Saturday, October 28, 2006

Who is losing the ability to think critically?

At Richard Dawkin's website, they have a post by Ben Hope attacking Patrick Henry College, a conservative Virginia school catering to conservative evangelicals and home school graduates.

Commenting on a documentary he had seen charting the lives of several Patrick Henry students, Hope says:
It was like watching an episode of Star Trek. You know, one of those where the crew has been taken over by a mysterious alien mind-virus. In this case, the symptoms are losing the ability to think critically, coupled with an uncontrollable urge to smile absolutely all the time, except when swaying open-palmed and shut-eyed at the sound of particularly naff, happy-clappy songs.

Sounds like like a bunch of ignorant cult members alright. But, wait a minute...

In 2005, the Oxford debate team failed to win moot court competition in England. The team they lost to? Patrick Henry College. The Patrick Henry students (you know, the ones are "losing the ability to think critically") defeated the Oxford team before a panel of distinguished British judges. Then, in 2006, the Oxford team flew to the U.S. to avenge their loss, only to lose again to the Patrick Henry team before an equally distinguished panel of American judges.

No wonder the Patrick Henry students in the documentary were smiling.

Dawkins, remember, is Charles Simyoni Professor of the Public Understanding at Oxford. So if Patrick Henry is a factory for producing mind-numbed robots, and it schooled Oxford's debate team for two years in a row, where does that leave the university that Dawkins teaches at?


Denyse said...

Oh, that's easily explained. British know-how was never as good as American know-how, so the Oxford robots are full of factory goofs.

Curiously, Dawkins' friend assumes that if he is right about humans being robot vehicles for selfish genes, that his point of view will triumph, but nothing of the sort need follow. The superior robots would triumph.

I suspect the simple explanation is that Patrick Henry students try harder; that is all.

Anonymous said...

Don't be silly Martin.

I saw the documentary and Ben is spot on. He is well-aware of their debating success. That's his point in fact! (he highlights later: "As their considerable success in intercollegiate debating tournaments shows...").

You can clearly be trained in the art of moot court (and indeed be very successful debating many a subject) whilst at the same time uncritically compartmentalizing your mind so as to lose the plot when dealing with matters for which you've been brainwashed - in their case literalist Christianity and creationism.

Farris deserves credit for his coaching ability. I bet if PHC and Oxford switched coaches, the result would be the reverse.

So in answer to your question, drawing conclusions about the whole of Oxford University c.f PHC based on two debates would itself be rather uncritical thinking. For a start, as far as I am aware, the debates were with a team from Balliol College (one of 39 colleges), not the Oxford University-wide society , so you can only make statements about the Balliol college team of that year.

And perhaps you might consider other relevant indicators. Come back when PHC starts to match Oxford in the rankings or in the number of peer-review journal authoring, not to mention Nobel prize-winning, graduates.

Martin Cothran said...


Obviously the fact that PHC defeated Oxford twice in moot court competition is not a sufficient basis upon which to conclude that PHC is comparable to Oxford. But likewise judging PHC on the basis of a documentary produced by people who have an ideological axe to grind (I have not seen it, but the reviews strongly suggest this) is not a sufficient basis upon which to make any competent judgement of PCH.

I have questions related to PCH myself, particularly after the exodus of the four professors (the post said five, but I believe it was four) in what was essentially an institutional personality crisis involving the role of the liberal arts and classical thought in Christian education.

But for critics to use this in some case against PCH is, quite frankly, laughable, since the liberal arts have been the victims of an ongoing purge in secular universities for years. Besides, my sources tell me Farris realized his mistake, and my understanding is that Gene Edward Veith has been appointed Dean of Academics there, which tells me Farris realized he goofed. In fact a relative of one of the professors told me that the four professors, all of whom exited in the hope that the school would realize it was mistaken are satisfied with the changes that have been made since they have left.

Meanwhile you have Lawrence Summers, who was forced out of his position as president of Harvard University for implying that males and females might be different; speech codes that prevent you from disagreeing with gays and other minority groups; and Black Studies, Women's Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies placed on the same academic status as legitimate fields of academic inquiry.

Does PCH have problems? Sure it does. But I'll take those problems over the ones at most other schools hands down.

What strikes me most, however, is how the critics of schools like PCH are so utterly blind to their own dogmatic prejudices. They don't have arguments against the positions of PCH--all they have is indignation generated from their own petty little orthodoxies. They seldom bother to offer serious intellectual criticism of the best arguments for the positions they decry; all they want to do is sneer--and then accuse those who hold competing beliefs as being without the ability to think critically.

Obviously, the goal of these little online pep rallies is not intellectual seriousness, so perhaps it is unfair to judge them by that criterion. When you find yourself among a group of people who get together simply to experience the corporate joy that comes from an uncritical intellectual and moral smugness, it is generally not a good idea to crash the party.

But I couldn't help myself.

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