Saturday, June 11, 2016

Living in Metacognition, or Another Failure of Universities

It happened again. I found myself out in public, sitting at an outside café, watching the people go by. I don't know why sitting and watching people fascinates me. Perhaps it is the myriad personalities that show through the white noise of hundreds of people gathered together. Perhaps it is the flow of chaos as people stream past, picking a restaurant, or heading to the movie theater. Perhaps it is the time spent when I find myself most introspective.

For nearly my entire life, I've lived in a state of metacognition, thinking about what I was thinking. Such a life is both a blessing and a curse.

With practiced metacognition, I am able to analyze what goes on around me and can reach quick and accurate assessments. It is what makes me a high-rated chess player, or allows me to digest dozens of books a month.

On the other hand, my metacognition also makes me appear aloof and distant, as I am unable to "live for the moment" without first analyzing the situation around me. Behind all my conversations and encounters, I am analyzing at a separate level from the here and now.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered that most people don't analyze everything they do. Most people think about thinking only every once and awhile. Some never do and rely on reactions and emotions to guide them through life.

So what does this have to do with the price of beans in Upper Sandusky?

University studies used to focus classroom studies on training the mind in metacognitive skills. This is precisely why universities used to teach the Classics. Socrates was the master at training his students to think about thinking, then to use their discoveries to analyze the world around them. This is what Socrates meant when teaching about the examined life.

In today's university, however, there is no more room for the examined life. There is no room for metacognition. There is no room even for thinking, let alone thinking about thinking.

For example, here's the Vision Statement from Arizona State University:

And here's ASU's Charter:
ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.
Nowhere in the charter or vision is there any mention of learning, or of thinking, or of much of anything except the vague sense of ASU's role in the community and a responsibility for economic, social, and cultural welfare.

This is not education. This is indoctrination. There is no hint, no smidgeon, no stain of an vision to teach students how to think. Hence, most who eventually graduate are ignorant of how to think. Only mere handfuls of students leave the university as thinking adults with any skills whatsoever to analyze the world around them.

The rest become the mindless drones, defined only by their ignorance of the world around them.