No Critical Thinking In Texas Schools

The following is a guest editor’s entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Last month, the Republican Party of Texas approved its platform for the 2012 election campaign.  One of the more striking elements of the platform is the Party’s position on education.  The platform states, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs…”  While this position from conservatives is unsurprising, it bodes ill for the maintenance of a healthy democracy.  It also lends a reactionary tinge to the education debate in the U.S. and to a political party that seems woefully out of touch with educational trends in other parts of the world in the 21st Century.

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Japan, for example, has had an ongoing national debate on the nature of compulsory education in terms of both contact hours in the classroom and the underlying approach to learning.  While there are differences of opinion on changes that have been made—and there have been widespread concern that reduction of class time and curricular changes have weakened the rigor previously characteristic of the Japanese system in favor of a more relaxed, and less stressful, school experience—one idea that has remained consistent over the past twenty years is that there is a need to develop a curriculum that promotes independent thinking and encourages self-motivated learning.  For many Japanese, the previous curriculum was far too focused on rote learning, which limited the capacity of citizens to think critically and creatively.

Indeed, in the town of Kanegasaki, located in Iwate Prefecture and where I have conducted anthropological research for many years, the mayor developed a system of Lifelong Learning Centers, three decades ago, that were intended to function as a context where people can continue to explore new ideas and better themselves through education.  Officials in the town government, no doubt channeling national rhetoric, often told me that encouraging lifelong education and learning generates mentally engaged and healthy people and this, in turn, leads to a healthy society. The Japanese seem to have long recognized that a well-educated populace with people who can think critically and creatively is a fundamental element in ensuring a positive future.

This mindset is in sharp contrast to the platform of Texas Republicans, which expresses ideas that are likely held much more broadly in the U.S. These notions work from the perspective that a properly educated individual is one who does not have his or her fixed beliefs challenged and who does not question the authority of those fixed beliefs. Such a perspective is, however, anathema to a healthy, functioning democracy. For democracy to work well, people need to have the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and question the actions of their leaders.  Beyond this, not only does a healthy democracy demand critical thinking skills, so does a capitalist economy. The development of critical thinking skills in children leads to adults who become entrepreneurs, engineers, computer scientists, medical researchers, physicians and nurses, and even enlightened politicians. If citizens only have fixed beliefs to rely upon, creativity will be stifled and a growing economy will be unsustainable.  Without developing such skills in children, the future of the U.S. is one in which its economy will languish and its democracy will wither. Confucius wrote over two thousand years ago that if the words of a ruler are not good, and no one opposes them, one should expect the ruin of his country.  Thomas Jefferson might well have said the same thing.

The basis of a healthy society is a citizenry that can think critically and, thus, determine whether the words of its rulers are good or bad.  Yes, this may mean that one’s fixed beliefs are challenged from time to time. But since we live in a world characterized by diversity and change, it seems unlikely that dogmatic adherence to any set of fixed beliefs is likely to lead to a healthy economy, a successful democracy, or a society that values human differences, educational integrity, and intelligence.

The following warning should be affixed atop every computer in America's schools:

Proceed at your own risk. Don't accept as true what you're about to read. Some of it is fact; some of it is opinion disguised as fact; and the rest is liberal, conservative, or mainstream propaganda. Make sure you know which is which before choosing to believe it.

Students are exposed to so many different viewpoints on- and offline and so prone to accepting whatever they read, that they run the very real risk of becoming brainwashed. If it's on a computer screen, it becomes Holy Writ, sacrosanct, immutable, beyond question or doubt.

Teachers caution students constantly against taking what they read at face value, since some of these sites may be propaganda mills or recruiting grounds for the naïve and unwary. Not only egregious forms of indoctrination may target unsuspecting young minds, but also the more artfully contrived variety, whose insinuating soft-sell subtlety and silken appeals ingratiatingly weave their spell to lull the credulous into accepting their wares.

To prevent this from happening, every school in America should teach the arts of critical thinking and critical reading, so that a critical spirit becomes a permanent possession of every student and pervades the teaching of every course in America. This would be time well-spent in protecting students from the contagion of toxins on- or offline.

While ensuring students' physical safety is a school's first order of priority, the school should be no less vigilant in safeguarding them from propaganda that will assail them for the rest of their lives. Caveat emptor! Everyone wants to sell students a viewpoint, against which schools should teach them the art of protecting themselves.

Teaching students how to be their own persons by abandoning group-think and developing the courage to think for themselves should begin from the very first day of high school. More important than all the information they will learn during these four crucial years will be how they critically process that information to either accept or reject it.

***

It is a rare high-school graduate who can pinpoint 20 different kinds of fallacies in a line of argumentation while reading or listening; who knows how to distinguish between fact and opinion, objective account and specious polemic; who can tell the difference between value judgments, explanatory theories, and metaphysical claims, and knows how these three kinds of statement can or cannot be proven or disproven; who can argue both sides of a question, anticipate objections, and rebut them; and who can undermine arguments in various ways.

The essence of an education - the ability to think critically and protect oneself from falsehood and lies - may once have been taught in American schools, but, with few exceptions, is today a lost art. This is unfortunate for it is precisely this skill that is of transcendent importance for students in defending themselves. Computers are wonderful things, but, like everything else in this world, they must be approached with great caution. Their potential for good can suddenly become an angel of darkness that takes over their minds.

The school owes its students to teach them how to think, not what to think; to question whatever they read, and never to accept any claim blindly; to suspend judgment until they've heard all sides of a question, and interrogate whatever claims to be true, since the truth can withstand any scrutiny. Critical thinking is life's indispensable survival skill, compared to which everything else is an educational frill!

***

While teachers do encourage critical thinking, there has never been a way of formally integrating this skill into existing curricula. Apart from a few teachers who do train their students in critical thinking, most teachers do not for one simple reason -- there is no time. State education departments mandate that so much material has to be covered that critical thinking cannot be taught, nor can the courses themselves be critically presented. In order to cover the curriculum, courses must be taught quickly, superficially, and uncritically, the infallible way of boring students.

This is a great source of frustration to teachers, who would rather teach their courses in depth in order to give students an informed understanding of the issues involved, the controversies surrounding these issues, the social and political resistance their field of inquiry may have encountered, and its cultural impact upon society; in short, the splash and color of its unfolding drama. At the same time, teachers are forever having to keep one eye on the clock to finish their course by the end of the semester, when there is scarcely time to teach the "official" viewpoint, much less the controversy surrounding each question.

This omission of alternative theories and their attendant controversies leaves students with the mistaken impression that there is little if any disagreement among scholars about what they are taught, as though what is presented is self-evident truth. The problem, of course, is that it may not be the truth at all, but only one side of a raging decades-old debate that happens to be the "official" view of the moment, with other views unacknowledged, much less discussed.

Not that every discipline lends itself to controversy, but most subjects do, with key questions still fiercely debated. History, psychology, sociology, economics, the natural sciences, the arts and humanities are all teeming with conflicts, yet this is regrettably kept from students. Some teachers may make a glancing reference to specialist debates, provide as much critical commentary as possible on the bias of the class text, or cite alternative theories, but what is possible is not nearly enough.

The sheer bulk of material necessarily inhibits its critical treatment, which requires time to explore rival explanations so that students can grasp the excitement of learning and the contentious world of ongoing scholarship. Rather than partaking of a sumptuous banquet, students receive only a very thin gruel, insufficient nourishment for questing young minds.

Because students are usually taught only one viewpoint about everything, they simply accept the theory they learn on their teacher's authority with perhaps little understanding of the reasons provided. However, were they taught a second and third theory, along with their respective pro and con arguments, students would be drawn into a more nuanced understanding of the problem, try to determine which theory was right, and discover their minds at a deeper level as they grappled with the question and experience the excitement of intellectual inquiry.

Such breakthroughs occur all too seldom in classrooms because only one "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" view is all they learn amidst the rapid pace of the course. Imagine the ongoing stimulus of cognitive dissonance were several theories routinely presented with no attempt at resolving the issue. Now that would be a course worth taking! It is this intellectual ferment that is missing in schools today, thanks to a state policy which fosters a climate of indoctrination by default by teaching one viewpoint.

The solution, naturally, lies in relaxing this mile-wide-inch-deep approach to curriculum, employed for generations to little effect. In its place, teachers would critically treat in depth as many of the course essentials as possible, omitting what couldn't be taught in the time remaining. If we want to raise a more reflective generation, critical treatment of material trumps "material covered" every time.

This is a damning indictment of an educational policy that compels teachers to become unwillingly complicit in brainwashing students in a one-view understanding of everything. Teachers want to teach alternative views to avoid such mindlessness, but cannot for lack of time. This policy of haste and superficiality that trivializes learning instead of making it come alive in all its complexity is easily remedied. Government has only to alter its policy.

***

However, there has always been the perception that the last thing government wants is that the young should be trained in critical thinking, for then they would begin to take learning seriously, recognize its explosive power and real-life relevance, question everything, become more aware, hunger for college and, who knows, perhaps even want to remake the world. This would be terrifying to those in power. Even now government is cutting subsidies to state universities, causing higher tuitions and predatory student debt to discourage college attendance.

What better way to frustrate the burning idealism of youth intent on bettering their lives through higher education than by burdening them with crippling debt and sidelining them in securing an education that might later challenge the status quo.

Better to prevent future protests from even occurring by wearing down students in their middle-school years with the soul-numbing drudgery of standardized testing that cools their ardor about coming to school, let alone about going to college.

Better to smother their desire for learning by an eternal night of rigged testing lest the excitement of critical thinking prove contagious and challenges policies of social injustice against a government that wages economic warfare against its own people.

Imagine students conditioned by years of these tests that attempt to brainwash them into thinking that every question must have a right answer; trained to accept the framework they're given rather than thinking outside it and resist the indoctrination of believing whatever they're taught.

Imagine the effect on students of being deprived not only of critical thinking, but also of learning even one viewpoint because the curriculum that would have prepared them for high school is no longer taught -- traditional subjects like science, history, literature, world languages, art, and music -- because all they're now doing is preparing for tests.

Governments have always tried to brainwash children not only by what was taught, but also, and more subtly, by what was omitted. This approach would deny students those areas of knowledge, experience, insight, and wisdom that would have enriched their understanding of themselves and the world. Instead, they were given only a circumscribed view of learning's enormous riches that purposely lay beyond their grasp.

For centuries most children, as well as their parents, were forbidden even the opportunity to learn to read, so dangerous was its potential for self-liberation and questioning the way things were. When this became no longer possible, they tried to control which books they read, whereas now they simply distract them by mass culture that kills the very desire to read.

The minds of children need room to breathe, to be inspired by vision, and the health-bringing balm of many perspectives. They need exercise, play, and relaxation; in short, they need a sound body and spirit to have a sound mind. Rather than spending their magical years entombed in cram-school dungeons that prepare them for impossibly difficult tests, children need old-fashioned schools where every day they can learn something new in classrooms that echo with laughter and joy!

This would be the beginning of real educational reform, not a "reform" that is, among other things, but an assault on the mind that begins in elementary and middle school, continues through high school, and now seeks to limit the number of those who can afford college.

America's state education officials today stand before a great ethical decision. They must choose whether to serve the long-term interests of public-school children or to sell their souls in a Faustian bargain of complicity with Pearson and other "reform" opportunists who are only too willing to sacrifice children to this Strange New God of Standardized Testing.

This piece is an expanded version of an article published in the Times of Trenton in 2013.

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