Several months ago I noted that we appeared about to reargue an issue that for 150 years had been considered settled: whether a free public education is a public good, an essential foundation of a democratic society. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that the “attack on public education” is not hyperbole; we are in the midst of a serious debate having enormous implications.
The root of this attack has recently become clearer to me, and it goes back at least a generation: the issue is whether or not our students should be taught how to think for themselves.
The Texas Republican Party has helped clarify this by actually taking a stand against the teaching of critical thinking skills. From their 2012 platform: “we oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
While the Texas GOP has since tried to walk-back from their statement, it strikes me as a classic example of a political “gaff”, defined as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. At least Rick Santorum has the courage of his convictions. He’s been very clear: he believes that exposing young minds to new ideas is dangerous.
And to be fair, he has a point. The term “sophomoric” describes the phenomenon of second-year college students, recently exposed to new ways of thinking, who suddenly think they’re smarter than everyone else. There is also a long tradition in American culture that values “small-town common sense” (epitomized by “Andy of Mayberry” – see “The Sheriff Who Gave Stature to Small-Town Smarts”) and is skeptical of the arrogance of “big-city slickers” and academics.
As one who lives in a college town, I can tell you that this skepticism is not entirely misplaced.
Of course, there’s always the risk that if you start to teach kids to think for themselves, they might come to their own conclusions. Ironically, the antidote is to have students develop some critical-thinking skills before they get to college. Then they wouldn’t be so easily swayed by every new idea that comes along. Besides, if your “truth” – whatever it is - is so powerful, you would think that it could withstand a bit of scrutiny. The problem is when the foundation of one’s belief system is a parental “because I said so”. That’s a house built on sand.
The other problem with this line of thinking is that, as a practical matter, we no longer have a choice about this. In less than a generation, the routine factory jobs that required minimal thinking – but which used to support a middle-class lifestyle - have vanished. If we fail to develop in this generation of students the capacity to be creative, critical-thinkers, they will not succeed in the new economy. (And they’ll be in no position to subsidize our old age!)
Neither will they have the skills to be effective citizens, in which case we will have missed the point entirely. When Ben Franklin proposed establishing public schools in Pennsylvania it was for “the purpose of creating citizens who can make wise political decisions.”
At the risk of over-generalization, it seems to me that there are currently three schools of thought concerning the state of public education.
- Those who never liked the idea in the first place, and are looking for an excuse to dismantle it;
- Those who want to ‘reform’ education by institutionalizing a mid-20th century mindset that no longer works – in my opinion, the true ‘defenders of the status quo’; and,
- Those who think we desperately need to have a conversation about what public education should look like in the 21st-century. Until ‘the defenders of public education’ unite around a clear articulation of that vision, we will continue to find ourselves playing defense.