When “critical thinking” means “believing what I believe”

In the same Quartz article about Bill Maher’s interview with President Obama as mentioned in my previous post, there’s this:

Connecting the optics of social media with the troubling retooling of curricula and textbooks used in American schools, Obama said the trends point to a growing need for children to be taught critical thinking skills.

“In our school systems … you start seeing this weird watering-down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment … where everything’s contested, that nothing is true, because if it’s on Facebook it all looks the same, and if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement—or his mom’s basement—on text, it all looks like it’s equally plausible.”

A big piece of critical thinking is keeping yourself open to the idea that whatever you believe — whether it’s based on something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist or some guy in his underwear writing in his basement — you could be wrong.

But, what I see Obama really supporting here is the opposite of critical thinking. He’s saying, if something is from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, believe it, no questions asked. Quite frankly, I’ve seen enough ‘scientific facts’ be overturned in my lifetime to warrant skepticism.

Interestingly, the link in the quote above on the “troubling retooling of curricula and textbooks” provides a great example. The link is to a Huffington Post article.

The article is titled: “These Biased Ideas Are Presented As Fact In Texas Curriculum Standards.”

Then, here’s the article’s take on one of those ideas:

The Texas high school social studies curriculum standards ask students to compare and contrast the wording of the Constitution’s establishment clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — with the phrase “separation of church and state,” which originated during later Supreme Court decisions. Don McElroy, a conservative former member of the SBOE, said that students ought to be able to make this comparison because “we need to have students compare and contrast this current view of separation of church and state with the actual language in the First Amendment,” according to a 2010 post from The Dallas Morning News.

Ummm….hmm…ok.  This part of the article is in direct conflict with the title. Nothing  is being “presented as fact.” Rather, they are asking students to think critically.

The next paragraph from the article:

Another board member, Mavis Knight, opposed the standard, saying she thought it carried a more dangerous connotation. “[It] implies there is no such thing as the legal doctrine of separation of church and state,” Knight told the Morning News.

I disagree. It asks students to think critically about a subject and Ms. Knight is concerned that students might come to a conclusion that differs from her own.

And, that gets to the heart of Obama’s concern. He doesn’t want people to think critically. That’s just a good cover for really just wanting to them to come to the same conclusions that people on his side come to. And, if you didn’t come to the same conclusions — well, then you obviously aren’t able to think critically.

Update: The next paragraph of the HuffPo article is:

“It is absurd to suggest that Moses was a major influence on the Constitution and our constitutional structure of government,” Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, an activist group, told The Huffington Post. “Every scholar we have spoke to has said that that’s just factually inaccurate.”

The linchpin of critical thinking is to be able to state your case without deferring to experts and the article fails that.

Deferring to experts is a red herring. “Every scholar we spoke to…” So what. It’s not hard to imagine that they only spoke with scholars who agreed with them.

To state the critically thought out case that separation of church and state derives from the Constitution Mavis Knight or Dan Quinn need only present a case on how the wording of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause should be interpreted as such. But, they don’t and they can’t, because they do not know how to think critically. People often can’t think critically about ideals that hold sacrosanct.

Incidentally, I could care less if the Constitution’s Establishment Clause guarantee’s separation of church and state for too many reasons to go into here.

But, I don’t think it hurts anything for students to be asked to actually read parts of the US Constitution and related decisions from Supreme Court cases and think about them.

I don’t think the Constitution should be treated as a mystical document that only the ‘scholars (oracles) we like’ can interpret.



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