[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/29/12]

The Texas Republican Party has just published their new platform for 2012 (h/t Elena). They have made a significant change to their education policy. This is from their old platform from 2010 (via The Daily Texan) :

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.

I’m not entirely on board with the KBE over OBE thing, and what I would really like to see is for schools to go beyond just practicing critical thinking and to actually give kids tools to do critical thinking well. That is, I’d rather focus on teaching skeptical thinking so that kids can recognize common biases and the difference between good and bad arguments rather than just telling them that all criticisms are worthwhile. Giving kids the vocabulary of skepticism should enable them to discuss and distinguish between good critical thinking and sloppy critical thinking. The standard mode of teaching critical thinking rarely acknowledges any such distinction.

That said, this 2010 platform is nothing to get upset about. I like a lot of it. It supports a focus on “entrepreneurial skills and investment skills,” but “not job training.” Most importantly, it leads with a focus on “critical thinking skills.” It’s not my precise vision, but they sound like they might be persuaded to embrace Skeptical Education if it were presented in the right way.

The following is the corresponding plank of the 2012 Texas Republican Platform:

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.

A complete about-face on critical thinking (and a removal of the focus on entrepreneurial skill over job training). In 2010, critical thinking was the primary purpose of public schools. In 2012, Texas Republicans are now opposed to teaching critical thinking at all! Why? Because is has “the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Well, at least there is no confusion about the power and purpose of critical thinking. Of course, fixed beliefs are only truly threatened by critical thinking if they are wrong, and authority is only undermined if it is unfair, unjust, or otherwise illegitimate. These are clearly desirable outcomes. Could Republicans have caricatured themselves any more aptly than this? As Gary Berg-Cross points out,

It’s straight out Chris Mooney’s Republican Brain and Lakoff’s writings on Moral Authority. They worry that it might challenge “student’s fixed beliefs. ” Fixed by group decision and closed minds with no discussion allowed.
The language of undermining “parental authority” can be understood from Lakoff’s discussion of the Strict Father model:

“This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but cannever outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.”

The real mystery is how that mindset let to support for critical thinking just two years ago. That even the Texas Republican Party supported critical thinking until just this year lends credence to the argument I made in my previous post: the idea of focusing on critical thinking in schools would have broad support.

If I’m right and the population is indeed inclined to support a more direct focus on skeptical critical thinking in education, the only thing that is left to do is bring the question into the public discourse. I tentatively addressed this in my previous post, saying:

We already have an enthusiastic Skeptic Movement going that will likely be willing to throw their support behind a mission like this if it is presented to them along with a respectable plan of action. I don’t know exactly what that plan of action will be, but it could include a media campaign, social networking, public demonstrations, maybe even skeptical charter schools.

By throwing such a clumsy first punch, the forces in opposition to the Skeptical Education Movement (as I call it) may have done us a great service: they have brought the issue into the public consciousness. The Huffington Post, Reddit, Slate, PZ Myers, and Cenk Uygar have picked up the story. Many of those outlets are focusing on ridiculing Republicans for the benefit of Democrats. That is not my goal, but it serves the purpose of making this issue a focal point. I think this is really a fight we can win if this story gains a little more traction and the implications of an “anti-critical thinking” platform are brought to light. With any luck, we can ride the coming wave of support for critical thinking to the more ambitious goal of instituting a curriculum that devotes time to Skeptical Critical Thinking. What can we do to help that happen? I’m not sure, but perhaps now is the time to try some of the ideas I mentioned in the last post: media campaigns, social networking (does “liking” articles do anything?), and public demonstrations. I doubt I have the clout to “take the reins” on this one, but I don’t think I can let myself do nothing. This post is my first step.

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Please enjoy this three-minute video of George Carlin ranting about American Education:

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