The following is a guest editor’s entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Last month, the Republican Party of Texas approved its platform for the 2012 election campaign. One of the more striking elements of the platform is the Party’s position on education. The platform states, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs…” While this position from conservatives is unsurprising, it bodes ill for the maintenance of a healthy democracy. It also lends a reactionary tinge to the education debate in the U.S. and to a political party that seems woefully out of touch with educational trends in other parts of the world in the 21st Century.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Japan, for example, has had an ongoing national debate on the nature of compulsory education in terms of both contact hours in the classroom and the underlying approach to learning. While there are differences of opinion on changes that have been made—and there have been widespread concern that reduction of class time and curricular changes have weakened the rigor previously characteristic of the Japanese system in favor of a more relaxed, and less stressful, school experience—one idea that has remained consistent over the past twenty years is that there is a need to develop a curriculum that promotes independent thinking and encourages self-motivated learning. For many Japanese, the previous curriculum was far too focused on rote learning, which limited the capacity of citizens to think critically and creatively.
Indeed, in the town of Kanegasaki, located in Iwate Prefecture and where I have conducted anthropological research for many years, the mayor developed a system of Lifelong Learning Centers, three decades ago, that were intended to function as a context where people can continue to explore new ideas and better themselves through education. Officials in the town government, no doubt channeling national rhetoric, often told me that encouraging lifelong education and learning generates mentally engaged and healthy people and this, in turn, leads to a healthy society. The Japanese seem to have long recognized that a well-educated populace with people who can think critically and creatively is a fundamental element in ensuring a positive future.
This mindset is in sharp contrast to the platform of Texas Republicans, which expresses ideas that are likely held much more broadly in the U.S. These notions work from the perspective that a properly educated individual is one who does not have his or her fixed beliefs challenged and who does not question the authority of those fixed beliefs. Such a perspective is, however, anathema to a healthy, functioning democracy. For democracy to work well, people need to have the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and question the actions of their leaders. Beyond this, not only does a healthy democracy demand critical thinking skills, so does a capitalist economy. The development of critical thinking skills in children leads to adults who become entrepreneurs, engineers, computer scientists, medical researchers, physicians and nurses, and even enlightened politicians. If citizens only have fixed beliefs to rely upon, creativity will be stifled and a growing economy will be unsustainable. Without developing such skills in children, the future of the U.S. is one in which its economy will languish and its democracy will wither. Confucius wrote over two thousand years ago that if the words of a ruler are not good, and no one opposes them, one should expect the ruin of his country. Thomas Jefferson might well have said the same thing.
The basis of a healthy society is a citizenry that can think critically and, thus, determine whether the words of its rulers are good or bad. Yes, this may mean that one’s fixed beliefs are challenged from time to time. But since we live in a world characterized by diversity and change, it seems unlikely that dogmatic adherence to any set of fixed beliefs is likely to lead to a healthy economy, a successful democracy, or a society that values human differences, educational integrity, and intelligence.
Textbooks, which are assigned and shared, in a classroom at Hutto High School in Hutto, Texas, April 5, 2012. (Photo: Ben Sklar / The New York Times)The Republican Party of Texas has issued their 2012 political platform and has come out and blatantly opposed critical thinking in public schools throughout the state. If you wonder what took them so long to actually state that publicly, it is really a matter of timing. With irrationality now the norm and an election hovering over the 2012 horizon, the timing of the Republican GOP announcement against "critical thinking" instruction couldn't be better. It helps gin up their anti-intellectual base.
The Texas GOP's declarative position against critical thinking in public schools, or any schools, for that matter, is now an official part of their political platform. It is public record in the Republican Party of Texas 2012 platform. With regard to critical thinking, the Republican Party of Texas document states: "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." (page 20, Republican Party of Texas, 2012).
Yes, challenging beliefs or claims is considered insubordinate, immoral and could lead to rebellion, disobedience or perhaps worse: revolution. For the Republican Party and their followers, thinking is subversive, imagination is a sin and the Republican Party in Texas and elsewhere is working to codify this into public policy. The plutocrats can't have a working-class citizenry that is asking questions of those in power, be they parents or bosses; instead, the people must be taught the ideology of what is morally acceptable, what rules and regulations to follow. and even more importantly, how to accept and internalize hierarchical authoritarianism. Critical thinking is a direct challenge to the "leaders" and their claims on authority, and any opposition to vertical arrangements is ethically unacceptable to those in power.
Reactionaries have long known that enshrining ignorance and hierarchy in both thought and practice within the school curriculum is essential if the control of young minds is to be accomplished softly and quietly yet profoundly through propaganda and perception management. In the quarters of obedience training, "education" has nothing to do with "schooling" under capitalism.
Read more:The Public Intellectual
This thinking is not new. The ideological underpinnings for such repugnant beliefs sorrowfully tread back throughout the history of the 20th century and undoubtedly before. William Bagley's book, "Classroom Management," published in 1907 and widely used as a teacher-training manual throughout America in the early 1900s, was so highly praised at the time that it went through 30 printed editions. The book echoed the morbid thinking of many so-called Gilded Age educators at the time. One such passage from the book sums up the thinking regarding children and childhood: "One who studies educational theory aright can see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society."
Law and order is what counts, and critical education, of course, seeks to subject all laws and claims to order to the lens of critical scrutiny, something the powerful disdain. Schooling under the neofeudalistic capitalist relations that are now emerging in the new Gilded Age of the 21st century is no different than in the past, where learning how not to think critically was the norm. The Texas GOP is simply creating the new conditions for a technological form of Plato's Cave with zero tolerance and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Republican Party platform gets worse when it comes to prohibiting thinking critically about science or the scientific method. Take the section on " controversial theories," found on page 20:
Controversial Theories - We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.
Alternative beliefs such as creationism are now cleverly invited into the curriculum as so-called science or theories to debunk the purportedly false notions of the theory of evolution. But if critical thinking is not to be used in the classroom, how would these beliefs be examined for evidence? Science, the scientific method, critical thinking and the process of subjecting claims to evidentiary experimentation - all related activities - pose a threat to self-proclaimed power and the harbingers of supernaturalism.
IDEA Public Schools
One of the purveyors of such rubbish is Texas educational retail chain IDEA Public Schools. IDEA is a retail charter outfit that standardizes curriculum downwards, away from critical thinking, embracing instead rote memorization and regurgitation, or what I call the "anorexic/bulimic" learning model of intellectual atrophy, ossification, and decay.
IDEA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. This status was obtained for tax purposes, and it would take another article to demonstrate how nonprofit status has been hijacked by special interests (charter schools in this case) in the interest of profit extraction. In fact, IDEA Public Schools is public only because it takes public subsidies to stay alive.
IDEA's board members include representatives from JPMorgan, Teach for America, International Bank of Commerce, Wells Fargo and other Wall Street banking concerns. In spite of the fact that the board of IDEA is filled with Wall Street banking interests, IDEA says it works to assure students get what they call a "core curriculum." Critical thinking is never mentioned in the IDEA core curriculum - let alone entertained in IDEA classrooms, either by faculty or students; instead, IDEA is devoted to turning education into a commodity, students into customers mounted with saddlebags for tax funds that subsidize IDEA and turn schools into fortresses of profit.
According to IDEA's online blurb, the company is all about growth and expansion using taxpayer monies to grease the wheel: "In addition to its exemplary academic achievement, IDEA is moving forward with growth and expansion efforts to help serve more students throughout the Valley and Central Texas. IDEA currently enrolls over 9,000 students, with campuses in ten communities throughout the Rio Grande Valley. When all IDEA schools are at full scale (serving students in K-12th grade), IDEA will serve 15,000 from communities throughout the Rio Grande Valley."
The company is moving across the Texas prairie, taking down traditional public schools like locusts consuming wheat fields. Keeping with the Republican platform, they promise to make obedience training and anti-intellectualism the cornerstone and foundation of education in Texas, to the detriment of students and society.
The Age of Irrationality and the Abdication of Reason
In the case of the Texas Republican Party, they have really upped the stakes. Supernaturalism and supernatural beliefs no doubt will continue to snake their way into public school lesson plans, and as Texas will have significant impact on the content of all the nation's texts through its textbook purchasing power, we may find that the tale of the Loch Ness Monster is now told to children as if it were a true story in science classes. Don't laugh! This is now the case in Louisiana where, as The Washington Post reported, "A biology textbook used by a Christian school in Louisiana that will be accepting students with publicly funded vouchers in the fall says that the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland is real. And it isn't just any monster but a dinosaur - an effort to debunk evolution and bolster creationist theory."
Remember: In Louisiana, taxpayer money is given in the form of school vouchers so that parents can now see their tax monies spent on a supernatural curriculum bent on teaching that the Loch Ness Monster and other fairy tales are true.
All of this can be seen as part and parcel of the emerging Age of Irrationality, the hemorrhaging of a post-literate society where reason is abdicated in favor of irrationality and appeals to supernaturalism. The sad part is that all of this is now encouraged, by forces bent on enslaving the minds of children, as the new "curriculum circus" in schools.
In the New Digital Dark Ages, where the landscape is packed with scurrilous corporate politicians on the take, textbook companies clawing for educational profits, and tent preachers looking for a congregation of sheep-le and a quick Elmer Gantry buck, the people who suffer are students, teachers and the average citizen.
It Doesn't Stop There
Prohibitions against thinking critically or scientifically comprise just one of 30 pages of the anti-Enlightenment thinking seen in the Texas GOP platform document. Here is some more of its chilling content:
- Abstinence-only sex education
- Trying juveniles as adults
- Emphasis on faith-based drug rehab
- Opposition to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Flat-rate income tax
- Repeal of the minimum wage
- Opposition to homosexuality in the military
- Opposition to red light cameras
- Opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, because firms should be able to fire people for what they consider "sinful and sexually immoral behavior."
- Continued opposition to ACORN (even though it has not existed since 2010!)
- Opposition to statehood or even Congressional voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia
- And no-questions-asked support for Israel because, and this is another direct quote: "Our policy is based on God's biblical promise to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel and we further invite other nations and organizations to enjoy the benefits of that promise."
This is corporate American culture and education today, or at least a great and growing part of it. Learning to identify assumptions and differentiating them from facts, questioning assumptions in light of evidence, engaging in wonder and inquiry, exchanging other points of view in an atmosphere of civility and inquiry (especially entertaining those points of view one does not agree with), learning the art of critical self reflection, asking for evidence for claims made by oneself and others, and testing hypotheses through the development of methods and protocols of thinking - opposition to all of this has emerged from the Texas GOP's "hidden curriculum" and is now under the magnifying glass of scrutiny - and secured a place in the Texas Republican platform.
This is not only a telling moment for a complex empire in spiraling decline, but also a frightening moment, for we can see evolution transformed into devolution and schools converted into the supernatural rabbit holes that lead to Alice-in-Wonderland gated communities of ignorance governed by a chilling hierarchy of totalitarianism and fear.
It says above that 'critical thinking is never mentioned in the IDEA curriculum." I erred, it is mentioned - but only as it applies to Humanities. It is not mentioned anywhere else in the curriculum:
The IDEA Public Schools Humanities curriculum is designed to teach students a variety of reading, writing and critical thinking skills that they will use throughout their secondary and post-secondary careers" (ibid).
With thanks to Meg Griffith, 12th Grade IB Math Teacher, 12th Grade Team Leader who brought this oversight to my attention.