The increased democratization of the Internet and exposure to a wide array of political opinions appears to be creating less sophisticated, less thoughtful, less rational, angrier political engagement. There are many reasons for this unfortunate and counterintuitive phenomenon, despite the general wisdom of crowds. Of course, there is the increasing selection bias in what people read, and there is confirmation bias in what information people credit. I think a major, insufficiently discussed factor is that people are not reading in a way that allows them to truly absorb others’ perspectives. Many political discussions fail to impart growth, or even understanding, on its participants because we are not truly appreciating what the other party is expressing.
This semester, I taught a companion class to my Torts class, called Torts Lab, where we focused on critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing skills. Many smart students enter law school and other graduate programs without these skills developed. In teaching Torts Lab, I learned a fair bit about meta-cognition, how we think about how we learn. I want to share some lessons I learned from teaching Torts Lab. Below is what I have discovered about where students go wrong in their reading, and how teaching better critical reading and thinking skills can lead to a better understanding of each other and the world around us.
First, active reading requires constant deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning entails drawing conclusions based on a process of logic, where possibilities can be excluded if they lead to contradictory conclusions. A writer is usually not expressing contradictory ideas, and the ideas generally fit together to build a larger narrative structure. To truly understand a writer, the reader must ensure that each of a writer’s ideas fit together into an overall structure, and that each idea is consistent and builds upon the previous ideas.
Some readers engage in this process automatically and others do not. It’s much easier to slot new information into an already existing framework in one’s mind than to build a new framework or make a new association. As a result, people must continually check their assumptions while reading. This constant test of whether a reader is comprehending correctly happens by connecting each sentence together to make sure they do not appear inconsistent. The reader must actively, continually rule out illogical possibilities for what the writer may be saying. Any working hypothesis about what the writer is saying must account for each sentence and the structure of the sentences. Writers must connect the dots for readers by writing in a way that connects each thought, but readers also must often do this work for themselves. This requires a deliberate, concentrated effort to understand the meaning of every word, and every sentence, and to ensure that what the reader thinks a sentence means is not inconsistent with what the reader deemed a previous sentence to mean. It is too easy to read sentences in isolation and move on, but it leads to poor comprehension.
Here’s an example from one of my favorite cases, Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement. Justice Cardozo, then the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, dismisses a case based on the defense of “assumption of the risk.” In Murphy, a plaintiff injured while riding “The Flopper,” was not permitted to bring a lawsuit against a company that maintained an amusement park, because the plaintiff has observed the nature of the ride and willingly decided to enjoy it.
According to Cardozo, “[o]ne who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contact with the ball. The antics of a clown are not the paces of a cloistered cleric. The rough and boisterous joke, the horseplay of the crowd, evokes its own guffaws, but they are not the pleasures of tranquility. The plaintiff was not seeking a retreat for meditation. Visitors were tumbling about the belt to the merriment of onlookers when he made his choice to join them. He took the chance of a like fate, with whatever damage to his body might ensue from such a fall. The timorous may stay at home.”
Students may misunderstand this passage, based on their prior views and experiences, to believe that Cardozo is somehow disparaging those who enjoy rides like “The Flopper,” because Cardozo uses terms like “antics of a clown,” which are usually derogatory. Instead, if the reader ensures that each word has meaning that fits into an overall logical picture, the reader can see that instead, Cardozo is contrasting the riskier endeavors that produce excitement and merriment from more tranquil pleasures. The antics of a clown are not the paces of a cloistered cleric – clowns engage in a more high-risk, high reward activity than those whose pace of life is slow, meditative, and deliberate. If anything, Cardozo may be disparaging the pursuit of meditation, or those individuals who do not seek enjoyment through risk. “The timorous may stay at home,” he writes, meaning that if you wish to avoid all danger, you can just cloister yourself away from the world.
To truly understand what Cardozo is saying, which proves to be a rich, edifying experience, the reader must focus on every word and ensure that it not only has meaning, but that its meaning can be reconciled with the rest of the passage.
In addition, readers and critical thinkers must draw conclusions about how the writer’s views affect the system as a whole. This skill is especially important in law school, where the disposition of any case may appear to lead to a sympathetic result, but is actually bad for the system. This skill is also under-utilized in our political culture, where memes and anecdotes have an outsized influence in how people decide their views. Narratives are compelling, and easy to follow, and slotting data into principled frameworks requires more effort in a dryer, more technical way.
For example, the result in Murphy may bother students, because plaintiff has no recourse to receive compensation for his injuries. However, concepts like assumption of the risk have an important effect on the system as a whole. This doctrine ultimately gives us more choice to engage in risky endeavors, without the organizers of those endeavors worrying about a lawsuit, even a meritless one. If you are forced to assume responsibility for your choices, people (potential defendants) will provide you with those choices more readily. Assumption of the risk, which is now slotted more into the “duty” question in Tort law, allows people to play sports, watch sports, and even be reality television show contestants if they so desire. Of course, questions will arise as to the scope of the risk one is assuming, but any legal ruling, or political stance, impacts an entire system, not just the sympathetic parties being discussed in a particular news item.
Finally, in many ways, technology is impeding our ability to be critical readers and thinkers. I usually ban laptops in my classrooms – not only because evidence indicates that students using laptops transcribe instead of understand what a professor is saying, but because students who focus better participate and engage more. Evidence also indicates that people reading on their phones read in an F-shaped pattern, truly detrimental to the active deductive reasoning necessary for reading comprehension. With so much out there to read and enjoy, it’s no wonder people don’t read carefully. But this process of skimming a text cheats the reader the ability to truly gain any new insights that push our understanding further. Finally, easy access to information, I believe, diminishes people’s critical thinking skills. Instead of trying to logic one’s way to the solution to a problem, by using first principles and the information one already knows, people can just instantly search for the answer they need.
The solution to these problems is time without technology, time to focus and concentrate, and an awareness that we absorb so much information that we either don’t truly understand or don’t fully think through. Active reading, deductive reasoning, and systemic thinking can help fix a broken political culture – and students should start learning these skills, in a non-partisan, apolitical way, much earlier than they are.