Me Think Critically

You can’t be in the business of education very long before it hits you: many teachers, good teachers, even bright teachers, are often remarkably silly about what it means to teach.  When I say silly I mean that they hold beliefs that are, on the surface and deeper than that, either nonsense or wholly unexamined.  And silly, too, because they are so very often good teachers despite their holding these notions.

Recently I found myself in a discussion with some very kind and earnest teachers when, in my experience, the oldest of these chestnuts came up – the old idea of the importance of ‘critical thinking.’  It came up because we were asked what we thought was the purpose of schooling.  Some said to teach character, an idea that I quite like (believing that we lack much of it), but wonder about the idea of middle-aged white people imposing their character on the young.  Some said it was to produce democratic citizens, which again I like, but agree with the educational conservatives when they wonder how a school can ever achieve such a complicated aim.  But nearly everyone agreed that critical thinking should be the central – if not the only! – aim of schools.  (Not one person in a group of 25 said that to impart knowledge was important.)

I immediately thought of E.D. Hirsch, an educational writer and thinker much-maligned in progressive circles, who argued two points on the topic: one, teaching ‘critical thinking’ in isolation is impossibly hollow (imagine trying to teach someone how to think, critically or otherwise, if not about something); and two, that while we all want students to be savvy readers and thinkers, we also want them to know things, to be wise and knowledgeable about the world around them.

And perhaps what bothered me most was the sense of universal agreement around the room – a gaggle of smiling, self-congratulatory faces pleased with their consensus, and exuding an if-only-the-world-thought-as-we-do confidence.  But returning to my first point, most teachers are not ‘critical thinkers’ themselves.  They adopt ideas without evaluating their merit, and in such a wild fervor that they soon find themselves in possession of a thousand ‘certainties’ about teaching and learning, most of them at odds with one another.

Some of these ideas are indeed just silly.  Most non-teachers will have stumbled on the following musing, attributed to (and I hope for his sake, falsely) William Glasser:

“We Learn . . .

10% of what we read

20% of what we hear

30% of what we see

50% of what we see and hear

70% of what we discuss

80% of what we experience

95% of what we teach others.”

This is cute, albeit mythical, and it appeals to our general idea that students should take on rich educational experiences.  All good so far as it goes.  But I have seen this presented as fact – on more occasions than I care to mention.  (Once, in that dead time waiting for a professional development session to begin, a teacher proudly showed me a version of this taped to the front of a binder; she was troubled when the instructor began with the same quotation, but with slightly different numbers – she made a note to update her chart for future reference, and no doubt felt the session was valuable because she was able to update her research on human cognition.)

And any teacher who ‘thinks critically’ about this fact, who might ask skeptical questions about something so obviously silly, gets shouted down, or at least subject to a good eye roll.  And the list of unexamined, smiling half-truths could go on: multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and others, ideas not by necessity wrong, but lacking so much their automatic inclusion as sacrosanct is troubling.

If teachers (including me, though I fared better than most having come to the educational game later than some) had learned more about (proper, not educational) psychology, cognition, and philosophy, let alone logic, we could more skeptically and therefore more ably interrogate nonsense ideas that, if we didn’t thankfully ignore them, would corrupt our daily practice.  Knowledge, of these and other areas, would allow us to think more critically than a lot of hot air about putting the cart before the horse – and doing so with the additional irritation of politely sanctimonious airs.

Against School?

While we expect that students will rail against the injustice of being forced inside schools for the better part of their childhoods, it might come as a surprise to hear that many adults, too, would prefer children mature outside the walls of an institution.

The Globe and Mail, as newspapers are wont to do around the Labour Day weekend, published a spate of education articles, including one that resurrected the idea of ‘unschooling’ – the modern variation of the old progressivist turn towards homeschooling. “The idea puts a lot of faith in children, their innate interest in learning and in their intelligence. It also restores faith in parents, returning some control over their children’s growth that they handed to educators and politicians more than a century ago.”

The underlying notion is simple, and beguiling: students fail to learn because of school, not in spite of it. And according to the Globe, the movement is growing. The unschooled home isn’t a classroom, it is altogether less structured: “Unschoolers maintain that a child’s learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions.” And according to one proponent, “An unschooling family mostly just looks like a family living life … hanging out on the weekend.”

It was when I was in teachers’ college that I first came across a thoughtful piece in Harper’s by John Taylor Gatto. It is eloquent, and quite powerful in its own way. He begins, as so many do, with his experience:

“I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.”

Having established his credibility and appealed to some nice populist themes, he moves onto his main thesis:

“Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated…. We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Reading Plato’s Crito, one is struck by just how Socrates, perhaps the model anti-establishment teacher, argues for a high degree of social conformity – submitting to execution rather than defy laws he knows to be unjust.)

So, modern schooling is a kind of Great Confinement, advanced by the ruling classes to at once allow their offspring to flourish while oppressing those of the working classes into a life of drudgery. His conclusion? “The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.” Well said.

Except that he has the naïve notion that all youngsters would be acclaimed geniuses, were it not for formal schooling. What other mechanism exists for improving the lives of those without means than a functional public school system?

I would argue the opposite: that the working class most benefits from formal schooling. The child raised by a single-mother has more to gain from the Confinement than the middle- and upper-class students. Through public education, poorer children are exposed to a world that would otherwise not be possible. (Not to mention literacy – not all children are like Lincoln, able to discover reading with little more than a Bible.) If anything, I maintain that public schooling, if it does suppress genius at least does so by redirecting the effort towards a broader range of students.

But his first point stands: school can be boring. Surely, though, public education is not by necessity stultifying. Even in large high schools teachers persist against the old difficulty of inspiring students and imbuing within them a set of skills, dispositions and talents – included among them, as anyone who has stepped into a classroom in the past generation, a whole host of post-modern skepticisms. As any given teacher will tell you after a long week, “I wish it were as easy to break their spirits!”

Could it be that formal schooling isn’t the problem – that, perhaps, we just need to teach with a firmer dedication to the task? And could we add to the list of remarkable minds Einstein, Hawking, and perhaps even Gatto himself – minds who did emerge from a formal system of schooling, and who were no worse for wear. I suspect that Gatto himself would agree with this, if it weren’t for the banality of it; after all, as Gatto himself likes to point out, he was New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991.