A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, written by the president of Wesleyan University Michael S. Roth, points out something disturbing that seems to have infected our youth: A type of perpetual cynicism born of teaching students to think critically about their world, but not following up with teaching them to also find meaning in it.
Mr. Roth suggests that the traditional liberal arts goal of teaching critical thinking has devolved into something focused too much on the critical, and not enough on the thinking. It starts when professors teach students how to tear apart written texts, as if being critical (i.e. cynical) were the sole purpose and pursuit of education.
Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?…Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical.
And it continues when students assume the role of distant and disdainful commentator, one step removed from the object of their scrutiny. The sad result is that these students have come to believe intelligence reveals itself in their ability to describe everything that is wrong with a written work, but nothing that is right.
The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.
Mr. Roth gives the example of having to ask his students to “put their devices away” when he shows them movies in class. As a former film studies major, I find this especially distressing. When I was in school, we read essay upon essay about film’s transformative power, largely related to the obvious analogies between dreaming and watching a movie. But to feel cinema’s power in that way, you have to give yourself over to the experience. In other words, you have to take emotional and intellectual risks. From what Mr. Roth describes, today’s students prefer their culture served cold, and at arm’s length.
As debunkers, [today’s students] contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.
I agree with Mr. Roth that cynicism is no achievement. And, if his assertions about modern-day students’ lack of interest in being inspired by art and culture and thought are true, then my next question would be, where did they learn to take such a cynical view of their world? Is this an effect of our modern culture, which some call corrosive (although, really, don’t those voices erupt in every generation)? The inevitable aftermath of postmodernism? The result of education trends going back to the 1960’s, when nearly everything about higher education was called into question? Maybe Mr. Roth will write a follow-up piece in which he teases apart the roots of the problem he has identified. I’d be interested in his thoughts.
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