The Greely Expedition of 1881 is a harrowing tale of starvation and the death of all but six of the crew who embarked on an exploration of the Canadian Arctic. Historians and anthropologists identify poor decision-making as a central component of the tragic outcomes. In one monumental decision that seemed to lack well-thought, reasoned judgment, Lieutenant Greely ordered his troops from Fort Conger to Camp Sabine. Greely’s men deemed the move insane and foolish. Fort Conger afforded them all they needed to survive for years: plenteous game, and warm, safe shelter. Yet Greely was determined to obey orders transcribed by superiors who lacked comprehension of the emerging context. Greely’s decision would prove disastrous. Camp Sabine was a barren wasteland without purpose, provision, or protection to sustain the life of those now utterly depleted and demoralized by the perilous transfer. Greely erroneously took his orders “to-the-letter,” rather than balancing and synthesizing multifaceted elements of the context .
College students often graduate without apt complex-reasoning skills. When I present dilemmas with which my students must grapple, I often observe disproportionate frustration if I will not resolve dilemmas, or when I deem dualism (it’s either right or wrong) as inadequate. The literature supports my anecdotal experience; this generation seeks to have dilemmas resolved by an external societal force rather than by contending with quandaries and crafting resolutions on their own . Technology that enhances decision-making should be applauded; there are advantageous social implications. Perhaps Greely would have averted tragedy by using predictive analytics. Yet, a cognitive foundation should be laid and well-developed within humans to cultivate the art of self-guided, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. With such underpinnings, dualism will give way to an internal processing system of “constructed knowledge” (what’s right is contingent upon varied, multidimensional factors and certain choices are better) . As technology delivers more and more algorithms and analytics to inform decisions, will we impede the development of critical reasoning? Could we create a culture of Greely-like thinking in which computer-generated guidance is unquestioningly obeyed by those lacking higher-order thinking? Perhaps we should pursue balance, leveraging technology while also designing safeguards to prevent cognitive indolence.
Christine Perakslis is Associate Professor in the M.B.A. Program, College of Management, Johnson & Wales University, Providence, RI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.