I have to confess that I have long rolled my eyes at suggestions that schools should promote critical thinking for students.
Duh. Of course, schools should promote critical thinking. Why else would you educate someone?
Spelling out the need to provide this essential component of educating a child has always just seemed ridiculous to me — like having to say we should teach children to read, write, and learn mathematics.
Well, I stopped rolling my eyes at this in November 2016.
Now, day in and day out, I am confronted with a president who routinely and deliberately lies and doubles-down on a lie when challenged about it. He runs an administration that regularly engages in fabricated “truths.” Remember that it was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway who blithely introduced “alternative facts” into our lexicon after commentators challenged the president’s assertions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
But the lie that really pushed me over the edge to write this column was not one of Trump’s vanity lies. Instead, it was the mid-October report that the White House was circulating so-called fact sheets (http://wapo.st/2AobDI3) tying free trade to increases in infertility, abortions, single-parent households, spousal abuse, opioid addiction, and more. Here was an effort to assemble spurious “facts” to buttress an argument about a policy of significant importance to this nation. What rational leader would engage in such behavior?
Of course, that pack of lies was quickly pushed to the side when the president lied about what he said to the widow of a fallen soldier. Then he claimed that no prior president had called grieving Gold Star families. Another blatant lie to soothe the vain beast.
Lie upon lie upon lie.
I don’t see an end to this. As someone who prefers life in a fact-based universe, I am cringing at the horror of surviving 1,460 lie-filled days before the Trump term ends. I know I am not alone in imagining the damage that it will do to this nation. Like many of you, I am also wondering how you raise and educate children in an environment in which the leader of your country has literally no regard for the truth. (I won’t even go into my concerns about having a leader who belittles opponents with reckless and childish taunts and the message such behavior telegraphs to all observers.)
(For the New York Times’ recent comparison of Trump’s lies to those of President Barack Obama: http://nyti.ms/2jSAuh5.)
The president’s lies became even more painfully relevant as we edited this issue of Kappan, which explores teaching about controversial topics with civility. Before teachers can adequately prepare students to engage in such deep discussions, they must first teach students how to identify credible information for those discussions. Facts should actually matter when someone is trying to argue their side of any issue.
Teaching students how to identify trustworthy sources of information and how to marshal a series of facts into a coherent argument — all of that is part of preparing the critical thinkers of tomorrow. But how do teachers convince students that facts matter when social media routinely exposes them to lies from their president?
When information moves through the ether in a nanosecond, students must learn how to fact-check in real time so they can verify, analyze, and respond to every morsel of information coming at them, whether through social media or the official messages of leaders. This is no longer an Encyclopedia Britannica world in which someone can thumb through a reference book to check the veracity of someone’s assertion. Everyone must be equipped with the skills of an analyst.
Most of us want to make decisions based on facts, especially when those decisions involve life, money, or property. I want to know that money managers are plugging facts into their analysis of my retirement accounts. Would any employer hire someone who can’t separate fact from fiction? Imagine the reactions of corporate leaders who learn that employees have shared a set of “alternative facts” when seeking approval for a new project or later reporting the results of that project.
As we’re working to help students become critical thinkers, let’s also prepare them to stand up with backbone to defend their assertions. Let’s teach them how to identify their own values and use those to guide their decisions. Then, let’s arm them with strategies for deflecting onerous assaults on their integrity.
To prepare students for citizenship has never been more important — and probably never more difficult. It’s ironic that teachers — who have been maligned for decades by folks who also had a loose hold on the truth — have become the last best hope for setting the course right again. The future is literally in your hands. — JR
Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 4. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.