A friend of the family is in town this week from Michigan to attend a conference on the growing crisis of the lack of critical thinking in public schools. The topic came up at breakfast this morning, and I realized that it is a mutli-pronged problem. The example that our friend cited comes from her own experience teaching, where she can stand in front of her own class, and make a statement on the topic, only to be greeted with the inquiry “What page of the book is that on?”
Arguably, this is not a new condition in public schools. My own father, who was a science teacher for 27 years, noted from his own experience that critical thinking took a serious hit in the disciplines of math and science when it became too easy to get the answers. In his opinion, pocket calculators were a prime example of how this had happened, because the goal became about simply answering the question, and little or no thought was placed in the process of arriving at the answer. For my own part, at that stage in my academic career, I fell prey to the same kind of thinking, but largely because math and I weren’t friends at the time, and while I loved some of the concepts of science, the math underlying much of it was a frightful bore to me. As a result, I had no interest in showing my work, because that would require me to actually work through the process and THINK about what I was doing and why. Later in life, when I had been employed by a retail bank for a few years, and gotten accustomed to working large figures in my head in a rapid fashion, I think he was somewhat relieved by the fact that even though we weren’t close companions, at least math and I had made peace with each other. Although he never really let go of his despair over the state of critical thinking in education, largely because he witnessed the increasing institutionalization of it, I do think that he could see evidence that despite the worsening of this state of affairs, people could still overcome this institutionalized flaw in our system if they were willing to make the effort, and if necessity stepped in to become a brutal teacher. At this point, I miss ribbing him about his own blind spots, but I wonder more about what happened to his slide rule. I really need to ask my Mother sometime.
Of course, this kind of “easy answer without ever working through the analysis” has now branched out into so much of knowledge, and it probably is the single greatest downside to living in the information age. The sheer amount of knowledge available to each and every person today is nothing short of astonishing, and the ease with which it can be obtained is breathtaking. If you had told me even 10 years ago that I would be able to do a web search with my phone for detailed information on virtually any topic imaginable, and be able to get thousands of links back in a fraction of the time that it took to get 20 with my desktop computer then, I might have accepted it without ever comprehending what that meant. This is a genuinely unprecedented development in human history. I can remember when getting basic facts on an unfamiliar topic of event meant going to encyclopedias, or to the library, to comb through various tomes on any given subject. Now, in a few keystrokes, I can obtain information on topics that might not have even been covered in the most exhaustive encyclopedias, but instead might have only been found in a handful of journals or trade publications. However, the drawback of this ease is that people seem to spend far less time evaluating the quality of the information available. Facts are conflated with opinion, conclusions are accepted without the application of logic or serious questioning. And ease is only part of the problem. Standardized testing has led to a condition where understanding is not considered a core component of intelligence any longer. And this is revealed in almost any conversation you might care to have today.
“Science is the only reasonable basis on which to make law and policy.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it is based on facts that are immutable and unchanging.”
“Absolutely. What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid or something?”
“No. But if science is based on immutable and unchanging “fact”, perhaps you could explain to me why it is that we no longer think that all matter is made up of just four elements, or some combination thereof, or why it is that Lamarckism is no longer considered the basis of evolution, or that phlogiston is no longer an accepted scientific concept?”
At this point in the conversation, I’m confronted with one of three reactions. A blank stare (sadly this is the most common one), a sheepish look, because the speaker just realized that the very history of their “unchanging” bedrock torpedoed the idea of its stability and unchanging nature, or anger, because they don’t like being confronted with the idea that their “truth” is fluid, and they don’t like the fact that others are aware of this.
Still, the area where this self-inflicted handicap hurts society the most is in the area of politics. I was reminded of this again this week, when a Facebook friend, who went to the same junior high and high school I did (albeit four years before I did) posted a status on his wall about how Romney and Ryan don’t dare cut FEMA now, and gloating about how the tongue has the power to destroy. Clearly, the last week’s political meme about how Romney “just doesn’t care” and his statements about how he would cut FEMA are proof had reached their saturation point. This was based on some statements made by Romney in the aftermath of Katrina, which had been revisited in the pages of Esquire, and then used in a sloppy hatchet piece by the New York Times [no link, because they don't deserve the traffic], in which even it was forced to admit, reluctantly, at the end, that Romney had never actually said any such thing. I commented to point this out, offered proof in the form of a link to a story explaining this, and then pointed out that the sequester that is looming in DC does contain a significant cut to FEMA. The responses were tepid, and didn’t offer contrary facts. And then one of my former teachers weighed in. While many of his remarks were disappointing, they were also revealing, and illustrate the underlying point of this piece better than any other example I’ve encountered recently.
Teacher: THEY ALL HAVE PRIORITIES WHICH ARE NOT BEST FOR THIS COUNTRY. THEY ALL HAVE THEIR HANDS IN THE POCKETS OF THE LOBBYISTS. THAT IS HOW THEY GET THEIR MONEY TO GET REELECTED. WE NEED TERM LIMITS.
Me: >>>THEY ALL HAVE PRIORITIES WHICH ARE NOT BEST FOR THIS COUNTRY.<<<
That would be a feature, not a bug. Not to be a pedant about it, but the Federalist Papers do a fairly good job explaining this. That’s one of the reasons for a bicameral legislature. However, because we tinkered with the blueprint, one of the checks and balances no longer exists, because the States, which were always intended to be co-sovereigns, no longer have their intended voice in Congress. Now you have one house that represents small groups of the populace, and a house that represents larger groups of the populace. Hence the avalanche of usurpation of authority by the federal government, unfunded mandates, runaway spending…you get the point.
>>> THEY ALL HAVE THEIR HANDS IN THE POCKETS OF THE LOBBYISTS.<<<
Are you a member of AARP? The NEA? The MEA? The UAW? The NRA? Then you are part of the lobbyist “problem”, which again, is a feature, not a bug.
>>>THAT IS HOW THEY GET THEIR MONEY TO GET REELECTED.<<<
That, and soft money contributions, and illegal foreign credit card donations to the President’s campaign that aren’t widely reported on, and $50,000 a plate dinners, and online contributions tied to promotions like winning a dinner with the President and his wife, and….
>>>WE NEED TERM LIMITS.<<<
We have them. They are called elections. What we need is an electorate that is informed and engaged enough to actually retire our elected officials when keeping the job becomes more important than actually representing thems what sent ‘em. But between being against spending (except for that which our own districts benefit from) and idiotic tropes about Big Bird, Binders, and American Idol episodes, we tend to get the government we work for. The best reform we could enact is real criminal and financial penalties for self dealing with government contracts, which would land Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters inmate numbers, and for trading on information gained in the course of their representation, which would be insider trading and a severe financial crime for anyone else who did it. In the long-term, it isn’t really a fix, because being people with access to power and money, they will always find a way to profit from what they know and what they do, but given the fact that Charlie Rangle keeps getting re-elected with his blatant failure to disclose assets and evade taxes WHEN HE SITS ON THE COMMITTEE THAT WRITES THE TAX CODE, I’m not encouraged that this could happen. It does, however, illustrate my point about why people who “don’t have the country’s best interests at heart keep getting re-elected.” He, and others like him keep promising the goodies to their constituents, and because he delivers, he keeps going back.
First, and foremost, term limits would be an admission that “We the People” are not worthy of the responsibility our forefathers entrusted us with. That might actually be true, but if it is, then all we can expect is the continued decline into tyranny, or idiocracy, neither of which appeals to me.
The conversation continued, before finally petering out, but I found it instructive in how the easy answer has ascended to a position of more reverence than one that requires having the knowledge, and applying it. Knowing how this works, it becomes clearer why the default answer is deference to the “experts” or “professionals”, but as I was pointing out in my prior post, this is how we have gotten to the point where this also fosters the idea that as individuals, and as groups, we simply cannot “do” something with the same efficacy as these same “experts” or “professionals”, and therefore, we need to cede without further consideration, even more of the authority invested in us, and accept the conditions that these “experts” and “professionals” create for us.
I am optimistic that more and more people are waking up to the fact that as a society, we have believed these lies for far too long, and that more and more people are refusing to accept the easy answer, but I also worry that the degree of institutionalization of this method means that it simply may not matter. I see it with my son’s education currently. He doesn’t bring home his textbooks, nor do his classmates. The books stay at school. They read the lessons, and answer questions. The readings contain all the answers. Ironically, the only class where I can see that he actually has to think about processes and apply them with the knowledge he has gained is his math class. And I don’t have to see that the end result of this is a dependency upon authority…one that fails all too often. We witnessed this dependency and failure in Hurricane Katrina, where people depended on authority, to their detriment. Horrors took place in the city, and in the designated gathering places, because people depended on authorities, who were either completely unprepared for the scale of dependency they were faced with, or because they abdicated in the hour of need (think Superdome Rapes and Police Officers leaving the city during the hurricane.) And then the extraordinary dependency after, which meant that enormous resources were sent to the region, and somehow squandered and frittered away, and as a result, much of it is not rebuilt or “back to normal” today, largely because of the idea that it was up to the “authorities” and “professionals” to do that. Compare and contrast that experience to the neighboring state of Mississippi. It too suffered catastrophic losses, both in terms of property and lives. Yet it wasn’t a fixture of the evening news for days on end. Blacks suffered there too, as did all other residents. But if New Orleans suffered because Bush supposedly didn’t care about black people, did the rest of the Gulf Coast suffer because the media and the “experts” and the “professionals” didn’t care about Southerners? Or did they rebuild and move on because they didn’t expect that other would lead the way, and provide the means and the resources to do so?
The saddest lesson of Katrina is being played out again in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The idea that the Federal Government can and should be directing the bulk of the relief, with other monolithic “first responders” carrying out the remainder of the relief is again proving to be silly. Much ado was made over the President’s 90 minute stop in New Jersey, hugging of one of the victims, pledge to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape, and to not leave anyone behind. This, of course, begs the question, “Why, after the experience of Katrina, would there still be bureaucracy and red tape to deal with in the first place?” I leave it to you, the reader, to study and contemplate on that answer, along with the question why a Federal Agency and one charity among so many qualified ones, would be the first place people would look to for assistance and relief, and why they would surrender their authority to them in the face of such destruction. It’s a question that I’m confident many residents of Staten Island are asking themselves this weekend, as they shiver in the cold and dark, as they remain in their homes or what is left of them, to prevent looting of their remaining possessions.