Monday, December 24, 2012

Critical Thinking

Earlier in the year there was a spate of articles on the Texas Republican Party, and its concern over the teaching of "critical thinking," and whether it should be in the Texas public school curriculum. In response, the same people who consider it essential that students learn logical analysis, fact from fiction, evidence from assertion, and a general willingness to challenge received wisdom, are also mostly the same people who drop their jaws in disbelief that certain politicians and educators in Texas would be opposed to what most of us consider to not only be an essential 21st century skill, but one that is already in short supply.

But it really isn't that surprising, not if one accounts for the world view of those who are skeptical if not outright defiant about critical thinking, and what they prefer be taught in its place. 

Conservatives have often argued that much of what comes under the rubric of critical thinking undermines authority, especially parental authority, and gives license to students not to merely question authority, but to subvert it. Empowering the student to think systematically, analyze, and challenge the views of others--and not merely accept--is now seen by the Texas GOP as subversive. This is merely the current version of an age-old pattern: The aristocracy is to be educated, peasants are to work; the masses are to be controlled and remain illiterate; the clergy will interpret and obfuscate doctrine as needed. No Latin for you.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has laid out the key distinctions rather well. Many conservatives, but especially authoritarians (and not, by way of comparison, libertarians, even conservative ones), see humans as essentially evil and sinful in nature. They-we-must undergo a strict and disciplined upbringing, where we learn  obedience and submission to authority. The central authority figure is the father, he who dispenses judgement and punishment.

In contrast, more liberal households are more likely to encourage their children to explore, create, and examine the how and why of life. Less rote memorization, more hands up in the classroom, and more critical thinking, just that which irritates the Right. This talk of creativity and exploration is all fine up to a point, they say, but not if it undermines the family, other authority figures, and moral certitude. For such authoritarians, a strict father is preferable to a nurturing mother.

The Texas Republican Party Platform of 2012 is unambiguous: "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority (emphasis mine)."

Silly me, I thought a central point of education was to challenge a student's "fixed beliefs."

In an insightful, if distressing, article called How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future, Sara Robinson writes:
In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment -- a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students -- the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that's been in place since the Renaissance.
Robinson makes the point that education is inherently a partisan issue, something conservatives seem to realize more than progressives. We had been making great strides in this country primarily because of two interrelated trends: an expanding middle class and an ever-widening public school system that was tasked with educating millions who, in times previous, would have been relegated to cheap, ignorant labor.

We are witnessing trends, policies, and attitudes that are threatening to reverse these gains. As taxes are cut, and state and local budgets come under pressure, a curriculum that educated us, and made society less coarse, has come under attack as humanities, philosophy, music, art, and now critical thinking, are being curtailed. While many school districts attempt to upgrade math and science, a laudable objective, many schools are forced to gut enriching subjects simply because budgets compel them.

But this is not strictly an issue of budget constraints. Again, Sara Robinson:
It's obvious that stripping these mind-expanding fripperies out of the curriculum -- as conservatives are proposing, often with no push-back at all from liberals -- serves the narrow, functional conservative view of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It's not exactly accurate -- but nonetheless true -- to say that the reason we call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you're likely to be. If we buy into the idea that critical thinking is somehow non-essential, we're not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in America; we're also depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they'll need to defend their democracy from the plutocrats who are always standing in the shadows, determined to wrest it from them.
More tax cuts will be implemented long before any real reduction in the federal debt takes place. So don't expect positive changes in public education any time soon, unless you think charter schools and vouchers are an improvement.

At least the Pentagon gets all the money it needs.

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