I’m here in Manhattan, Kansas and just finished speaking to the Kansas State University College Republicans and a gathering of folks from the greater area. It’s fantastic to be back here, a place where I spent some seven years of my life.
I first came to the area to serve in the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” Manhattan, Kansas is the place where I met my wife, Angela. We had our first house here. Our daughters were both born here, and I fell in love with Kansas State and the people here. This evening, I’ll have the honor of attending the K-State versus Texas Christian University football game. Doggone, last week TCU blasted the Texas Longhorns 50-7; sure hope the Horned Frogs are still tired from running up and down the field last Saturday.
I landed at Manhattan Airport — boy, how things have changed — and was met by my former political philosophy Professor, Dr. Laurie Johnson. Talk about a REALLY big brain. When I first met Dr. Johnson, I was a brooding young U.S. Army captain, fresh from combat in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. I was educated and tough, but had no idea of how to think, to reason. Dr. Johnson, who has since become a special mentor and friend, opened my eyes and beady little brain to an entire new world. Through her, I was able to delve into the thoughts, writings and perspectives of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and I’ll never forget the lecture about Francis Fukuyama and our discussion on Hegelian dialectic theory. Damn, this fella from the inner city of Atlanta was learning to think critically and comprehend the complexities of political thought.
Now, I know this is probably boring y’all, but bear with me, because there’s a very important point to be made.
It’s been a thrill to just have time to sit with my intellectual mentor and suck more knowledge out of her expansive brain housing group — that’s what we call your head in the military. And in our conversations about thought and assessing the current political state of America, something hit me.
Consider the complexity of a college football game. I mean, you can just go to watch and enjoy the atmosphere — OK, tailgating and drinking — or you can seriously analyze the strategy of the game, the play calling. Just think about the split-second decisions being made by offensive and defensive coordinators. Just imagine the different formations and defensive machinations employed. There are those who just sit and watch the game and never realize all the critical thinking that goes into those sixty minutes of physical engagement.
Now, think of the young men on that field and their ability to grasp all these decisions, plays, audibles and shifts, and ask yourself — if these fellas can absorb all that information and process it in sometimes a split second — what, then, is the problem in higher education?
Have any of you seen the play books for football teams? They’re no different from textbooks, and I’d posit that, for some, they can be more complex than algebra. But somehow, the coaches are able to drill these formulas, concepts and ideas into the minds of these young men — and do so under arduous conditions.
So what’s keeping us from advancing critical thinking at the highest levels of our education process? This is what Dr. Johnson and I began to analyze. Are we enabling football coaches more than we are the classroom professor? Well, are we?
Think about it, today, all over the country, fans will pour into massive stadiums, expecting the students on the field to pass the test — score touchdowns, stop the offense, execute the perfect play or shift into the perfect defensive formation. Are we expecting, demanding, the same of our students in the classroom Monday-Friday — and, of course, there are no cheering crowds encouraging them.
Dr. Johnson shared with me her greatest concern about the restoration of critical thinking. She believes the lack of support for professors to provide the highest quality and challenging education is not valued by the greater society. Her concern is we’re demonizing the concept of liberal education. Now, before y’all go all apoplectic, let’s define what she’s addressing. You all remember when I explained how today’s constitutional conservatism is actually classical liberalism — I learned that from Dr. Johnson. What she’s expressing is not indoctrination of students into progressive socialism, but rather training the mind to go beyond what’s presented. It’s a return on our college campuses to valuing the liberal arts, humanities — subjects like history, politics, literature. The ability to understand the lessons of the past in order to comprehend the events of today in a comparative context. For example, any savvy person would be able to ascertain that we’re living in a 1936-1939 world when it comes to our foreign policy — or lack thereof. And we all know those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them in the present.
Yes, it’s imperative we train the future generations in hard sciences and prepare the next generation workforce in vocational skill sets necessary for 21st century economic growth. But ask yourself, are we doing what’s necessary to train the next generation of critical thinkers? And you all know I don’t advocate every person going to college — but what should college education look like? Dr. Johnson believes those who do attend college need a basic introduction to the humanities in order to expand their critical thinking knowledge base. And folks, this is where we must focus on education — not indoctrination. Along with that, we cannot have college campuses that become dominated by this belief of one ideological perspective — and anything contrary must be censored, squashed and demonized.
The students here at Kansas State shared with me an occurrence that was truly astonishing. One of the traditions here at Kansas State is for students to write messages on the sidewalk in chalk as a means of using their First Amendment rights, freedom of speech and expression. However, when someone complained about a pro-life message that was written, university officials decided to have the words washed off by maintenance personnel. This is not an everyday happening at Kansas State, but if it can happen here, perhaps it can happen anywhere. But when it does, the unintended consequence is that it paints a broad-brushed viewpoint of our college campuses. Our goal must be to ensure this is an exception and does not become the rule.
Imagine if someone anonymously in the stands at a football game sent a text to the officials expressing their complaint about a play that was called on the field — and upon further review — the officials decide to penalize the team for offending the unknown fan in the crowd.
How can our college campuses grow, win and score touchdowns by developing the next generation of critical thinkers if the unknown fan in the crowd throws the flag and calls for a penalty? What is holding our country back from producing the next generation of critical thinkers is that someone is arbitrarily making the rules — and hypocrisy is evident. Why does a reality TV character named “Snooky” get to address the Rutgers University graduation, but a former secretary of state and national security advisor is guilty of illegal procedure and penalized? Why are students who don’t tow a professor’s line penalized for offsides on a test or a paper?
Understand, this isn’t indicative of all our university professors — but are we promoting an environment where they’re positively recognized and championed? As I sat with Dr. Johnson, I remembered a professor who was the model, and I wish more of our college students could have the experience of a Dr. Johnson. There are those who would say what she does isn’t important — well, y’all, her efforts in training me in a classical liberal thought process enables me today. We cheer on the football coach who trains the athlete to absorb complex plays and formations. Why not find the good professors and cheer them on as they seek to make our nation one of critical thinkers once again.
Ask yourself, do you think there’s a Thomas Jefferson or a James Madison out there who could write documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution — by hand? The hunt for the critical American thinker has begun and they don’t necessarily have to come from a university campus — but they do need to be developed.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a philosopher to whom I was introduced by Dr. Johnson during my masters study here at Kansas State.
“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” — Plato
Leadership is all about critical thinking. Governing is done by astute and insightful individuals who have a frame of reference to analyze the past — not singsong rhetoricians paralyzed by actual events.
God bless you, Dr. Laurie Johnson, for ensuring I’ll not allow myself to be governed by my inferiors or ruled by despotism. How many of you have a Dr. Johnson in your life?