Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer

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Critical Thinking Is Subversive!


Bill-Frayer-2010When I used to attend the International Conference on Critical Thinking in California each year, I became convinced that teaching students to think clearly was not only desirable, but possibly essential to finding our way out of the morass of political gridlock we find ourselves in. I returned to Maine where I initiated critical thinking instruction at our community college, and offered thinking skills training in industry and state government.  

Some people might argue that teaching critical thinking skills are subversive. Here is a definition of critical thinking provided by Daniel Willingham a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia: 

Critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.

Of course teaching such skills might be considered by some to be subversive. After all, if you teach students to think for themselves it might encourage them to question what others (parents, teachers, pastors) tell them is true. So, in a way, teaching thinking could cause problems in a culture where faith and conformity to tradition are the norm.  

So now, we come to Texas, just such a culture.  The Texas GOP developed, as part of their 2012 platform, the following language on education: 

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs... which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

So there we have it, in black and white, published for everyone to see for themselves. The Texas GOP has made it clear that teaching higher order thinking skills is downright dangerous. Students, in other words, should be taught what to think, not how to think. 

I remember well teaching a class in which I required the students to read Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn which challenges students to consider what humankind has done to other plant and animal species on our planet.  It was a component of a course on the effects of technology on society. I remember two young sisters approaching me after class and explaining that they “could not read” this book. They explained that the book assumes that Darwin’s theory of evolution was correct. 

“That’s right, it does.” I agreed. “But why can’t you read it?”

“Because our religion teaches that the theory of evolution is incorrect.”

I explained to them that I was not requiring them to believe it, just that they needed to read it and respond to it.  

This encapsulates the problem the Texas GOP is trying to solve. Teaching students to think might lead them to question the tenets of their religion and, by proxy, their culture. It is rare we are able to see the two sides drawn in more stark relief. But at least it’s honest.  

And I think it is emblematic of the political divide we see in the United States and, in some respects, in the world today. Do we want to live in a society where people are taught to think for themselves and base decisions on evidence and rational thought, or do we want them to follow authoritarian beliefs, suspending any inclination to reason and reach their own conclusions?  

If we come down on the latter side, heaven help us.  Pun intended.  

It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.  ~Stephen Mallarme




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