Many moons ago, when I worked in academia, I taught freshman composition. Because it was a required course among all undergraduates, every professor in the English Department taught at least one composition class. Most professors hated teaching the course. They preferred to teach literature or linguistics to juniors and seniors. They viewed the composition course as “beneath them.” This arrogant attitude stemmed from a profound misunderstanding of how important the composition course is.
Unlike my former colleagues, I enjoyed teaching composition. In fact, when I was in graduate school, I specialized in the subject. The field of modern composition studies has its roots in ancient Greece. As the Greek city-states began experimenting with democracy, scholars realized that a literate, informed citizenry was crucial if the new form of government was to work. Aristotle wrote the first “composition” textbook (On Rhetoric), which basically explores how arguments are constructed. The book is a fascinating study in the art of persuasion, specifically its psychology and effectiveness. It’s still relevant today.
What many English professors fail to recognize is that composition courses are essentially courses in critical thinking. That’s far, far more than just good grammar and stringing sentences together. Critical thinking is defined as “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” The key word here is “objective.” The ability to understand an opposing viewpoint and a willingness to change one’s mind is at the heart of a reasonable society—and absolutely necessary for democracy to work. Critical thinking skills include the ability to differentiate fact from opinion, the ability to evaluate evidence, and the ability to recognize logical fallacies.
The inability to discern fact from opinion is most evident in the national media. There was a time when the three television networks produced nightly news shows as a public service, not for profit. But after the advent of cable television, the profit motive—i.e., greed—took over. Facts were no longer enough. Those facts had to be sensationalized and “interpreted” by “spin doctors.” Today, most Americans cannot distinguish between the nightly news and news commentary shows. Sean Hannity, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow are not news anchors—they are political commentators. Commentary is different than news. News is facts; in other words, what happened. Commentary is reactionary opinion to what happened.
Distinguishing facts from opinion is easy when a person knows how to evaluate the credibility of a source. In my teaching days, when the internet became a thing, I used to tell my students that the great thing about the internet is that anyone could post anything on it but that the bad thing about the internet was that anyone could post anything on it. The pervasiveness of the internet has made the ability to evaluate a source’s credibility more important than ever before, a fact underscored by Russia’s widespread use of social media in their interference in the 2016 election.
Another thing I taught my writing students is that logical fallacies may be effective in advertising or political campaigns, but they are not acceptable in reasoned, intellectual debate. What are logical fallacies? The more common ones include: Ad Hominem (personal attacks), Appeal to Ignorance, False Dilemma, Slippery Slope, Circular Argument, Hasty Generalization, Red Herring, Tu Quoque (“you too”), and Causal Fallacy. For examples, just listen whenever Donald Trump opens his mouth.
The current erosion of our democracy is inextricably linked to the erosion of critical thinking skills in our society. The creation of mass media—from the printing press to communication satellites, from the telegraph to cell phones, from radio to television to the internet—ushered in what historians call the “Information Age.” But the great promise of the Information Age, that the widespread dissemination of and easy accessibility to information would lead to the end of political tyranny by enabling democracy to flourish, has been twisted and perverted.
The old adage is true—information is power. And a populace of voters with information is incredibly threatening to existing power structures, especially political parties, entrenched governments, global corporations and media monopolies. Not only is information power, information is also dangerous.
Because those in power are reluctant to give it up, it is necessary for them to control the flow of information. Most (90%) of the major media outlets in the U.S. (distribution outlets for television, film, books, video games, radio, and websites) are owned by one of only six corporations: National Amusements, Disney, Time Warner, Comcast, NewsCorp, and Sony.
These media conglomerates and politicians have a symbiotic relationship, an unholy alliance, to keep the public in an echo chamber that restricts the free flow of information necessary to a democracy. They have been incredibly successful—half the country doesn’t even bother to vote all the time and most of the half that does vote think their choices are limited to only two options. And for the few voters who do pay attention, current events are constantly bombarded with what those in power chose to share.
The masses, or “sheeple,” are easy to control when you control information and provide enough “bread and circuses.” An informed, literate public is the last thing Donald Trump and the establishment he represents wants. That’s why the Republican Party has systematically attempted to dismantle public education over the last thirty years.
By taking over local school boards, promoting vouchers for private (religious) schools, opposing teacher unions, and slashing education budgets, the Republican Party has quite literally dumbed down America. In the process, critical thinking skills have been lost. Many Republican Party State Platforms have a plank that explicitly states, “We oppose the teaching of critical thinking.”
When critical thinking skills are lost, we end up with people easily manipulated by soul-less politicians. When critical thinking skills are lost, we end up with voters vulnerable to mis-information. When critical thinking skills are lost, we end up with a cretin like Donald Trump as President. When critical thinking skills are lost, we end up with a corrupt government. When critical thinking skills are lost, people suffer. When critical thinking skills are lost, democracy dies.