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The Morrison Government's assault on critical thinking — and dissent

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The Coalition Government is penalising university degrees which foster critical thinking (Book burning image via pixabay.com, Screenshot of Scott Morrison via YouTube)

The Morrison Government is penalising degrees that foster critical thinkers so it will have fewer people attempting to hold it to account, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

THE Morrison Government has announced its intention to double the cost of humanities degrees in an effort to persuade students to undertake courses that it considers more “job-relevant,” such as agriculture, mathematics, teaching and nursing. “Job-relevant” course fees have been substantially reduced as a further enticement to potential students.

There are levels of bastardry in this decision, such as the reinvention of universities as job factories and the cynical funnelling of students in directions decreed by the government — something most critically thinking people would prefer did not happen.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not – one of the most valuable skills taught in the humanities is that of critical thinking.

Ideally, critical thinkers learn to question everything, including existing social norms and traditions. They learn to think systemically. They look beyond the obvious. They use evidence, logic and reason in their arguments. They avoid making assumptions. They consider different perspectives and they use all those skills and more to arrive at judgements. These skills are invaluable in personal and working life. Indeed, critical thinking is taught in some schools with a view to equipping students for life post-school, no matter what direction that takes.

Critical thinkers are dangerous as far as some politicians are concerned. This is because they are the main cohort capable of deconstructing government twaddle and exposing its frequently harmful irrelevance to the interests of the ordinary citizen. We have far too few of them already. Now the government wants to ensure we have even less.  

To be fair, it is not only the Morrison Government that wants to shut them down.

Critical thinking is the enemy of all ideologues and, interestingly, religions of the kind Prime Minister Scott Morrison follows: the Pentecostals. Their doctrine does not stand up to scrutiny by the critical mind, so it makes sense that a government led by a follower of that faith might seize the opportunity to whittle away at the numbers of potential enemies universities produce.    

In fact, critical thinking has been under sustained assault from several directions for a few years. It’s probably useful to note here that people one disagrees with can also be thinking critically — hard as that might be for some to grasp. The danger of listening only to those whose perspective you endorse is that the opportunity to grapple with unfamiliar or unwelcome ideas is lost and this is precisely what the humanities are designed to avoid.

Movements such as "deplatforming" and "cancelling" have as their objective the silencing of views that are not in keeping with current orthodoxy. In 2018, the Brisbane Writers’ Festival deplatformed controversial feminist Germaine Greer and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, causing author Richard Flanagan to 'lament the“loss of backbone” that caused festival organisers to avoid views that might be seen as somehow challenging.

Such action will eventually render writers’ festivals pointless.   

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are also tools that can be used against critical thinking. The dominant narrative is often determined by those who have the most influence on social media. Arbiters are appointed by virtue of their capacity to temporarily or permanently howl down whomever they disagree with. In this way, they take control of the dissemination of knowledge, either for a particular group or more widely.

These tactics are frequently employed by progressives — and often against their own. They usually involve online shaming where the target is bullied, mocked and harassed for something they have said or done. When things turn sour, there might be threats of violence and intimidation.

The bullying of journalists online, particularly women, is an attempt to punish and silence, either for perceived bias in their reporting, or an entirely irrational personal desire to cause harm. In 2018, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took offence to an article written by senior ABC journalist Emma Alberici and allegedly demanded she be sacked.

In February 2017, Centrelink revealed the personal details of writer Andie Fox to Fairfax media, after she had written an article critical of the agency. This is an alarming example of state intimidation designed to silence analysis and thought that reflects badly on one of its agencies.  

All these tactics have a chilling effect on speech, as those with views they fear might be perceived as unwelcome watch dissenters attacked by the government, their livelihoods threatened, their public events cancelled and their every word for the past 20 years scrutinised for offence. Many people prefer to avoid that fate and, for the sake of self-preservation, stay silent.

So we have the Federal Government, religion and social media all engaged in an ongoing project against critical thinking. It is a project furthered by both conservatives and progressives, to the detriment of democracy.

The unholy alliance between conservatives and progressives is contributing to a climate in which people are increasingly reluctant to express views that conflict with those of either ideology. The bizarre spectacle of progressives eating one another on social media in rabid competition to establish "woke" (a term of African-American origin referring to awareness of racial and social issues, now co-opted by white people) credentials is unnerving.

With the Morrison Government making it increasingly difficult for people without sufficient means to study for degrees that will equip them to critique the status quo (people with means are not always as inclined to challenge the orthodoxy as it generally suits them) we will lose potential critical thinkers. The Government will have fewer people attempting to hold it to account.

With an increasing reluctance in the public sphere to permit the expression of views that might offend, we lose access to even more critical thinkers and, instead, dwell in echo chambers where we are gratified by approval, but never challenged.

The assault on critical thinking may be approaching a critical point.   

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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