Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The critics of critical thinking

I fear for the future of education.

I am about tennish-or-so years from retirement, depending on whether New York State decides in the interim to offer any retirement incentives to get us old guys out, and also whether there's any money to pay for my pension by the time I get there.  Be that as it may, I do find myself wondering sometimes how much longer I'll be able to do this job in this increasingly hostile climate.  Teachers are, more and more, being treated with distrust by the people charged with their governance, and are micromanaged to a fare-thee-well.  As of next school year, New York teachers are going to be given a numerical grade at the end of the year -- the school year starts in two months and the state has yet to determine the formula by which this grade will be calculated.

The worst part, though, is the increasingly intense effort by legislators to control what we teach, despite the fact that they're not the ones who have training in pedagogy (or, necessarily, any expertise in educational policy).  And I'm not just talking here about the repeated attempts by fundamentalist elected officials to mandate the teaching of creationism in biology classrooms; I'm talking about something far scarier, and further reaching. 

Yesterday, a friend of mine who lives in Texas sent me a link to the Texas GOP website, which contains a summary of their official platform.  (The platform itself is a pdf, so here's a link to a webpage where you can access it if interested.)  And on page 13, under "Educating Our Children," we find the following:
Knowledge-Based Education – 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.
This was one of those "I can't be reading that correctly" moments for me; I read it three times, and finally said, with some incredulity, "Nope, that's what it actually says."  They're against critical thinking?  They're against values clarification?  Education should never challenge a student's fixed beliefs?

I'm sorry, Texas GOP.  That's not just wrong, it's dangerously wrong.  Might I remind you that the the most successful historical example of what you're proposing was the Hitler Youth program in Nazi Germany?

Even the word education, at its origin, doesn't mean "shut up and memorize this;" the word comes from the Latin verb educare, which means "to draw out."  The idea is to give students ownership and pride in their own learning, to encourage them to draw out from their own minds creative solutions to problems and novel syntheses of the facts they've learned.  In order to accomplish this, critical thinking is... well, critical.  Great innovation does not come from blindly accepting the fixed beliefs and authority of your parents' generation -- it comes from questioning your own assumptions, and putting what you know together in a new, unexpected way.

And for me personally, I'm not going to stop challenging.  In fact, I teach a semester-long elective class called Critical Thinking that is one of the most popular electives in the school, and on the first day of class, I walk in and say, "Hi, class.  My name is Mr. Bonnet.  Why should you believe anything I say?"

After a moment's stunned silence, someone usually says, "Because you're a teacher."  (Every once in a while some wag will shout, "We don't!"  To which I respond, "Good!  You're on the right track.")  To those who say, "Because you're a teacher," I say, "Why does that matter?  Could a teacher be wrong?  Could a teacher lie?"

Of course, they acquiesce (some of them with a bit of discomfort).  So then I repeat my question; why would you believe what I'm saying?

This starts us off on an exploration of how you tell truth from lies; how you detect spin, marketing, bias, and half-truth; how to recognize logical fallacies; how to think critically in the realm of ethics and morals; and we end by taking apart the educational system, to give a thoughtful look at its successes and failures.  And (importantly!) I never once interject my own beliefs; I needle everyone equally.  When a student presses me to tell the class what I believe on a particular subject, my stock response is, "What I believe is irrelevant.  My job is to challenge you to examine your own beliefs, not to superimpose mine."

And this sort of thing is, apparently, what the Texas GOP would like to see eliminated from schools.  We mustn't have kids doubting the wisdom of the Powers-That-Be.  We must keep education in the realm of the vocabulary list and worksheet packet.  We mustn't challenge the status quo.  (And the darker, more suspicious side of my brain adds, "And we mustn't have the younger generation recognizing it when they're being lied to or misled.")

Well, I'm sorry.  You're wrong.  What you're suggesting is the very antithesis of education.  And the day I'm told that I can't do this any more -- that my teaching can't provoke, can't knock kids' preconceived notions off balance, can't ask the all-important question "Why do you think that?" -- that will be my last day in the classroom, because there won't be any place left in education for teachers like me.


  1. I could not agree more with you here: telling kids to sit down, shut up and accept authority is not teaching, it's brainwashing. Sinister, dangerous and horribly unethical. My dad was a teacher and his favourite students were the ones that gave him hell - in a good way, of course. "Why is it so? Who said that? Prove it!" - these were his favourite questions.

    The Texas GOP appear to want to raise a generation of clones who will accept whatever Faux News pumps down their throat; they effectively want to shortcut the process by which people become more conservative as they grow older, by forcing the young to accept conservative dogma.

    Well, as we say over here in the mother country, they can shove that where the sun doesn't shine.

  2. I can understand the point of view of a creationist parent being upset that their child is being taught something other than their preferred belief structure. I can transport my mind and try to have a bit of empathy.

    But that isn't the whole story.

    In order for those Texas politicians to get access to ever-improving boner pills, cholesterol medication, and hair loss products, scientists need to develop those products. The same chemistry that is used to advance pharmaceuticals is the same chemistry that saw hydrogen as the first created element 13.7 billion years ago. Chemistry cannot be cherry-picked. So, if Texas politicians want to enjoy BBQ and beer, they'd best lay off the dogma, lest they have no eggheads left to keep their arteries clear.

    Did you know that Bin Laden (purportedly) had a big porn collection? Point being that what people say in the light of day is often different than what they believe or do in the cover of night. There isn't enough room on top of the moral high ground for everyone to claim a spot.