10/08/2012 06:52 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Election 2012: A Lesson in Critical Thinking

Did you know that President Obama is guilty of the frequent use of anaphora? Or that turning the argument contained in one of Mitt Romney's attack ads into a valid syllogism exposes it as logically unsound? Or that looking at how each candidate makes use of the Canons of Rhetoric can help describe (and even predict) how they might perform in debates?

Welcome to Election 2012 as learning moment, specifically, a moment to learn the skills needed to be a practical critical thinker.

Like many parents who work in the education field, I noticed gaps in the curricula my children were studying in school. Specifically, critical thinking -- that orphan child of education -- was talked about, but did not seem to have found a home within any particular subject.

Where were they learning Aristotle's Modes of Persuasion (logos - logic, pathos - emotion, and ethos - authority) that underlie all persuasive discourse? Where were they being taught how to spot a logical fallacy or a rhetorical figure of speech designed to obscure, rather than inform? Where were they supposed to learn the value of deliberative (future-oriented) vs. forensic (past/blame-oriented) arguments when it comes to political argumentation?

Fortunately, an event was occurring in 2012 that provided the perfect template for studying all of these topics, as well as the modern media literacy and information literacy subjects needed to be an informed consumer of the quality information needed to fuel critical thought: the presidential election.

While creating the Critical Voter curriculum (a free, non-partisan, educational program that includes a podcast, blog commentary and weekly lesson plans for classroom use), I realized why -- contrary to what most people might think -- an election year offered the perfect time to teach (and learn) the fundamentals of critical thinking. Namely:

  • In an era when our culture losing is its common core (fragmenting into million micro-cultures built around specific beliefs and interests), a U.S. presidential election is one of the few events all of us follow (or, at least can't escape from). And since critical thinking is best learned in context, what other context exists that nearly every American shares?
  • During an election campaign, the candidates are spending millions of dollars on material we can use for free in our classroom (from speeches containing figures of speech and fallacies, to TV ads containing arguments that can be diagrammed and analyzed, to questions that can be answered using the tools of media and information literacy)
  • For the bulk of Americans who don't live in swing states, the campaign is likely to consist of little more than party committees asking us to write checks for TV ads to run in Florida and Ohio. So given that the vote is being taken for granted in states guaranteed to go red or blue, why not use the election to learn something that can have practical value after the campaign is over?

I suspect that it will be after the election is over that the clouds of anxiety and bias will clear enough for partisans to participate in the program (that's alliteration, a linguistic figure of speech which -- along with anaphora -- is a favorite of President Obama, by the way). But whenever we learn it, there is something to be gained by being able to think critically, even about subjects where our mind is already made up.