The siege of Malta’s critical thought | Luke Fenech

To start fighting the long-standing problem of critical thinking in our society, one needs to start differentiating the weight of the different subjects being offered, not unanimously resolving to STEM subjects, and by primarily working very hard on those soft subjects

If you are a concerned individual who cares about the wellbeing of our education, the bedrock of civilisation, you presumably have read about promoting critical thinking in society as means to be objectively informed on what is going on around us.

Yet do we know what thinking critically entails? Are we being critical of our conception of critical thinking? 

Simply put, this activity involves a set of thinking tools and strategies that the person who wishes to develop the habit of thinking and reading intelligently, uses. In doing so, the thinker explores a range of issues and topics, in the context of a world enlightened by technological development and scientific breakthrough.

These topics include aspects of visual perception (such as deconstructing propaganda material), understanding language usage (such as the pleasing rhetoric used by politicians before elections), and the underlying concepts of ethical behaviour, literary interpretation, economic development, and statistical analysis.

The more the individual takes these topics seriously and cultivates an objective outlook on what’s going on around him, the less the person becomes susceptible to manipulation and power-driven schemes; and the better he becomes at criticising and recognising deceiving patterns. Critical thinking makes the difference for example between a person passively clapping for political statements and the individual who inquisitively thinks such messages through before putting his hands together.

Of course, if one intends to exploit, manipulate, use people as means to an end, or stay in the front seat at the expense of others, then a non-compliant critical society is the last thing one would like to face. Moreover, the critic is often viewed as ‘negative’ by such individuals or authorities.

So the talk of town is not discovering ways in the system to incentivise critical thinking, but on creating more tech-skilled employees. The focus is not on subjects that promote literacy and critical understanding of the world such as languages, literature, history, philosophy, ethics, art, and economics, but specifically on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects since these help persons be ‘better equipped when applying for the job’.

Is the role of our educational system only there to create workers and fill in the industry? Or is it there, predominantly, to create well-informed individuals about vital facets of life, and not just their ability to be better workers for their employers? I’ll let you decide.

STEM subjects are important and do provide the student with sound information, yet this isn’t the be-all and end-all of what we mean by achieving a critical society. Instead of working in tandem together, these subjects are sometimes placed in the front seat, having the former subjects standing at the periphery. One can observe this through the extensive number of students that opt-out from humanities and its lack of appreciation and understanding by the public. Nonetheless, what are their advantages?

For instance, philosophy can provide a student with the ability to challenge the status quo, ask better questions to receive better answers, solve problems, and have an ethical groundwork when approaching the world. History helps in understanding the present through the past, using tools to analyse why certain occurrences in life happen and anticipating future issues. Literature provides a bedrock of understanding rhetoric and advanced reading skills. And yet the emphasis is given to STEM subjects, such as what the Malta Employers Association said about “channelling students into career-oriented disciplines - e.g., STEM.... Weaning students away from what are considered to be ‘soft options’ in their studies.”

What they omitted was that ‘soft subjects’ are the basis for a well-informed individual; a set of tools for the person to be ethical, combat manipulation and exploitation, and have an idea of what one’s socio-political underpinnings comprise of, taking us back to critical thinking.

You might say that pursuing STEM subjects is where one makes the big bucks at the end of the day, and not by learning about history or questioning authority through a philosophical understanding. Yet, is that what makes these subjects more efficient to learn over others? What if different subjects can work in tandem with each other, instead of excluding and choosing those based on ‘what can create more scientifically intelligent employees’? Both sets are important in their amount, the question is how we can incorporate them if we truly want to practise what we preach.

To conclude my argument, our educational system and the relevant stakeholders should not incentivise passivity and discourage criticism and dissent. To start fighting the long-standing problem of critical thinking in our society, one needs to start differentiating the weight of the different subjects being offered, not unanimously resolving to STEM subjects, and by primarily working very hard on those soft subjects.

Luke Fenech is currently reading for Master in Teaching & Learning in Ethics Education