Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 2: Critical Thinking

Not too long ago, perhaps when some god stirred in his sleep, the idea that America is usefully divided into front row and back row people seemed to have a brief moment of currency. Haven’t heard much of that noise lately, but then again I haven’t been listening for it. Or maybe the god fell back into deep sleep, who knows? At the time, it struck me as typical classist nonsense, looking for a way to separate the good, virtuous, and therefore justifiably successful from the bad, vicious, and therefore unsuccessful in a way most flattering to the presumed good people. I most likely reacted this way because I always sat in the back, and was always among the smarter and more ‘successful’ kids in my classes, so the distinction, such as it is, rang false.

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Those kids in the front there are obviously more intelligent and ambitious than those in the back, right?

Let’s back up: poking around, this idea seems to trace back to the work of one Chris Arnade. He’s an amatuer journalist/photographer who is a sort of secular saint by virtue of his leaving his job of 20 years as a Wall Street quant in order to hang with and photograph poor people. He was unhappy with the Wall Street culture; they also closed his area due to post Great Recession regulatory burdens, and he got a buyout and retired. (1) Starting around 2012, he began to publish his writings and photos, where he coined or at least popularized the idea of front and back row kids. He just recently published a book (disclosure: I have not read it).

The idea seems to be that the kids who sit in the front row of classrooms are the ambitious leaders who rise above such trivia as race, sex, religion and any brand of localism from nationalism on down, while the kids who sit in the back have no ambitions and are fettered by their failure to rise above race and sex, and cling to their Bibles and their loyalty to place. Kids who are ambitious and smart want to sit up front so that they don’t miss anything and get noticed; kids in the back just want to be left alone, and see no value in school. More or less.

The bastion of the first group is of course the Democratic party; the second group voted for Trump. This is evidently interpreted as a failure by Democrats to understand the less enlightened, and of Trump (diabolically?) capitalizing on that very lack of enlightenment. In other words, the smart, good people failed to understand the stupid, bad people, who then voted for Trump as one of their own – or something. It doesn’t quite make sense. In what sense are people who can’t understand people outside their tribe ‘smart’? In what sense are people who value home and God ‘stupid’? Makes a fellah wonder…

Today, however, I’m not here to criticize this particular flavor of bigotry. Rather, it just happens to illustrate today’s Orwellian euphemism: Critical Thinking. To be fully Orwellian, the euphemism must not only avoid saying what it really means, but must say the opposite of what it means. Thus, critical thinking as used today means mindless conformity, the kind of mindless conformity displayed by the kids who sit in the front rows and kiss teacher hindquarters for a decade and a half.

Just as our last Orwellian euphemism, Academic Freedom, might be expected to result in a wide variety of views being expressed without fear of repercussions, but instead results in a viciously-enforced uniformity of thought, Critical Thinking might be imagined as equipping the critical thinker with the tools to criticize, oh, schooling, say. Or his teacher’s political or social assumptions. Or the conclusions of his social class.

Nope. Critical thinkers don’t ever seem to get around to dredging up, let alone criticizing, their own deeply held assumptions, except when those assumptions – say, loyalty to God, family and village – contradict what their teachers think. Then, in the unlikely event the student were to push back (no chance those front row kids are pushing back – they have future careers and success to think of!) those core beliefs are not so much criticized as laughed off stage. The point of critical thinking, in practice, is to prevent any thoughts critical of the assumptions that underlie the attitudes and goals of the front row kids, while making rejection of those held (maybe – the case has not been made) by the back row kids a requirement for membership in the Kool Kids Klub.

If you were to ask any of Arnade’s current or former peers if they have good critical thinking skills, they would pronounce them excellent. And remain unable to understand those poor back seat kids, except through an analysis such as Arnade’s that runs no real risk of upsetting their own feelings of moral and intellectual superiority.

  1. According to Wikipedia, he’s also a socialist, of the ‘retire young from a mid-6-figure Wall Street job to pursue my hobbies’ style socialists. Wonder what those back row kids would think of that?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 2: Critical Thinking”

  1. Lots of seriously good stuff on your blog over the last couple of weeks. Might you be persuaded to return to Simple Facts of Life Radio (blogtalkradio.com/qmcusn) to discuss some of it?

  2. Well, you sat in the back of the class, and you also celebrate the valuation of family, church, and place over “getting ahead”, so you’re not totally a counter-example to this division.

    Anyway, I don’t know who you’ve heard from Arnade about, but having read some shorter stuff by him (I haven’t read his book either, though), it doesn’t seem to be the case that he sees “front row” kids as enlightened and “back row” kids as unenlightened. One of his points seems to be that rich, powerful Americans and American institutions stigmatize and penalize those who value family, church, and home, and that this is wrong. And possibly that there are a group of people who see themselves as a vanguard that will free the proletariat, but they substitute what they think the proletariat *should view as “freedom” for what most people actually *do view as freedom, and this is stupid but they are not even aware that they are doing it. Those are my words, not his, he doesn’t use Leninist jargon as far as I know. More than that, his goal seems to be to give more Americans a sense of what their fellow Americans value and what brings meaning to their lives. I think you two would have a lot of common ground and some interesting conversations if you met.

    But maybe he also has some self-appointed apostles who have turned his work into one more way to feel morally superior, think about the 2016 election, feel morally superior about the 2016 election, etc.

    1. Read only a tiny amount of Arnade; definitely read other people use back row as an insult and front row to mean ‘smart’. I only know about Arnade because I googled around to see where the front/back row taxonomy came from. So no doubt I’m not giving him a fair shake, and am laying at his feet how others have used his classification.

      I latched onto the idea, which I think is telling, that how one views school is an indicator of how well one will do in life in general. I remember kids from my distant youth who were the anti-me: who were top students in k-12 who, applying the same skills they learned there to college, flunked out: front row kids whose experiences didn’t translate. (This was 40+ years ago; today, the guidance counselor would funnel them into studies fields and all would be well, I imagine.)

      Also, I find his bio hilarious: 20 years on Wall Street, leaves because regulatory burdens close down his career, so he ‘retires’ in what the back row kids would see as luxury to travel around taking their pictures. And he’s a socialist. I trust the irony is not lost on him?

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