On Teaching Children How to Think or What to Think

This showed up one day on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s among the thousands of catchy image quotes that friends like to share. I found one attribution to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Although I couldn’t verify the quote anywhere else, it does seem consistent with other things I’ve read about her.

Teaching children how to think seems a fine idea, don’t you agree? But what does that mean, really? What teachers themselves know how to think? Who are the teachers who know how to teach children how to think? What does “how to think” mean in the first place? 

Most children’s first teachers are their parents. And most first-time parents are, themselves, very young when they have children. Child-rearing is an occupation undertaken with “no experience necessary,” including experience in teaching anything, let alone thinking skills. From my own parental experience, I know that much of what I taught my children—if not explicitly, then implicitly—came from what I learned from my parents. 

“How to think” was not part of my growing-up curriculum. “What to think,” however, was—not only at home but at school. Some things I learned as matters of fact include: the United States is the best country in the world, and good Catholics go to heaven (and, at best, Purgatory for the rest of you). Only later, when I was able to look at these two “givens” objectively—through my own reasoning—was I able to come to different conclusions.

“How to think” implies using reason and logic to analyze information or situations in search of understanding or other desirable outcomes. And that implies the need for a well-rounded education—not necessarily a college degree, but at least some exposure to a variety of topics and disciplines (e.g., history, humanities, physical sciences, civics and political science, religion, etc.) Part of that education comes from exploration and experimentation—whether physically, mentally, or spiritually. In other words, a variety of diverse life experiences. How can you evaluate something without having something else to measure against? 

Also important is an understanding of (or just recognizing) the many biases and fallacies people fall prey to without even knowing it. Salesmen, advertisers, politicians, preachers, and other persuaders are expert in using these to get what they want: which is to convince you it’s what you want too. To me, knowing how to think seems a valuable asset and survival tool (unless you’re living in 1984).

As beneficial as this may seem, however, critical thinking—and the education that fosters it—may be at odds with the Judeo-Christian ethic and core narrative of our country. Both of these are matters of faith, and faith definitely falls into the “what to think” category. 

Martin Luther, the rebellious Catholic priest and principal of the Protestant Reformation, said:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. 

The definition of reason is: “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” Reason is dangerous because those who know how to use it may come to different conclusions about things that were once accepted as matters of faith and fact and “because I said so.” 

Animosity to reason is alive even today, at least in some parts of the country. Built into the 2012 Texas Republican Party platform is this statement:

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. 

So not everyone believes teaching children how to think is a good idea. “What to think”—e.g., fixed beliefs firmly instilled by one’s parents—is the order of the day here. By objecting to this, I don’t mean to imply that we should raise little anarchists without any respect for authority. I believe in teaching respect, especially respect for one’s parents and teachers. But that respect should be founded on love and wisdom and not on fear and guilt. And parents should have enough respect for their children to teach them how to make their own decisions, develop their own consciences, and form their own opinions.

Someone else who doesn’t appreciate the value of education is Karl Rove, who said:

As people do better, they start voting like Republicans…unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.

On second thought, he may appreciate the value of education very much. Apparently, a well-educated and thoughtful electorate is something to fear.

Please take the poll, and leave your reasoning in the comments section if you’re so inclined.

 

Two Post-election Scenarios—Neither One Bright

grover norquist quoteTwo weeks ago, a friend of mine shared this photo-quote on Facebook. I started to write a snarky comment but deleted it. I realized I had much more to say about the quote than I could cover in the two or three sentences that would quickly get lost within Facebook’s short attention span. Instead, I came here and spent the rest of the day researching and exploring some ideas around the topic. When finished, though, I couldn’t bring myself to push the Publish button. I hadn’t expected to come to such a gloomy conclusion. I tried to brighten things up a bit—put a more positive spin on things—but I just couldn’t write my way out of the Orwellian box canyon I’d created for myself. 

But after a few days it began to feel as though I’d left something undone. I have other topics I want to write about, but it seems a landslide has blocked my path. I got the idea that writing this preamble may help with some of the backhoe work. We’ll see. Meanwhile, what follows are the thoughts triggered by what Grover Norquist said about the coming presidential election.

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The history of the United States offers several examples of internal threats that had the potential to destroy or do massive harm to the country through the power of hatred and divisiveness. The Civil War is at the top of the list. More recent examples include the labor movement, Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam War.

So, I want to be careful about saying we’re in the darkest of times and on the brink of a mighty disaster. Yet maybe we are.

We’re approaching the election of a president. It’s something we’ve done every four years, more or less, since George Washington was reelected in 1792. Presidential elections are contentious events, with all candidates insisting they know what’s best for the country and that they have the right qualities and skills to lead the country into the future.

But it seems that strong leadership in the Executive branch is not all that important to those who would back one of today’s contenders. The Republican/Tea Party does not care who is elected, as long as it’s not Obama. This news is a few months old now, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it. For those of you who think Obama is a fascist, take a look at this story by David Frum. David Frum, if you don’t know, is a conservative Republican, so this can’t be construed as liberal propaganda. Grover Norquist, if you don’t know, is the political activist who got most Republicans in the 112th Congress to sign a pledge affirming they would not raise taxes. Read the pledge and see who signed it here

This is what Grover Norquist said in February at the 2012 CPAC convention, before Mitt Romney looked like the sure winner of the Republican nomination:

All we have to do is replace Obama. …  We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.

In other words, all the Republican/Tea Party needs is a paper-signing puppet who will do what he is told. It appears Mitt Romney may be that puppet. Meanwhile, Norquist—through his pledge—has a firm hand on the controls of the Legislative branch. A Romney presidency will lock it in, unless the Democrats make significant gains in Congress.

And what would a Romney presidency look like? I’m no political analyst, but the word “austerity” comes to mind. The rich will get richer, and the poor (from the middle class down), well, poverty is just another word for nothing left to lose. The same policies that supported Enron’s fleecing of thousands of pension funds and savings accounts, and that brought down the economy in 2008, will prevail. The economy—and the environment—will be pillaged for corporate gain. Then what? Will the masses rise up against the plutocracy with weapons more powerful than placards?

Yet many hold out for Barack Obama’s reelection. What are the consequences if Obama does win? I fear it will different from the usual acceptance of “four more years” of any recently reelected incumbent, notwithstanding the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

The Tea Party came into power in 2010 as a direct response to Obama’s presidency. Never mind that it has done everything possible within the law (forget ethics) to thwart Obama. Since the rise of the Tea Party, there has been lots talk of armed revolution. Armed revolution! Examples are herehereherehere, and here. Isn’t that enough? These are not conspiracy theories from the fringe. These are real people advocating real events. They are angry and afraid, and they do love their guns. We very well could have an armed insurrection on our hands if Obama is reelected. All it takes is someone to fire the first shot in the right place and at the right time. See the first example above.

I don’t like being so cynical and pessimistic about the future of the United States, but this is the way it seems to me. This feels like it’s more than just another election where after it’s over, we’ll all go back to the mall for a nice day of retail therapy. It feels more like war brewing. And regardless of which side wins, the losers will be all of us within the middle and lower classes. But isn’t that the way it is in all wars?