On the surface, what links Critical Voter (the book that uses the election as an educational tool to teach critical thinking skills—free on Amazon July 12 and the 19th) and Degree of Freedom (which tried to see how far one could push massive open online courses) is the belief that as new modes of technology-driven learning come to the fore, those who can take advantage of them will be both independent learners and critical thinkers.
But below that surface, something that connects much of this work (and why I’m honored to be blogging here) is philosophy, or more specifically, how to make philosophical principles relevant in today’s world.
Keep in mind that this claim is being made by someone who is not a professional philosopher, nor even someone with a real BA in the subject (much less a more advanced degree). But as I tried to piece together what it meant to be a critical thinker in the 21st century, it was clear that ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had as much, if not more, to teach us than do today’s brain scientists and educational gurus.
It was the realization of just how ignorant I was on the subject that led me to choose philosophy as a major for my One-Year BA, and to choose to focus particularly closely on the modern philosophers (from Descartes on) that I knew the least about.
These are the thinkers who had to deal with the rapid expansion and diversification of knowledge brought on by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, changes that led to a splintering of now-siloed disciplines that were once all considered branches of philosophy.
Remnants of philosophy as the mother of all disciplines still remain, which is why we still award Doctorates in Philosophy, or PhD's, to people studying subjects as diverse as quantum physics or Jungian psychology. But—as academic philosophers are fond of telling anyone who will listen—once a branch of philosophy became fruitful enough to break off as a separate discipline (physics and psychology being good examples of this phenomenon), it hasn't taken long for practitioners in these supposedly "new" fields (such physicists and psychologists) to forget their roots and mock philosophy as impractical, whose practitioners have their heads stuck permanently in the clouds (an accusation first directed at Socrates, in the stinging Greek comedy "The Clouds").
For better or for worse, we have entered an era similar to the one encountered by Descartes and his contemporaries—one in which new technologies (including terrifying military technologies) coupled with new ways of thinking can leave us disoriented, even fearful, and paralyzed over what to do and how to think
No doubt scientists will continue to dazzle us with their startling discoveries, as enterprising engineers turn those discoveries into new technologies that will do everything from extending our lives to helping us find our socks. But if any group is going to help us think through what matters (including what to believe and what to value), I’m going to put my money on philosophers who are ready—and occasionally even paid—to grapple with potentially unanswerable questions.
–Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher whose Degree of Freedom website describes his attempt to replicate (l)earning a BA in philosophy in one year. He is the author of MOOCS: The Essential Guide from MIT Press and Critical Voter: How to Use the Next Election to Make Yourself and Your Kids Smarter. He is currently helping to build a new graduate school of education.