Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

War, Critical Thinking, and Self-Understanding

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

War, Critical Thinking, and Self-Understanding

Article excerpt

Ms. Noddings believes we should not gloss over the controversial aspects of issues such as war but should challenge our students to confront them, grapple with them, and arrive at their own conclusions.

CAN STUDENTS learn to think critically if they are not asked to engage with critical issues? Fostering critical thinking is frequently stated as a fundamental aim of education,1 and yet many teachers report that they have been forbidden to discuss such critical issues as current wars, religion, and cultural differences in styles of parenting.

Critical thinkers raise questions about claims and about the motives of those who make them, they identify logical flaws in arguments, they evaluate the premises from which arguments are launched, they search for evidence to support claims, and they explore the likely consequences of proposed actions. Critical thinkers are also reflective in the important sense that they regularly turn their analyses and questions on their own thinking and practices. Thus critical thinking, as I am using the term here, addresses issues that are significant in the lives of those who engage in the practice. Moreover, teachers may need to help students come to understand that certain issues they have not yet considered are indeed significant in their lives.

The study of formal and informal logic, reflection on past events, and simulation of conflicts all contribute to the development of critical thinking.2 But the failure to confront issues critical to the present lives of students when we seek to teach critical thought sends a contradictory message: think critically -- but not about really controversial issues! Or do it on your own time! School is not the place for analysis and discussion of critical issues. As a result, students who end their formal schooling with high school may never encounter important and fascinating debates on war, religion, or parenting. And they may or may not learn to think critically.

Here I wish to present possible topics for a critical exploration of just one of these issues: war. War is already a major strand in the social studies curriculum, but the discussion is usually confined to political causes, leaders, battles, and the resulting rearrangement of national boundaries. I wish to address psychological issues related to war that should concern all citizens, especially the young who might join the military right out of high school. The main question I address is this: How can critical thinking help us to understand ourselves better and come to terms with our attitudes toward war?

The Attractions of War

"No one wants war" was a claim heard repeatedly as the U.S. and Great Britain prepared to invade Iraq. Were the political leaders who said this lying, or were they trying to reassure their citizens that they did not want war and would avoid it if at all possible? This question seems to be unanswerable, so I'll set it aside. Let's also set aside the obvious fact that some people make a great deal of money from war and its aftermath, and, although they deny it, they do want war. The questions that we must help young people to explore are these: Are there people, other than the greedy, who want war? Why? Are you such a person?

Anthony Swofford, a young marine, has written about the desperate attractions of war. He notes that stories and films that disgust "Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan" -- films that threaten to convert many of us to pacifism -- have a very different effect on military men. Swofford writes:

[They] watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.3

The rest of Swofford's paragraph is too obscene to reprint here, but his story is a familiar one. …

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