Culture of Discussion: Soraj Hongladarom on Critical Thinking
There's probably more to say about Peter Facione's article, "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), but this series needs to be brought to a close, and I'll do so by citing an article by a Thai philosopher, Soraj Hongladarom, on the difficulty that one encounters in attempting to inculcate critical thinking among 'Asian' students.
In a 1998 paper, "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" (Third APPEND Seminar on Philosophy Education for the Next Millennium, May 6-8, 1998, Chulalongkorn University), Professor Hongladarom specifies what he believes accounts for the difficulty:
[T]he beliefs that teachers are superior and always right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but exists eternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions . . .Professor Hongladarom doesn't mention Korea, but what he says about Chinese Confucianism applies to some extent here in Korea:
In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to state bureaucratism, coupled with the pervasiveness of the Confucian ethos, while hugely successful in preserving China's cultural identity amidst the great variety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case that material innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would be given scant attention. Writings on such matters are relegated to the 'Miscellaneous' category by the mandarin scholars who put the highest priority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings.Professor Hongladarom deals with critical thinking mainly within the context of science and logic, and wants to explain why 'Asians' didn't continue to develop these fields, whereas I am interested in a culture of discussion more generally, but his point is similar. I would argue that when Korea adopted China's Neo-Confucianism with the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, it accepted the overarching importance of social harmony as a primary aim of a good society. In a sense, this was a decision, the kind of decision about which Professor Hongladarom has some thoughts:
If . . . [a] culture, for example, once decided that social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to it if the members of the culture always agree that decisions in the past are not to be amended no matter what.That sort of cultural 'fundamentalism' -- as he goes on to argue -- would be absurd:
But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take. Cultures, like humans, often make decisions which later are amended or revoked, with new decisions made, when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but even so the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestal where it loses its real meaning.Koreans, like the Chinese -- and also like the Thais about whom Professor Hongladarom in mainly concerned -- generally recognize the importance of adopting critical thinking if the challenge posed by globalization is to be met, but this recognition doesn't make the adoption easy:
[T]o argue that critical thinking is actually a good thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeply entrenched belief that critical thinking is just a label for the confrontational and disputatious mode of life which the culture finds unpalatable.Thus, one continues to hear Chinese and Korean political leaders extoll the aim of a "harmonious society," and this seems to resonate among Chinese and Koreans. I tend to be cynical about politicians, however, so whenever I hear these politicians extoll the virtues of a "harmonious society," I think that what they're really saying is "Shut up and do what we say."
But maybe I'm just being overly critical.