Slow thinking saves the world!

We often hear about critical thinking and how important it is to develop (in both kids' and professional education). And we're told that, in the near future, employers will regard complex problem-solving as the skill they most require and look for.

Then we are shown studies suggesting that the conscious unconscious is perhaps our most powerful problem-solving tool. Most of us know this intuitively: good ideas will often pop into our heads in the shower. (See here for a nice summary of recent studies providing evidence that stepping away from a problem and thinking about something else produces better outcomes.)

The conscious unconscious requires distraction: a walk in the park or a few minutes staring out of the window. (This is the kind of slow thinking that Victorian novelists called a “Brown study.") And technology is not itself (for once!) the enemy: according to the studies cited above, this kind of "good" distraction could even involve playing a video game. The important dimension is one of recreation, in its original sense (to “re-create”: to refresh, re-build).

It perhaps goes without saying that there are powerful forces in the world pitted against exactly this kind of useful (and critically important) mental vacancy. Yes we’re distracted, but checking and re-checking our e-mail or social media doesn't count: it's a compulsion, not recreation in the sense intended above. (Used with discipline social media can—in theory at least—be recreation: but how many of us find this restraint close to impossible?)

The value of mental vacancy is nicely summed up by John Warner in a recent piece bemoaning ed-tech “solutionism.” He slams the intrusive nature of certain ed-tech apps, including one that uses AI to compliment and encourage children for focus when reading. The app does this, apparently, by scanning a child’s eyeball movements, checking that they don’t look away from the page. “Good job” type messages are generated when a certain level of “focus” is achieved. Well-meaning as the app would seem to be, Warner writes:

Does that seem sensible? Even if the technology works exactly as well as the developers claim, would it be helpful in achieving what we desire for those students? If a child is struck by a particularly interesting or evocative passage and they stare off into space, having a good, satisfying think, will the app chastise them for inattention?

“A good satisfying think” is a marvelous phrase—and it brings me back to critical thinking: the skill that the tech world says it needs but does so much actively to inhibit. 

A pioneer in the field, William Graham Sumner, writing in 1906, defined the benefits of critical thinking as follows:

[Students] educated in [critical thinking] cannot be stampeded by stump orators. . . They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence . . . They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.

“Cannot be stampeded by stump orators”…”slow to believe”…”makes good citizens” —it’s fairly easy to see that these qualities are needed more than ever.

Bruno Kavanagh