Essay: Mass-man Goes to the Beach: Critical Thinking as a Dead End

I sometimes struggle with the phrase, “I’m going to the beach.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the beach. I love spending time at the beach. But I just feel silly trying to encapsulate the experience of the beach in that phrase.

Of all the photos I’ve taken, this is my favorite.

My 2-year Old Son at the Beach

I think it helps illustrate what I’m talking about. To say “here’s a picture of my 2-year-old son at the beach” seems inadequate to capture what is happening here. It’s not wrong to say that, but it misses the reality of this encounter.

For me, this photo represents a moment in which, through my son, the words I comfortably use to describe the mundane realities of the waterfront are stripped from my mouth and I am forced to ask with him, “What the hell is all that water? And those things floating on it? And is this always here? And it’s so much bigger than me.” And it’s this posture–a posture of wonder. He has no pretense to understanding.

In the “Revolt of the Masses” Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote –

To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand… Everything in the world is strange and marvelous to well-open eyes.

I believe it is the task of educators (parents included, of course) to train students to hold this posture of wonder. And it should go without saying, though I write this very essay to remind myself who has forgotten, that to teach the posture of wonder well, the teacher must be intimately acquainted with it.

If I am satisfied that I understand a thing, I have checked it off my list and it makes no sense to continue pursuit of it. I think of an old joke by Jeff Foxworthy about how foolishly we use the phrase “It was in the last place I looked.” In fairness, we typically mean “It’s in the last place I would have ever thought to look.” But to take the phrase at face value–why in the world would we continue looking after we found the thing?

If I’m trying to learn to solve a rubix cube or how to make a specific type of pancake, once all the sides are the same color and the pancake tastes as I expected, I have understood the thing. For self-contained systems such as these, this is a functional model of learning. I didn’t know a thing, I studied or practiced it, then performed a task to prove that I now understand. And what’s nice is that it’s easily measurable–like a model of education that is concerned primarily with disseminating knowledge. When the students can recite facts A-Z and perform tasks 1-3, then we have succeeded as educators.

But I think this has to stand in contrast with a model of education that is concerned with roundly preparing the pupil for life beyond the classroom. Because the world is not a self-contained system–but rather billions of self-contained systems that interact and create new systems without end.

Facts alone will offer nothing if not processed. Spend 5 minutes flipping between news channels after a major event and watch as the same facts lead to starkly different conclusions. The facts do not themselves speak. They need to be digested and contextualized. This is, in a reductionistic way, the basic process of understanding a thing.

And so let’s imagine, as perhaps Elon Musk will soon make a reality, that we could implant the contents of Wikipedia or a theoretically more comprehensive compendium of knowledge into the mind of a student at graduation. They would, if taught principles of critical thinking and how to process the information, perhaps be equipped to process their present situation.

But would they?

For most of my teaching career, I’ve upheld “critical thinking” as the goal of education. Facts are important as material for thought, but what is more important is the ability to acquire and process new facts. I have considered developing critical thinkers as training up “life-long learners.”

But I am now convinced that critical thinking as an end falls short of that goal. It’d be as if Gandalf handed Bilbo a sword and left him in his hobbit hole, and then went to the pub to say he’s sent Bilbo on a quest. He’s merely equipped him while Bilbo remains in his old life, gardening and eating second breakfasts with a sword nearby.

If I, as an educator, seek to produce “life-long learners” and stop at teaching facts and critical thought, I will fail because I have not made the student aware that they are to go on a quest. The student can sit on his or her couch watching Netflix and thinking critically about it the entire time. Is this the product we want?

Consider this image by Gasset:

As this is the simple truth–that to live is to feel oneself lost–he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

The image of the “Shipwrecked Man” comes near the end of his book “The Revolt of the Masses,” and stands in contrast to the “Mass-man” who,

feeling himself “common,” … proclaims the right to be common, and refuses to accept any order superior to himself.

In other places, Gasset simply identifies the Mass Man as “self-satisfied.”

(For clarity, Gasset’s Mass Man can exist at any income level, and be any sex or race. Being “Mass” is ultimately bound up in self-perception and how that self-perception influences one’s interactions with the world.)

The impossibility of a life-long learner to be self-satisfied seems, to me, self-evident. If I believe I have no deficiencies why would I seek to improve? If I feel no need to look outside myself and my needs, why would I spend the time trying to understand history, or spheres of knowledge that do not seem relevant to meeting those needs?

And Gasset would plead in response, “because Civilization depends on it.” A large portion of “Revolt of the Masses” seems dedicated to this point — Civilization and the benefits of civilization we enjoy are not self-sustaining. If they are not intentionally maintained they will decay and disappear. Netflix is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The internet is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The computers that allow us access to the internet are not a naturally occurring phenomena. And we continue up the chain of invention until we realize that even a group of people deciding to live near each other must establish rules, which are not naturally occurring phenomena lying around to be imposed on people. So between two people at the beginning of civilization saying “Hey, let’s live next to each other and help each other, or at least not murder each other,” and me clicking on my profile on Netflix, is a hell of lot of intentional directing of human energy and thinking and practical application that should not, and ultimately cannot, be taken for granted.

That being said, the reality is I could probably decide to remain on my couch, and Netflix and the United States would likely continue unaffected. But if everyone decided they deserve to remain on the couch, Netflix and the United States would not. So who gets up to preserve Civilization?

Gasset again,

If you want to make use of the advantages of civilization, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization–you are done.

Gasset makes special mention of “the Cynic” which he calls “a parasite of civilization [who] lives by denying it.” And I think it’s valuable to consider this notion because the critical thinker, recognizing the need for civilization’s upkeep and while faced with its demise might well decide that the thing isn’t worth saving and leech off of it until it has nothing left to give.

I can’t recall the last time I heard the word “duty” in public or private discourse (save for “In the line of”) And it makes sense. Duty implies some transcendent obligation on me to do something whether I like it or not. It might demand “inauthentic” action — action that I don’t feel like doing, but recognize a higher calling to perform. The performance of some duties might even mean me doing things that “aren’t me.” But that’s probably a good thing. No, that’s definitely a good thing. But I suspect a hard argument to sell in the present milieu.

Gasset’s Cynic is neglecting his duty to the civilization who’s fruits he enjoys.

To move to an extreme example for illustration — Let’s imagine some early civilization in which two small groups of humans move next to each other and come to an agreement about living together. Let’s then place the primordial cynic in this small village. “People kill each other. That’s just the way it is.” he muses around the fire pit. Some laugh at his sharp insight, other’s ignore it, assuming it is a joke and that he would not put in jeopardy this fragile civilization. And so the the Cynic is gathering sticks when he sees two villagers fighting and instead of intervening mumbles again with a smirk, “People kill each other.” One villager brains the other with a large stone, killing him. The cynic takes his sticks back to his hovel and builds a fire. Is he not to some degree complicit in the murder and the violation of civilization? If the preservation of life is of any value, there needs to be at least a conversation with the murderer making sure he understands the terms of living together, and if the cynic remains silent, comforted by the belief that he is right about “people killing each other,” he has contributed to the decay of his civilization.

We can extrapolate this early Cynic’s observations to our present day — “Governments kill people,” “Corporations kill people,” “What’s the point?”, “That’s just….”, etc. — the Cynic does not contribute. He assumes he understands the big picture (which is ugly), and has written off any effort because it will only lead to the predicted end. He is self-satisfied by living a life of dissatisfaction with everything else.

He will fail to “Love his neighbor.”

All development beyond “let’s not murder each other” demands — both for its creation and maintenance — if not love, at least some degree of respect for our neighbor. In fact, respect for our neighbor is what every thinker I have heard on the subject of Liberal Democracy identifies as the foundational principle. Upkeep of civilization requires understanding, understanding requires work and also investment in other people. And to some scale, students should be faced with the profound weight of existing in civilization. There is a duty bound up in enjoying its fruits. It must be protected if it is to last.

But let’s move from the cynic at the beginning of time to the sacrificing hero near the end…

Imperator Furiosa at the End of the Road, Mad Max: Fury Road

We’ve all seen the deeply human scenes in the apocalyptic films when the hero gestures around at her horrible makeshift hovel, at her injured and dying compatriots, at the end of the world just over the horizon and says “I can’t go on. I can’t keep fighting for this.” And indeed why would she?

If there is no other catalyst for preservation, the student weighed down with their duty will eventually be crushed by it.

So let’s consider this image from Madeleine L’Engle:

We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

While speaking of something like evangelism, she suggests that rules, prohibitions, attacks (like fear-mongering about the death of civilization) are not effective to create movement in the listener. They need a vision. And the vision must be beautiful, because there will be times when we sit at what feels like the end of the world, and we must feel a greater call than to just survive.

Education must, therefore, be bound up in a teleology that stands beyond understanding and responsibility, and the student, to become a life-long learner must feel the historical draw toward its end.

And thus the need for Wonder.

My son was invited to the waterfront, understood pieces of what he was seeing, and wrestled with the reality that it was so much bigger than anything he had encountered before. He then had endless questions about the sea.

I think this is the start of a good educational model.

Photo by Kelly Lacy on

He and I read books about the sea, we study creatures that live in the sea, we watch stories set in the sea, and I wait with baited breath until he can understand percentages so I can tell him that with all our technology and our knowing we have explored about 5% of the sea. And then I will invite him to continue the pursuit of its beauty.

But anyone will pursue something they believe is beautiful if there are no obstacles. And here’s another challenge: the honest pursuit of beauty is demanding, and when we finally experience the encounter, we discover that beauty will not fully reveal itself to any piece of us that is still self-satisfied. When we encounter something truly wonderful, if we are to see it fully, if it is possible to see it fully, it is by releasing the parts of ourselves which are small and false and ugly. This hurts. It is a dying to oneself (which also happens to be the demand Christ makes on those who would follow Him. Following Him–the consummation of the human pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness.)

It is not superstition, or simple old habit, that placed Theology as the Mother of all Sciences in the old order of education.

Gasset dedicates a chapter of his book to the modern “Specialist” and discusses specifically the specialist in particular branches of science. He suggests that “the specialist ‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” And then,

But if the specialist is ignorant of the inner philosophy of the science he cultivates, he is much more radically ignorant of the historical conditions requisite for its continuation; that is to say: how society and the heart of man are to be organized in order that there may continue to be investigators.

To continue to sustain and develop civilization, the “heart of man” must be pointed toward something he loves, something that draws him, like the Light in Madeleine L’Engle’s vision. We sacrifice for what we love — Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. John 15:13 — and I believe we must love in order to sacrifice. We must love outside ourselves to escape the death of self-satisfaction. And the thing we love must be greater than those things which inspire us to wonder (which must be recognized as flowing from the thing we love), lest the trail dead-end in specializing in the thing and failing to see the wild complexity outside the specialty.

I don’t know what this looks like in most disciplines. But I believe it’s necessary to figure it out — or at least to pursue an answer. And that may be enough. I have been more inspired by models of the desperate pursuit of the beautiful than by anyone who told me fun facts about a subject matter.

Education is about the formation of a beautiful vision then equipping students to pursue that vision with endurance. It’s about marrying the pursuit of that vision, that wonder, to the act of sacrificial love. This produces life-long learners. And this produces men and women who will withstand the end of days because of it will never be the end of the beautiful and their hearts have been oriented and trained to always pursue the beautiful.

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