The American novelist Ernest Hemingway once quipped that the only way to be a great novelist was to have a “built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

In Teaching As a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner’s classic 1969 book on teaching in an age of rapid technological change, they suggested that the primary purpose of schools should be to cultivate the ability to detect crap:

We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes  and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism.

Their solution, of course, was the famous inquiry method. Planned effectively, this is a great way to learn.

However, crap-detecting is a very difficult attitude and skill to achieve, requiring an ironic stance toward one’s own traditions – of acceptance and criticism at the same time. As they mention, this takes considerable courage.

We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one’s tribe.

…it is the sign of a competent “crap detector” that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up.

What would this involve? We can’t reduce crap-detecting to critical thinking or logic, because there is a definite content to be covered. The critical attitude must be applied. Postman’s moniker reminds me of one of the characters in Solzhenytsin’s novel Cancer Ward who quotes Francis Bacon regarding the “idols of the marketplace.” In order to understand the “arbitrary abstractions” of our society, an attention to language is necessary, but also knowledge of other political systems and ways of thinking.

Crap detecting would require knowledge of:

1. The tribe.  What is Canada? Is it a monarchy, a democracy, a capitalist society? How about free-market capitalist democracy? What are the principles of a free-market? How are these different than a mercantilist or socialist state? What habits of thought and action do they encourage? All these questions require serious study of history and the history of political thought.

2. The predominant views of the tribe members. How our leaders view the tribe, how it has changed over time, and what their views of justice are.

3. Views of different tribes. Why do others genuinely believe ideas which are opposed to mine? What are their motives, what is their history, what are their circumstances?

4. Different methods of comparison (How to compare different tribes and their views). Most academic disciplines deal with comparative studies – to name a few – Politics, Anthropology, Psychology, Philosophy, History. Reducing your inquiry to one method is probably missing something.

5. A way of not falling into skepticism, which would kibosh or preempt the entire process (here’s where the courage comes in). This would involve the courage to be judged by your peers for being different and entertaining different views. It would also entail the courage to stick to your guns in the face of personal weakness, the overwhelming task, and temporal disorientation. Crucially, it entails the courage to attach yourself to the beliefs that make the most sense, in the absence of certainty.

I’m sure there are more. They aren’t a chronological to-do list either.

Stay tuned for more on Crap detecting.