A Crack in the Wall

Philosophy is about much more than critical thinking and landing a job

The L.A. Times, a newspaper that I love to lambaste, seems to have a crack in its “wokeness wall.” A fresh editorial headline announces that “Students lose when colleges trade humanities for STEM” (Nov. 26). But wait! Science, tech, engineering, and math programs (STEM) now rule the academic roost. Is the Times not so thoroughly enlightened as it would have us believe?

Maybe not. The editorial begins with a melancholy observation with which I agree. “Socrates would weep.” Why so? Because he was among the first teachers of “critical thinking.” Indeed, his advocacy led to his untimely death. The weapon of choice: hemlock, at the command of Athens itself!

But our own dismantling of the humanities is a dangerous retreat from critical thinking. We are poisoning the wellspring of collaborative and innovative thought, as well. Not to mention, the Times quickly adds, that employers are always on the lookout for articulate employees who are trained in critical thinking.

To be sure, dismantling the humanities is dangerous. And it’s a comfort to know that employers aren’t allergic to philosophy degrees. But a physics degree calls for strenuous critical thinking, chiefly about matter in motion; so does an accounting degree, chiefly about the measure of income and expenditures. Plus, it’s much easier for a newly minted physicist or accountant to find a job than it is for a humanities major.

But philosophy, and Socrates would insist on this point, is about much more than critical thinking and landing a job. Blimey, Socrates didn’t do his hard thinking and sharp questioning for a salary. Plato, his best student, learned that doing philosophy is an intrinsic good. It is ordered, not to employment, but to the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the troika of the transcendentals. In this pursuit the philosopher needs to think critically about critical thinking and thus becomes a logician.

Centuries later, in keeping with the perennial philosophy, Thomas Aquinas would distinguish between the bonum honestum and the bonum utile. Today, the contemporary Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre highlights the distinction between goods internal to a practice and those external to it. Why, even the uber grandmaster Magnus Carlsen plays chess more for the beauty of the game than for the money and accolades.

The Times is wrongheaded in reducing philosophy (and the humanities) to critical thinking; it is doubly so in reducing critical thinking to the narrowly instrumental. Still, there’s a bit of light coming through the crack in its wokeness wall. Can we expect something more?

Dare I hope, for a start, that its editors and columnists, in their regard for philosophy, will revisit their code of silence on an open and ongoing scandal? For some time the Times has, for a price, distributed an insert called China Watch. The Watch is a barely disguised propaganda rag for the Chinese Communist Party. As such it largely serves to “launder” the false and the ugly that is the staple of yet another species of totalitarianism. Tibet, we are told, is a tourist’s paradise. The Uigurs, it turns out, are prospering. There’s no mention, of course, of the assault on religion in the name of Sinicization. Nor is there any mention of the State’s attempt to turn up the “population production” to make up for its disastrous one-child policy. For the Party, free speech, a prerequisite for critical thinking, is a Western ploy.

Surely the editors of the Times recognize what management’s helping peddle. Surely the columnists know it won’t do simply to say, “we just work here.” In the name of Socrates, and honest thinking, when will they shout “enough”? More than enough. Ya basta!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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