Public Schools Were Never Designed to Teach Critical Thinking
Public school teachers and administrators will tell you that one of the mandates of public education is to develop critical thinking skills in students. They believe that curricula are designed, at least in part, with this goal in mind.
There’s plenty of evidence that this goal is not being met. Many high school graduates struggle to express themselves clearly in speech and in writing, and to understand moderately complex texts. Only 1 in 5 can pass an argument literacy test at a reasonable standard. Few can tell you how science differs from non-science, or how natural science differs from social science.
My assessment of public school education is different from most critics.
I believe that public schools are doing a relatively good job of fulfilling the primary goals of public education.
The mistake is thinking that education for critical thinking is one of these goals.
Nurturing a student’s capacity for independent critical thought has never been a primary goal of public education.
This may sound like a criticism, but it’s not intended to be. It’s just a fact that needs to be understood.
Education Is Always Education FOR Something
There’s no such thing as formal education for its own sake. Education is always education FOR something.
Public education is state-funded and state-mandated education. It’s designed, first and foremost, to serve the needs of the state, not the needs of individuals.
An educated workforce is vital to a state’s interests, so the state has a reason to educate individual students. However, in modern technological societies, that interest is defined largely in terms of economic productivity, technological innovation, and vital social services. Public education is organized to produce a workforce that can serve these important goals.
Another important function of public education is to promote a shared identity and a shared set of social norms and expectations that helps a society to function well.
To put it another way, public education is aimed at producing good citizens.
But you can be a good citizen without being an independent critical thinker.
Why Is It Bad If Johnny Can’t Read?
Just to give a simple illustration: why is it important, from a public education perspective, that Johnny learn how to read, or write, or do basic arithmetic?
Every education administrator will tell you, it’s important because if Johnny graduates and can’t do these things then he won’t be able to get a job — a good job. The labor force needs these basic skills. Johnny’s ability to participate in the economy will be handicapped if he doesn’t have them.
Which is all true. But notice what they did not say. They did not say that if Johnny graduates without basic literacy skills his capacity for independent critical thought will be drastically impaired.
Any reasonable person will agree with this, but from the perspective of public education administrators, that’s not the answer that first comes to mind. The economic answer is the one that first comes to mind, and there’s a reason for that.
Public education is about producing citizens that can “make a contribution to society”. What it means to make a contribution has changed as society has changed, but the point is that compulsory public education is organized to fulfill these goals, not the broader humanistic goals we idealistically associate with education (self-realization, maximizing one’s potential, capacity for independent critical thought, etc.).
The Responsibility is Ours to Create and Support Educational Opportunities That We Value
The implication for me, as a critical thinking educator, is that it’s unreasonable to think that some educational reform movement will spontaneously emerge and make education for critical thinking a priority within the public sector. That’s not going to happen any time soon.
However, it’s not unreasonable to think that individuals and private organizations can’t come together to offer educational opportunities that the public sector doesn’t provide, or doesn’t provide well.
This is exactly what we’re doing when we support and participate in martial arts programs, music academies, recreational sports leagues, youth organizations like Scouts and Cadets, computer camps, and other forms of community-based teaching and learning.
Granted, some of these may be supported by public funds. But the point is that we don’t expect public schools to provide for every valuable form of education.
We Support Martial Arts Programs. Why Not Critical Thinking Programs?
Public schools don’t teach the core elements of critical thinking. They don’t teach logic and argumentation, they don’t teach fallacies of reasoning, they don’t teach the psychology of human reasoning, they don’t teach cognitive biases and debiasing techniques.
But there’s no reason why individuals and private organizations can’t step in to fill the gap.
Why couldn’t there be a critical thinking studio in every city, alongside the martial arts, music and dance schools that seem to be everywhere? A place where anyone could walk in and register for courses in these areas, and develop their skills in the core elements of critical thinking.
Or as an alternative, why couldn’t there be an online training program, a virtual critical thinking studio, where anyone could register and take such courses?
I’m Not Waiting Around
I’ve decided to go ahead and build such an online training program. I’m calling it the Argument Ninja Academy.
The Argument Ninja podcast is the place where I’m working out the goals, the teaching philosophy and the curriculum for such a program.