While state education departments are the first reason why public schools don't teach critical thinking, community pressure against it is the second. While some communities do welcome critical inquiry as an essential part of a good education, others do not, rejecting critical thinking as dangerous and wanting only views taught that agree with their own.
Teachers, however, don't want to teach only one viewpoint imposed by either the state or community, but several viewpoints about whatever question they teach. Education is, after all, discovering that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our village. They don't want a small vocal minority within a community arrogating to itself the right to pontificate for everyone about what can and cannot be taught. Teachers didn't enter their profession to indoctrinate students into one point of view, but to educate them by exposing them to as many different viewpoints as possible.
It is a question of two diametrically opposed visions of education. The first believes that they alone possess the truth; that those who disagree are wrong; and that they have the right to suppress every view which is different from theirs. The second thinks that we must always be suspicious of such omniscient claims and have a healthy distrust about ourselves, our motives, and our views, which may be little more than disguised prejudice and ethnocentrism. Immanuel Kant summed it up tersely: "Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity."
Education is not about being taught more and more reasons about why we alone are right and everyone else is wrong. Rather, it is a process of being given more and more air, a wider perspective that affords us a grander, more Olympian sweep of everything. It is only then that we can see our original view within a much broader context as only one choice among many.
Education teaches us that we often believe what we want to believe; that we and our village are the center of the universe; and that only the stories believed by our village are true. It also teaches us to realize that had we been born in another village with different stories, we would have believed that only those stories were true, and that an education consists in coming to terms with this realization and its universe of implications. Education exposes the young to all possibilities, advocates none of them, and encourages students to keep their minds open until they've heard the options, and only then, if they choose, to decide for themselves, or remain undecided should that be their choice.
Unfortunately, this kind of education, which encourages critical thinking and discussion about all points of view, is taboo in many high schools today because the communities in which they are situated insist on only their views or stories. The result of this mindset is, sadly, all too predictable for the graduates from these villages. Because these students have never before been exposed to any kind of critical discussion, they are overwhelmed bytheir first exposure to it in college.
Often they have never heard of even the questions being discussed, let alone the many viewpoints in answering them and the way in which each answer critiques alternative answers. Some feel so beyond their depth when confronted by this sustained critical analysis, that they become discouraged, demoralized, and at times even leave college, wondering why their high school never prepared them for this. It's the old story of what one sows, one must reap. Only now it is the parents who must deal with the broken dreams of their children, who in high school were never allowed to develop their minds and must now pay the price. A college-prep program should be precisely that -- an academic program that prepares students for college, not one that denies them the very skills needed to succeed and make their way in the world.
However, parents are now beginning to realize what is happening in their communities, and that it is their children who are paying the consequences. They understand that a high school must prepare students for college, where they will need critical thinking to survive in this challenging new environment. They know that students must be ready for new intellectual demands from their first day on campus, not spend their time in remedial classes learning skills that should have already been learned in high school.
Parents who make financial sacrifices to put their children through college want high-school teachers to insist on high academic standards, and they tell teachers that they will support them when they do. They want their sons and daughters enrolled in solid college-prep, Honors, or AP programs that will help them do well during their college years. They know that the senior year in high school is notoriously difficult because senior teachers are the quality-control officers for graduating seniors. They will assign homework that stresses critical thinking, difficult reading assignments, and a research paper that advances a thesis, supporting arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttal. They will demand that students take an active part in discussions, have time-management skills, a solid work ethic and old-fashioned Sitzfleisch.
That being said, the last thing parents want to hear is that some community member is interfering with what is going on in school by dictating what college-bound students can and cannot be taught. Parents will urge school board members and school administrators to hold firm when these self-appointed watch-dog groups seek to derail the educational destinies of their children. Fortunately, communities are beginning to understand this as well, and this interference is slowly receding. The Old Guard is becoming aware that it cannot jeopardize the rights of other people's children in securing an education that will prepare them for college and the world outside their village.
Parents who believe that critical thinking isn't everything, but is the only thing that matters in the education of their children, must insist that critical thinking become the heart of their high school's curriculum. If students can't judge the soundness of what they're reading or listening to, what kind of education are they receiving? This is especially true for students who cannot afford, or choose not, to attend college, since high school will be their only chance of learning this skill. Until state government and communities allow the teaching of different views - not as truths, but simply as other ways of viewing the world, as well as its many problems and questions -- critical thinking will remain a utopian dream. Teachers can only advocate for critical thinking and open discussion. For this to become a reality, they need the vocal support of both state and community, but especially parents.
There remains, however, one final logistical problem before critical thinking could transform American schools -- class size. State aid cutbacks, school budget defeats, and vitally-needed school funding diverted to local charters prevent schools from hiring additional teachers to keep class sizes manageable. Instead of teaching classes of 20 students, teachers are confronted with upwards of 25 to 40 students, making the teaching of critical thinking impossible.
The energizing storm-center of critical thinking has always been the rapid-fire, cut-and-thrust drama of class discussion. No classes of over 20 students should ever be scheduled, especially if the power and élan of critical discussion is to be felt. Teaching more than 20 students in a class can become crowd control or a way of warehousing students. Numbers change class chemistry from all-too-willing participants in class discussion to comatose observers in a class of wall-to-wall students. This seemingly mundane matter of class size may seem insignificant to anyone who has never taught high-school students, but large classes are the kiss of death for meaningful learning. Class size matters! Even if state education departments and communities were to support critical thinking tomorrow, it would all be for nothing in overcrowded classes.
Not only are large classes the bane of education, but they are also the intended result of strategic underfunding by government. It is the tactic of choice of politicians who have sold their souls to privatizers intent on destroying public schools for the bonanza of charters. Teachers have long witnessed the damage to schools when underfunding cuts teachers and programs, and the state's one-view curriculum trivializes learning. More alarmingly, they now see the damage to students by politicians whose policies narrow student intellectual horizons, course choices, career and educational options, all of which have a deadening effect on student morale. Instead of promoting real reform which would transform schools into institutions of inquiry, government denies them an array of rich and diversified courses and the teachers to teach them.
The Roman poet Juvenal has a marvelous line about children: Maxima debetur puero reverentia. "The utmost reverence is due a child." Children don't exist to be exploited for profit by billionaire philanthropists, venture capitalists, and charter schools managers. Neither are they brought into this world to be abused by ceaseless test-taking so that Bill Gates and Pearson can make additional billions as the de facto czars of American education. Nor are they data banks for Wall Street advertisers.
Children exist for themselves alone, with no other purpose. They are human beings with their own destinies, and what is being done to them in schools by government would be beyond belief in this country a generation ago. Washington would have intervened at once to stop it; now it mandates and promotes it itself, even though its intrusion in the classroom is expressly forbidden by law. Future generations will look back at these times in amazement at how government could have so brutalized schoolchildren as to scar them for life despite mounting protests by parents.
Plato in his Allegory of the Cave described for all time the nature of education. Everyone is unknowingly imprisoned in his or her culture until something liberating happens that changes everything, and a person is transformed forever. It is a metaphor for what education is and can do for those who will let it, and why, according to some, government will never allow it to happen.
However, it is also a metaphor for what is happening in America today -- the political education of millions who grew up in a different America, and are now awakening to a new political class whose ambition and venality prompt its members to sell off parts of America to the highest bidder. Millions of parents with school-age children are beginning to resist this new kind of government which is waging war against its own people, and now even stoops so low as to abuse children emotionally in its ruthless pursuit of corporate "reform." It is a page right out of Goebbels and his dream of "standardizing" the hearts and minds of youth and a nation.
This piece is an expanded version of an article published in the Times of Trenton in 2013.