The Loss of Crital Thinking

Blog Post - The Loss of Crital Thinking

The unwillingness to sufficiently engage and analyze perspectives other than one’s own has lead to a national politics which is increasingly contentious and chaotic. The recent demands by some students that university administrators silence views deemed offensive has been sharply criticized by many as emblematic of a general refusal to engage in an essential component of critical thinking. This refusal seems all the more troubling since, by definition, university students are presumably embedded in an environment dedicated to engendering the kind of openness and debate they reject.

However, these students are not intellectually indolent; they are merely well-trained. They are the creation of universities which increasingly treat students as though they are merely consumers. The modern university doesn’t exist to intellectually challenge or provoke. Instead it functions as any large corporation; it is an agent of pacification, always attendant to what keeps the consumer happy and quiescent. Criticizing the student/consumer for refusing to be troubled by opposing viewpoints and for turning to the university for relief is like blaming the public for being insufficiently philosophical when they demanded the demise of New Coke.

“Consumerization” did not cause the lack of critical thinking; it is a reaction to the ongoing devaluation of teaching within universities. This devaluation does not have a singular cause nor is it the product of any specific pedagogical intent. Instead, the turn away from teaching is a process effect; it emerged within recent realignments within university faculties and the resultant rearticulations of interests and power.

The current configuration of forces within the university is of recent origin. Through the 1970’s the vast majority of college and university professors were tenured or tenure-track. Other than a few of the top universities in the country (often designated within academia as R1 research universities), the position of “professor” was one that required both teaching and research. According to a recent report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP):

“Before 1970, as today, most full-time faculty appointments were teaching-intensive, featuring teaching loads of nine hours or more per week. Nearly all those fulltime teaching-intensive positions were on the tenure track.”

Starting about thirty years ago, university administrators began hiring part-time temporary, non tenure-track professors – adjuncts – to teach many of their courses. Currently, over 70% of university faculty nationwide are adjuncts. For the most part they are not paid a living wage – many are forced to turn to food stamps – and they often have little to no job security. Many adjuncts are financially compelled to teach at multiple schools “while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line” [Kendzior].

As the AAUP report notes:

“the majority of teaching-intensive positions have been shunted outside of the tenure system. This seismic shift from “teaching-intensive” faculty within the big tent of tenure to “teaching only” faculty outside of it has had severe consequences for students as well as faculty themselves.”

The hiring of adjuncts represented the introduction of a new force into the existing faculty/administration dynamic. The reaction to, and eventual positioning of, this force within the overall faculty and university structure was not pre-ordained at its creation.

The primacy of research and publishing emerged as a financial refuge for the tenured minority against the ongoing devaluation of teaching. As the newly minted marker of the “real” professor (deserving significant material benefits), the singular focus on research spilled out of the R1 research universities into large state university systems which had been designed primarily as teaching institutions. Publishing became the pivot point not only for job attainment and career advancement but also to construct, within the faculties, two different classes and two different kinds of people.

As a result of the almost totalizing focus on publishing as the singular standard for tenure-track hiring and promotion, academic research is now being published in unprecedented quantities [Sacco]. But the ability to write quickly and copiously is not the same thing as developing the depth and complexity of one’s thought. A UCLA study found that “researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to forge new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publication, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues” [Hampton]. The physicist Peter Higgs (of the Higgs boson particle) has noted that he would be unable to obtain an academic position in the current climate as he wouldn’t be considered “productive enough” [Aitkenhead].

The effect of the constructed centrality of publishing is that departmental hirings and promotions reward the prolific and punish those who attempt to challenge existing boundaries of research. Original thinkers are discarded in favor of those who supplely subsume themselves to existing tropes. The lack of critical thinking among university students comes to mirror that of the tenured faculty – neither sees a reward in pursuing the less traveled intellectual path.

The current alignments within the university create strong disincentives for adjuncts to discuss, or even raise, controversial issues in class. At most universities, adjuncts are hired on a semester basis and paid by the course. Student evaluations are often the primary deciding factor for retention and number of courses offered. The message given, sometimes explicitly, is that continuing to teach is based on an ability to please students, keep them content, and attain high evaluation numbers.

No matter how long an adjunct teaches, no matter the degree of excellence in the classroom, no matter the ability to provoke critical thinking in students, that adjunct will virtually never be eligible for a tenured position based on teaching. The AAUP report notes that “at some institutions…particularly at large research universities, the tenure system has already been warped to the purpose of creating a multitier faculty.” The report further notes that “tenure was not designed as a merit badge for research-intensive faculty or as a fence to exclude those with teaching-intensive commitments.”

Tenure no longer functions as an instrument of academic protection awarded to teachers to ensure the consideration and analysis of all views in the classroom, particularly, those which students might find offensive. Tenure is now unavailable to those who conduct the majority of teaching, and, instead, functions almost entirely as a tool of career, and salary, advancement by those who desire to teach the least.

The low pay of adjuncts is often blamed on overzealous university administrations. But structuring the university around financial tenets is generally what administrations do – it is the particular force they bring to the university. Any resultant degradation of teaching results not from administrative malfeasance, but from the lack of any substantial counterforce.

The adjunct faculty is far too powerless and precariously positioned – the tenured faculty too compromised and complicit – to insist on the social and intellectual value of teaching and the importance of engendering critical thinking in students. For the tenured faculty to do so would undermine the rationale for their existence as a class separate from adjuncts and would jeopardize the current hierarchy of financial distributions.

The introduction of adjuncts into the structure of the university compelled a series of reactions and rationalizations which have resulted in a diminution of education and a distortion of the pursuit of knowledge. Strategically constructed relations and hierarchies have been normalized in order to lock into place the current alignments of power. It will take the entry of new forces to shatter these alignments and to disrupt the effects on student education, and political discourse, of universities that no longer want to teach.

This article is part of a larger project I denote as Theory In Action. The goal is to take theory out of the insularity of academic writing and utilize it as a tool for analyzing specific social and political processes. The objects and relations which emerge through the dialogue of theory and practice are not empirical totalities; they are the markers of deeper flows and relations of power.



Sarah Kendzior,

Nick Sacco,

Phil Hampton,

Decca Aitkenhead,

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