Over thirty years of teaching, I have seen a gradual decline in graduates’ abilities to develop clear compelling, consistent arguments. I have seen hints of this in in-class discussions where students seem confused if I suggest that one part of their argument does not fit with another, but even more powerfully when they are asked to write anything.
Americans receive a lot of our training in critical thinking in secondary-education English courses where we learn about thesis statements and how to support an argument with data. While that may still be a part of high school, it is almost unknown in many parts of higher education.
Last year, I gave a short assignment (800-words or two pages) to a group of top business students recently and 95% of them reported that this was the first time in their university/graduate careers that they had been asked to write anything of this length.
When I first started teaching 30 years ago, it was standard even in business courses to expect students to regularly write ten or twenty page papers. I could not see the practical purpose of such assignments – in my business career I never saw anyone writing anything longer than a page or two. And, selfishly, I did not want to read and grade long papers, so I did away with these requirements. Apparently, when it came to papers, many of my teaching colleagues were all on the same page … so to speak. Of course, there are still some essay exams, but those are rarely used as mentoring/learning experiences for students – merely for grading.
Consequently, our Industrial Economy emphasis on long-term stability, consistency, and even perfection – even in argumentation – has been replaced by the Attention Economy emphasis on speed, simplicity, and … frankly … bluster. An argument that is not consistent with data is rarely noticed – and it is even a badge of courage for some. Almost any logical or factual error in today’s communication world, can electronically revised post-hoc. And the original troublesome words and passages replaced with something more palatable.
It feels like there is little reason to carefully consider anything before writing it because readers will do the copy-editing for you.
Sadly, this does not help in many real jobs. Ill-considered proposals by young employees may give employers pause. A series of those may impede career progress. Most business still care about precision; without which money, time and effort are wasted.
Business schools should require consistency and critical thinking in graduates, but these are difficult skills to teach orally in case study courses. As a professor, I can grill a student about single-order relationships, but have troubles, myself, holding a chain of interlinked rationales in my head and helping a student make all of these connections. And even if I had the brain-power to do this, I would be doing it one student at a time in classroom discussions.
One of the most important aspects of Interactive Learning eXperiences (I-L-X) is that the computer can ensure that logical linkages between data, learnings, decisions, and actions are in place – for each and every student – for and every problem they are trying to solve. Algorithms can keep students consistent as they choose from thousands of potential variables to create a business proposal – in a way that my professorial brain could never do at any kind of scale.
There is hope for a return to consistency and logic in graduates, but it will require learning systems and computing power that goes well beyond the scope of anything in schools today.