, communities should recognize and celebrate religious and political diversity. This would lead to a “rebalancing of our society in favor of more compassion, more understanding and more empathy.”
I heard Ghobash speak to a capacity-only crowd at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and later read his book. I believe, like him, that open-minded education that encourages critical thinking are essential to challenging Islamic fundamentalism that can lead to terrorism. I would have assigned his book in a media ethics class if it was available before I left the country.
But what disturbed me was when I returned to the US and saw that young Americans, spending five hours or more a day on social media, are far less engaged in critical thinking than they used to. Asked to write a persuasive essay, college freshmen told me how they felt about an issue or political leader, maybe described their identity, but did not marshall facts to convince others to agree with them. They were not well-informed, yet had chosen sides as a dogmatic liberal secularist or as a dogmatic conservative religious believer and expressed intolerance toward the perceived intolerance of “the other.” Like my students in the Middle East, they seemed to be conforming to cultural expectations or rebelling against such expectations, rather than thinking things through critically for themselves.
This phenomenon in the US seemed to be a truly ominous development. Were we becoming an authoritarian society requiring obedience to certain political party narratives?
- Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash.
- Obedience to Political Party Narratives Is Now Required By Right and Left, As the US Embraces Authoritarianism