08/23/2011 10:22 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

The Death of Citizenship

The greatest danger of current educational policy is that it does not develop critical thinking capacities. In an effort to standardize achievement and churn out productive workers, we are going to produce dangerous citizens. The dismal state of journalism and the easy access to so-called information makes it even more important that schools put critical thinking at the center of the curriculum.

Perhaps the greatest threat posed by charter schools, voucher programs and privatization is that more and more schools will become propaganda mills. Imagine, if you have the stomach for it, what a school designed by Rick Perry might look like.

This danger has become increasingly clear in the last few years. One particularly sharp example came during a CNN report on health care reform in 2009 when a woman in the audience vented her spleen at one of the rash of Town Hall meetings. When her aggressive, inaccurate assertions about the Obama administration's intentions were challenged, she turned up the volume and screamed, "I saw it on television!"

This frustrating moment, while perhaps insignificant when viewed in isolation, is symptomatic of the slow death of critical thinking. Critical thought is endangered, in part, because understanding of scientific method has waned. Scientific method involves developing a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon and then testing the hypothesis through experimentation. Scientific rigor is rooted in skepticism and the persistent effort to disprove the hypothesis. Many, if not most, advances in human knowledge have come through scientific method. Combine the decline of critical capacity with the explosion of information in the digital age and you have the seeds of a society where truth is whatever one chooses to believe.

While scientific method isn't called "scientific" for nothing, its principles should inform education and civic life as well. Skepticism and questioning of authority, in all its manifestations, are keys to enlightened citizenship. But these days it seems that the civic version of scientific method has been turned on its head. Many Americans seem more inclined to adopt an emotionally or ideologically satisfying point of view (the hypothesis) and then cherry pick observations of so-called authorities (the evidence). This accounts for folks like the woman on CNN. One can't fairly claim to know her motivation or political ideology, but her angry insistence that she "saw it on television," and it was therefore true, spoke volumes.

I'm sure she did "see it on television." Sarah Palin invented death panels on television. Members of the Bush administration found weapons of mass destruction on television. Sunday morning evangelicals produce miracles on television. According to a recent survey, 46% of Americans believe God created humans in our current form within the last few thousand years. Their convictions are supported on television, somewhere. "Birthers" continue to use television to insist that Barack Obama is not a citizen and that he is a Muslim. According to Fox News, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a racist. Conspiracy theorists claim that our own government blew up the World Trade Center on 9/ 11. You can find authority for any of these absurd points of view by flipping through television channels any time, night or day.

Two very troubling aspects of contemporary life contribute to the "I saw it on television" approach to critical thinking.

One is education, in and out of school. While not all schools in the past were exemplary, educational practice these days is nearly devoid of critical examination. In 21st century schools, children don't learn -- they are taught. These are distinctly different things. Learning involves active exploration, curiosity, skepticism and imagination. Being taught is to be a passive recipient of whatever information or viewpoint the "teacher" deems important and being conditioned to reiterate it as precisely as possible. Skepticism is not only discouraged, it is punished. Outside of school, children are taught to unconditionally respect their elders rather than to respectfully question them. Too many religious institutions insist on infallible authority instead of inspiring spiritual discovery. Here too skepticism is punished, with the threat of even more severe consequences than in schools.

The second is the easy availability of the trappings of authority. There have always been charlatans, snake oil salesmen, con men and liars, but they used to operate in the shadows, not the spotlight. For many, many decades, leading newspapers and broadcast television news presented objective, well-vetted information. Credibility was affirmed by formal newsprint, clear distinctions between news and opinion, widely respected broadcast journalists and a set of generally accepted standards that should guide legitimate print and electronic journalism. Nowadays, any yahoo with a pin striped suit and/ or a modicum of technological capability can host a high definition cable talk show or start a very authoritative-looking blog.

In recent decades the line has been blurred between advertising and news, between infomercial and journalism, between honest political discourse and corporate-funded propaganda. It's already bad enough, but I worry for our country as a generation of students with stunted critical capacities encounters a world where an authoritative voice affirming their "truth" is just a channel change away.