What Were They Thinking?

Peter Wood

The 2012 Report of the Platform Committee of the Texas Republican Party contains some strange declarations. On page 12 of the 22-page document comes this little paragraph:

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.

Of course, virtually every party platform floats some strange ideas. They generally materialize out of the need to curry favor with narrowly focused interest groups that are active in a political party’s base and they seldom play much role in the actual legislative agenda of elected leaders. Still, the fringe pronouncements serve as witnesses to what sorts of ideas are circulating beneath the surface.

In this case, the Texas Republican Party seems to be responding to someone who didn’t like its last platform. The 2010 version (page 20) declared flatly the opposite of the 2012 version:

Knowledge-Based Education – The primary purpose of public schools is to teach critical thinking skills, reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, science, and character as well as knowledge-based education, not job training. We support knowledge-based curriculum standards and tests. We support successful career and technology programs, but oppose mandatory career training. We oppose Outcome-Based Education (OBE) and similar programs. Further, because of an aging U.S. population and global competition, and because much of today’s education teaches children to be employees or perhaps at best managers for employers, we encourage the teaching of entrepreneurial skills and investment skills.

How did the Texans get from “We support knowledge-based curriculum standards and tests” to “We oppose…” ?

As this is a blog and not an investigative report, I’ll offer an evidence-free speculation. I suspect someone who is familiar with how easily the education establishment captures, co-opts, and subverts wholesome ideas tipped off the platform committee that “knowledge-based education” often amounts to something less ambitious than teaching students important knowledge and that the phrase “critical thinking skills” often serves as an Open Sesame to hard-core political indoctrination.

The Texas Republican Platform Committee, I surmise, was admonished for its previous naiveté in endorsing language that played into the hands of educationists who are up to no good. But naiveté is hard to cure. As they tried to extract themselves from their previous too-trusting position they fell into the rabbit hole of authoritarian traditionalism.

And for this they have been roundly and rightly mocked. John Harvey, writing in Forbes, “The Terrifying Texas GOP Platform,” went to town on the silly pronouncement that the party would oppose education aimed at “challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Harvey doubts that Texas teachers and school boards are intent on “training children to challenge their parents,” and he sweeps away the rest:

[D]o you know which values and concepts are rejected in the absence of higher order and critical thinking? None! Therefore, depending on the time and place when we decide to stop challenging ideas and meekly accept what we are told, we might thereafter and forever be racists, sexists, communists, fascists, democrats, capitalists, Christians, Buddhists, Lutherans, geocentrists, pacifists, Wiccans, or whatever the prevailing views of that day were. Nothing would ever again be questioned.

Harvey also mentions that in response to the torrent of criticism, “a partial retraction followed.” The retraction is to be found in a TalkingPointsMemo.com post by Eric Lach, in which Lach reports on a conversation he had with the Texas GOP’s Communications Director, Chris Elam, who said the “critical thinking” line got into the platform “by mistake” and would be corrected the next time around in 2014.

In the meantime, political opponents of the Texas GOP are having fun. I’ve come across lots of diatribes, including the leftist Think Progress list of “The 5 Craziest Policies in Texas Republicans’ 2012 Platform.” Opposing “multicultural education and ‘critical thinking’” is number four.

Donald Lazere brought the Texas GOP’s errant declaration to my attention and urged me to write about it here. Pile on while the piling is good? I think it might be more helpful to suggest what the folks on the GOP Platform Committee might have said that would have been more constructive.

Critical thinking, rightly understood, is a crucial goal of education. The term, however, has often been misemployed by teachers who themselves possess little capacity for critical thinking and who tend to use the term as a rough-and-ready rubric to justify teaching their students various fashionable ideas. Being in favor of one idea and opposed to a contrary one is not critical thinking. Opposition and advocacy can be as blinkered as any dogma. Schools that set out to disabuse students of their ignorance about matters such as evolution, race, immigration, climate change, sexual orientation, and so on, may or may not approach the threshold of “critical thinking.” That threshold is to be found where we become aware that rational framing of hypotheses is a difficult undertaking, and evaluation of those hypotheses by scrupulous examination of the evidence and the search for new evidence unfiltered by our subjective attitudes demands a lot from us. It demands among other things patience, toleration of uncertainty, and a readiness to accept the discomfort of facts that lean against what one hopes to be true.

Critical thinking can, indeed, unsettle religious faith; but it can just as easily unsettle secular certitudes. It is a sharp-edged implement, and where it cuts depends on where one decides the burden of proof should lie on a given question.

It wasn’t all that far off-base for the platform committee to wonder whether “higher order thinking skills” are to be accepted at face value as a rubric for what students should learn. There are serious questions both about whether teachers are generally able to distinguish genuine critical inquiry from their own intellectual commitments. And there are also tough questions about how “critical thinking” can best be integrated into any curriculum. The term has come to stand in for a fatuous distinction between a stultifying form of education focused on mere facts and “rote memorization” as opposed to a rich and liberating form of education that focuses on analysis and real understanding.

We owe this misshapen distinction to several sources, perhaps most famously to Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and somewhere behind Bloom, John Dewey’s philosophy. The trouble is that facts and analysis are not at opposite ends of some kind of intellectual hierarchy. They are intimately bound up with one another and efforts to separate them invariably impoverish both.

A party platform isn’t the right vehicle for advancing that kind of argument, but a platform could indeed be informed by the underlying idea. I’d suggest that the platform committee in 2014 consider something like this:

The purpose of education is to teach students the knowledge, skills, habits, and qualities of character they need to thrive. This includes teaching students reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, and science, and the cultivation of memory, analysis, and synthesis. Schools should focus on education first, not job training, though genuine education fosters practical skills, not just commitment to abstract ideals. We oppose using schools and public colleges and universities for political advocacy and we oppose as well short-cut pedagogies that lay claim to teaching students “how to think” but typically end up telling students “what to think.”

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on July 6, 2012. 

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