Thursday, May 01, 2008

The missing pieces in our Educational system

This is from an email I sent on this day in 2005.

I would like to ask our educators about the lack of Critical Thinking, Ethics and Civics in primary, secondary and post-secondary education. While I understand the importance to the bottom line of industry to have students come out of the public school system with the science based knowledge that can help them make money, I think our society has deeply suffered due to the lack of instruction to give people the ability to think critically, establish relationships in an ethical manner and participate fully in our society beyond the simple fact of their economic status.

The basics of Ethics includes Logic, which leads to an understanding of the mechanism behind Math before the students get into memorization of formulas. The basics of Critical Thinking leads to an understanding of the mechanism behind Science, before the students get into memorization of the various scientific facts. And the basics of Civics leads to an understanding of how our society works, which is much more meaningful than the memorization of dates, places and names.

Is it the lack of testing apparatus that prevents these subjects from being taught in our schools?

This got some good responses:

I'm a Math teacher and have a doctorate in engineering and teach critical thinking and ethics.

Critical thinking, ethics, etc. are not solely part of one discipline and not another - they are integral and interweaved in the study of Math and Science. Math and Science teachers teach how to analyze, then how to interpret and form good conclusions, that is, critical thinking is integral to Math and Science disciplines. Philosophy, Political Science, History and other humanities disciplines also teach this and our teaching should complement each other.

Let's engage in a little critical thinking here. It is said "give a person a fish, feed them for a day, teach them to fish, feed them for life." The problem with this is a scientific fact called Maslow's theory of hierarchy. In a nutshell, Maslow said that people are going to focus on physical survival needs and have great difficulty thinking of needs higher on the hierarchy until needs lower on the hierarchy are met. In other words, hungry people can't learn. This saying should be revised to "give a person a fish, feed them for a day, then teach them to fish to feed them for life."

Moving on in this argument: Economic needs come first, then human beings can deal with relationships including civics and ethics. We must teach in order for people to work, then working people can deal with civics and ethics and relationships. I deplore the absence of humanities teaching as this impedes our ability to created civilized societies, however Math and Science must assume a higher priority since it is necessary in order for Americans to have jobs.

On a more personal note: I am constantly amazed by my students. Their struggles are amazing. They work full-time jobs and then come to school to improve their lot in life without much assistance. Human beings really do have an amazing capacity to delay gratification for loftier goals. Humans can, for a time, suffer economically to do the right thing. We are very ethical and civic minded creatures.

While business interests are whining about the low quality of American workers, these amazing Americans are improving themselves in the face of huge obstacles. Ask yourself, how does Toyota, Nissan, Honda and, soon, Hyundai produce cars in America using American labor of better quality and higher profitability than our American car companies. Is it American workers? No. Is it poor American work ethic? No. Is it American businesses? YES! Is it conservative policies that promote corporate welfare thus removing the pecuniary motivation for businesses to change to new economic realities? YES!

Jim Sizemore

This is really impressive thinking, by both of you, about the things we need to see in our classrooms. Especially, your thoughts on the importance of logic and critical thinking.

But let me add one more very big "missing piece;" History. One unintended effect of our scrupulous care to make sure that no particular religion is taught in public schools has been that teachers, in their commendable zeal to avoid teaching dogma and doctrine, have often produced a product that is effectively free of values - values shared by the vast majority of people in our culture.

This omission has had a direct impact on the way history is taught. A study of history teaches us why we so highly value freedom of conscience - so highly that uncounted thousands have died for it. I submit that one reason for the success of the neo-cons in gaining the acceptance of the American people for the nefarious intrusions of the "Patriot Act," and the indefinite detentions of "terrorists" without charges or access to courts or counsel, is that the products of our public education system simply don't know how important the liberties are on which this Administration is trampling. Too many don't understand that a denial of your rights puts my rights in peril.

When George W. Bush said, after the mass murders of 9/11, that "everyone agrees that security is our first priority," he was unfortunately nearly right - almost everyone did agree. Only a few were perceptive enough to see where he was leading us, and remembered that our first priority is not our physical safety, but the preservation of our liberties. I suggest that we take a fresh look at how we teach history, and its lessons in how a democratic society comes into being, and how it can be preserved - or destroyed. More critical thinking, buttressed by a better knowledge of history, in which too few students have adequate training, might have produced a different result, both in the congressional elections of 2002, and the presidential contest in 2004.

We've all heard the quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. I suggest the time is long overdue for us to give it greater attention, and greater care, in educating our children.

Norman K. Marsh

Bravo! I'm going to have to work hard to keep up with you, Jim. But I'll certainly try.

First, I'd like to pass on something a study group I was involved in at the University of Phoenix came up with regarding Critical Thinking. You're welcome to use it if you wish. And everyone else on the list is welcome to use it as well.

I'm going to maintain my thesis that Math and Science must be at least an equal priority to Civics, Ethics, History (thanks Norman, you're right) and Critical Thinking. I will accept the fact that there are many people in the world, and indeed in the United States, that are hungry, and thus need a fish before they can learn to fish. But I have not yet achieved the state in my perception of the human condition within our country to make me believe that this is the prevaling situation for the majority of our citizens. The fallacy that I see in your argument is the difference between an individual who needs to learn how to fish, and a society that needs to learn how to use our resources, whether they be physical, educational, social or political, to lead us into a sustainable future. There will always statistically be those that are on either end of the economic bell curve. I believe that a Progressive stance is to acknowledge that this bell curve exists and that it is the responsibility of the society to reach back with the extra resources that exist at one end to help the people who find themselves on the other end.

We can teach the humanities in school alongside the core subjects of Math and Science, and we must. The question I ask quite often is 'to what end'. What are we trying to accomplish, and why? Are we trying to teach Math and Science to provide a better workforce for the companies that need them? Why? I think the right answer is to give those workers the ability to make a good living and provide well for their future families. The Republican/Conservative answer is to give the companies good employees so they can make more of a profit for the shareholders. Of course, when 90% of the capital in our country is controlled by 5-10% of the population, we're moving toward disaster. Can we teach Math and Science to the exclusion of the other subjects? I don't think so, and if you're teaching Critical Thinking and Ethics, you don't seem to think so either. They are both imiportant. I think the society that we have now is the result of focusing the teaching on one side of that equation, and I don't like it. I never learned Latin in school. I never read the 'real' classics like Plato or Homer. I read some of the 20th century classics like Mark Twain, but until I entered college, I wasn't exposed to anything older than 200 years except in music. I should have. Here's something I wrote in November of 2000:

"Everyone reading this raise your hand if you think the schools are good enough and don’t need more money. I don’t see very many hands. Both sides think that the schools need improvement. Both sides think they need testing from the 3rd grade all the way up to the 8th grade. Makes you wonder how the school administration knows which students to pass on to the next grade. I mean if they don’t have testing now to see how the kids are doing in class, how do they know who passed? The point is that tests happen every day all over the country. I don’t think we need another test. I think we need to go somewhere with the knowledge we have. There should be a standard test required for everyone to get a high school diploma. The subjects should be reading, writing, math, science, sociology, economics, world history, US history, social skills, job skills, resume writing, physical readiness, health, nutrition, sexuality, philosophy, logic, music, art, speech, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, ... Get the point yet? Where exactly do we think our children will get taught all the skills that they will need to be in the work force? At home? How many parents out there would be comfortable teaching their children how to solve a geometry problem? Or how to solve that logic equation? Or how to protect themselves from AIDS? When someone reaches the age of 18, we expect them to be ready to fight and defend our country in the armed forces if they get called. How much more important is that than being able to support themselves if they don’t get called? Not very. "

You can read the rest here:

So, how do we fix the American Business? The distribution of capital must be balanced. FDR started on the right path with Social Security and the SEC, but nobody caught on to what really needed to happen. Question: what is the most powerful statement that you can give an elected representative in a letter or interview? "I am a voter in your district, and whether I support you or not depends on how you deal with my issues." So, we need to make another statement just as powerful. "I am a shareholder in your company, and whether I support your bid for reelection to the Board of Directors depends on how you deal with my issues."

Howard Dean started Democracy for America. We need Democracy for Wall Street.

Chad Lupkes

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