By Kevin Madigan Photo by Kevin Madigan – Rabbi Michael Berger speaks about critical thinking at Atlanta Jewish Academy.
What is critical thinking? How does it affect education? Rabbi Michael Berger raised these and other weighty issues during a Feb. 1 lecture at Atlanta Jewish Academy in Sandy Springs.
Rabbi Berger, an associate professor of Jewish studies at Emory University and the former head of school of Yeshiva Atlanta High School, which is now part of AJA, said the Greek philosopher Socrates first raised the necessity of rational deduction about 2,500 years ago. His approach to the analytical dissemination of ideas became known as the Socratic Method.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously declared, but Rabbi Berger added, “It doesn’t mean examining other people’s lives,” drawing laughter from the audience. “It means thinking about what you do, how you relate, how you respond. To be a human means by definition to strive to be rational. If you don’t, you’re not a complete person.”
The Greeks considered it a sign of immaturity when reflexive people gave knee-jerk, automatic responses to mandates or concepts without analyzing or questioning their merit. The Greeks “came at the world teleologically,” Rabbi Berger said. “There was a goal to everything, to develop your rational capacities. Otherwise, how are you unique from animals? To be human is to be selective about what you do and how you arrive at your conclusions.”
Rabbi Berger’s students at Emory are advised to use what he calls logical consistency. He tells them that if they can’t think clearly, they can’t write clearly. They are required to provide credible sources for their assertions and must not believe something is true “just because it’s on the web.”
Students should not “take them as givens but analyze basic concepts. Everything is based on those, so how can you develop without them?” Rabbi Berger said. He would like his students to rely more on the 10-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy and less on Google.
The evolution of critical thinking took time. Rabbi Berger called it “a remarkable revolution that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes centuries to increase critical inquiry.”
Critical thinking was used primarily in the Middle Ages to sort out weak and faulty arguments from good ones and was “a sorting tool to reconcile what seemed to be different sources of truth,” he said. “How do we know what we know? Just because the pope or someone in the third century said something, does that make it true? We have to rely on society, not authority, for truth.”
Socrates said you have to seek evidence, according to Rabbi Berger, who then invoked “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” citing the comedy group’s frequent forays into dogmatic inquiry. Critical thinking establishes veracity and must be used to question not only government, but also law, science, politics, economics, society, religion and education.
Jewish education in particular has an added challenge, Rabbi Berger said, addressing the many teachers in the audience. “Integrating Jewish and secular existence is a very difficult thing because they (Jewish children) want to be part of both. We need basic education plus Jewish education to create successful adults.”
He added that Jewish students need to be knowledgeable about their history and their community, as well as ethics, pride and identity. “It’s socialization,” he said, and ideally Jewish students should be “religiously adept.”
Yossi Ovadia, sitting in the front row, plans to send his grandchildren to AJA. He said Rabbi Berger “provided extremely important tools for educators to know what these skills are and how they can develop them to be used for a successful career.”
Rabbi Berger concluded: “There’s so much passing now for Jewish authenticity. We need our kids to be much more discerning consumers. There’s a tidal wave of information, and we need them to be critical thinkers for that alone.”