Actually, Now You’re On My Turf

This Diagram Officially Not Recommended By The Texas GOP 2012

I don’t normally dabble in politics on this blog, quite deliberately, because I don’t want people to stop reading things that might be of use because of partisan issues. However, with the release of the 2012 Texas Republican platform, and its section on Education (page 12), I don’t feel that I’m dabbling in politics to address this – because with the following statement, the Texas GOP has very firmly put their feet into my area, and I feel that a response is required.

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.

Now, I have tried to go the Texas GOP website to see if there have been any developments on this but, for some reason, I can’t seem to be able to get there at the moment. (This is often the Internet’s way of saying “You have become interesting to a great many people. All at once.”, where congestion is caused by fascination.)

I am hoping that this turns out to be some kind of Internet hoax, or the actions of one person, rather than the genuine statement of a major political party for a large US state. As an educator, as a University lecturer, as a scientist, as a thinker, as a human being I am terrified that critical thinking skills, the foundation of our civilisation, are being singled out as being something undesirable – because it will challenge the students’ fixed beliefs.

We have had long periods where beliefs could not be challenged, where critical thinking was either suppressed or ignored, and we generally refer to them historically as dark ages. What really confuses me is that, somehow, critical thinking is going to immediately lead to the collapse of parental authority – as if critical thinking is guaranteed to be obstructive or contrary thinking. Critical thinking is the consideration of claims to decide if they are always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false. There is no guarantee that parental values need to be isolated as claims that are always false and, in many ways, it is a sign of concern of the veracity of one’s beliefs if you assume that any critical assessment is going to lead to an immediate rejection!

The critical thinking that we teach, and consider vital, is a respectful criticism of ideas, rather than people. One of the strengths of a good academic is that they can be critical of an idea, without needing to belittle the thinker (the person behind the idea). I’ve talked about this at length with movement from dualism to relativism and then commitment, under the Perry developmental classifications.

To identify that we should keep children as authority dependent drones, never allowing them to question anything? That is to keep them as children for all of their lives. But this would also lead us to a far darker future than just permanent childhood. Our civilisation is based on thinking, on reaching further, on questioning, on asking “What if?” and then finding answers. What is covered in the section on Knowledge Based Education is a threat to all education at the higher level and, ultimately, something that every educator has to worry about.

This is not a political issue – this is, and always will be, an educational issue. A societal issue. A civilisation issue.

Again, please let this be a joke or a hoax. If this is what a large group of 21st Century Americans can believe is the right way to proceed, then we have a great deal of work to do in informing people of why critical thinking is desirable, rather than some terrible threat to their own authority. But this feels as if it is based in fear, and fear is always very hard to deal with.

6 Comments on “Actually, Now You’re On My Turf”

  1. Damien Warman says:

    I put it to you that educational issues, societal issues, civilisational issues, are, shall be, and have always been political issues.


  2. Keith Cohen says:

    Ha! I see your “opposition to knowledge-based education” and raise you “anti-science.”, page 12;
    “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.”

    Riiiight. What “side” of scientific theories did they have in mind? Last time I checked, there isn’t another “side” to the theory of evolution; it isn’t a sports team!

    Ditto climate science – there isn’t a “side” to the scientific consensus.


  3. Mark Guzdial says:

    This is great timing for me, Nick. I’m working on a paper (with Betsy DiSalvo, Amy Bruckman, and Tom McKlin) on her efforts to teach African-American men computer science. The paper is on “face saving,” how it’s literally “not cool” for these men to study CS in their various communities, so Betsy gave them multiple reasons for persisting, and the men honestly told her that they “misrepresented” their reasons for learning CS to their parents vs. their friends vs. “their gran” (grandmother), because they wanted to stick with it. Yes, she found that her students “undermined parental authority” by (shock!) learning CS.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Thanks, Mark. It’s easy to underestimate the still quite large differences in what is considered acceptable across cultures, even when the groups seem to be heavily acculturated to a new context. I’m currently in one of the smaller capital cities of Australia, in a fairly isolated state, and the cultural differences are larger than I was expecting.

      We see similar things in my city for people who are first-generation University students. They have to lie to their parents, on occasion, or hide what they’re doing lest they be seen as “time wasters” or any number of pejorative terms that I won’t repeat here. Not doing a reliable, trustworthy trade is similarly seen as betrayal of family and rejection of parental values that explicitly amounts to criticism on a deep and moral level.

      I look forward to reading the paper when it’s finished!


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