An editorial cartoon in the 10/21/16 edition of the Newburyport Daily News by Jimmy Margulies brought forward a few intersections that this year’s election is providing as I reflect on teaching and some of the research in which I’ve invested my time. I am not meaning to make this post a political commentary; it’s not. Rather, this election season has illuminated a few areas of concern that I’ve had in general regarding some shortfalls in some of the core issues that must be better addressed and integrated across curriculums and classrooms in our schools.
The first concern is the development of one’s ability to think critically; apply their thinking to a process for making decisions; and participate in constructive conversations consisting of multiple views to develop a sense of meaning and collective understanding. I would argue that this concern crosses generations and goes well beyond how we view how and what today’s students are learning, because it appears voters are quite susceptible to the clichés and slogans put out by candidates from a wide spectrum of nominees and parties.
Dr. Richard Paul, Director of Research at The Center for Critical Thinking and Fellow at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, has claimed that lack of being able to think critically places our democracy is at risk… an allusion heard more than once during this election cycle with over the top rhetoric and baseless claims. Paul defines critical thinking as, “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”
Paul also claims that everyone thinks it is in our nature to think critically, but says:
Much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and the quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated
A question then becomes how are we cultivating critical thinking in our schools? Also, how do we truly nurture the quality of our thinking to sort through the biases and prejudices inherent in us all? A partial response may be that a standardized testing mentality has blanketed our own ability to think critically as adults for what is best for students and their development. Overall standardized tests don’t tell us much about ones best learning style or the context he or she can best demonstrate their understanding of a given subject or specific topic (or competency).
The larger problem, however, is that over the last decade plus of standardized testing doesn’t test for a deep understanding of history or civics. History, taught well in schools, is one of the better curriculum building blocks for developing the essential critical thinking skills that Paul cites as being paramount to our citizenry making informed choices in the voting booth.
One can easily find examples of the absence of both historical context and reasoned rhetoric in this year’s election cycle. I’m sure bombastic rhetoric is part of all elections. But the processing speed that we must process and evaluate information with the insertion of technology and 24 hour news cycles sometimes accentuates a larger problem of voters sealed in a system of their own biases. Biases that have been sealed in a system of reasoning across multiple generations…Baby Boomers to Millennials/Gen Y-ers. Combine the lack of historical and civic context with sealed systems of reasoning and we see a citizenry more vulnerable to lies or as Margulies editorial cartoon suggests, “wildly creative fiction.”
Voter vulnerability for being better able to determine truth is my second concern. It is a particularly large concern given that we have vulnerable adult voters deciding this election; and schools that need to be more resilient with teaching civic education and history from subjects simply being a requirement, to subjects requiring robust critical reading, writing and discussion…or as Paul might suggest, better development of the “art of analyzing and developing thinking.” With all the current topics like filling Supreme Court vacancies, interpreting the Second Amendment in the 21st century world, etc. there is a need to link historical context to today’s debate.
Without context, we are vulnerable to lies, wild fiction, exaggeration, embellishment, and bulls**t… the topic of Harry Frankfurt’s essay, On Bullshit. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University, wrote an essay where he examines and differentiates the differences between lies and bulls**t. He parses both to a degree, but for me the central question argued was, Who is more dangerous a liar or a bullsh**ter? One view of his conclusion was that the bullsh**ter was more dangerous because at least the liar knows the truth.
I am not suggesting that we want or need or should have to choose between a liar or a bullsh**ter. I am sure as one looks at the current choices in the Presidential election that personal biases have framed each candidate into one category or the other and votes will be cast in accordance with those biases. However beyond the biases, there are truths being told in this election cycle. I am just not sure that we are a patient enough, determined enough, or a critical thinking enough voter to cut through the rhetoric to get to the truth…ultimately picking the best candidates(local & federal) to lead our country and advance or democracy.