Is It Even Possible to Teach Critical Thinking to Today's College Students?

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By Jenny Ortiz
It’s no secret that as a society, we get our basic legal information from the television show “Law & Order.” When I interact with students, most cite this show along with “CSI,” “NCIS” and “House” as their favorites because they’re based on “real life.” I love television more than most, but I also know that not all my information about the United States legal system should come solely from actress Mariska Hargitay. I understand the need to read and research a variety of articles and primary sources in order to form and support my own opinions. Recently, however, I realized that the euphoric feeling I get from researching and proving my own points without falling back on cliches is not a thrill shared by my students. My students like cliches. For them, proving a point is pointless and unnecessary.
They’d rather fail the assignment than stop spouting their unsupported opinions or turn to a primary text for evidence.
At Adelphi University, I wanted my students to learn how to be persuasive in their academic writing, so we read “Adams” by George Saunders in class, then I proceeded to play devil’s advocate. The students disagreed with me, as I knew they would, but they couldn’t prove their points, as I knew they wouldn’t. Though I kept telling them to use the text, they continued to repeat their opinions. One student not only disagreed with me, but became so upset with the assignment that he caused a scene in class. He stated that not only did he not have to prove common sense, but that I was wrong and that he wasn’t paying attention to the discussion anymore. He didn’t give a…add your own colorful words. Rather than argue, I simply smiled and told him we could discuss it in class. I finished the lecture by showing the students how to prove the point they wanted to formulate using textual evidence.
After class, the student who made a scene tried to flee, but I caught him before he could run out. I explained to him that academia, like it or not, was about discussion. I also told him that I had taken the opposing view so that the students could think. He was bewildered that I could argue a point I didn’t agree with. As he began to feel better about our discussion, he (not yelling this time) explained that he didn’t understand why he had to prove his point using the text if he could make a strong argument using common sense to which I explained not all common sense is common sense.
In the end, he didn’t do the assignment, but realized his actions were rash. He apologized and we moved on with the week. However, this is only one example of students who are unwilling to compromise in their perspectives. Being strong-willed and opinionated is fantastic, but many of these students are not backing up their statements or opinions with solid proof. Academia is about being challenged every day and in every lecture. These students were willing to challenge their professors and their fellow students, but when asked to prove their own points they became defensive and turned to cliches.
In a society where we all have opinions, we are rarely asked to justify them. Likes and dislikes are created based on shallow and on the surface information as opposed to research and thought-provoking questions. There are the students who want to be challenged, the students who awaken to the process of learning, students who understand instinctively what it means to learn but then there are other students that refuse to be challenge and will cause a scene to avoid such challenges. Perhaps this event happened because I was working with a group of traditional freshmen and their world has yet to open…it is my hope that this is the case as I fear what it means if this isn’t the case.
What are your thoughts? What are your solutions to the unchallenged student?
About the Freeway Flyer: Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 25 year old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious). When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off  earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun).  When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream.  If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on fictionatwork.com, Blink-ink.com, Jersey Devil Press, dogeatcrow.com, Break Water Review,Stone Highway Review, Eighty Percent Magazine and InkSpill Magazine…or you can follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jnylynn.

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