Schools Shouldn't Be Teaching Critical Skills, Some Say

Texas GOP takes position against intellectual inquiry

Posted Feb 12, 2013

I missed this when it was news, but it is worth commenting on: the Texas Republican Party, in its 2012 platform, rejected “critical thinking skills” as a worthy educational goal.

It is easy to lampoon this position and think that only a buffoon could be against critical thinking. But more important than derision is trying to understand what’s behind such a position.

You don’t need to read between the lines to figure it out. The Texas GOP spells it out for us: critical thinking challenges fixed beliefs and undermines parental authority.

Their concern is understandable. Every culture wants to pass on to its children its own values and one of the most effective ways of doing this is through parental authority. Schools help reinforce social values through indoctrination. The fear is that education designed to have students think critically undermines society by questioning the very values upon which it is based.

While we may understand this reasoning the fear is really misplaced. More worrisome and far more a problem historically is unreflectively following rules and unquestioning obedience to authority.

A quick look at history is instructive. During Nazi occupied Europe, a handful of people became rescuers of Jews while most others stood aside. When comparing the childhood upbringing of rescuers and bystanders, one factor stood out. Rescuers were brought up with discipline that was accompanied by explanations. There was little, “Do it because I say so.” When children asked why they were expected to follow a rule, parents gave reasons. This is the basis of critical thinking.

Whether critical thinking is a skill that can be taught a matter of dispute. Professor of cognitive psychology Daniel Willingham doesn’t think that it is.

However, if you think of critical thinking as something different than a skill, such as being able to do math, but as an attitude, then it makes sense to think that it that can be cultivated. Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe had developed the ability to see through morally corrupt authority because they could think for themselves s.

Many fixed beliefs are fine and most parents do a decent job in raising their children. But fixed beliefs can also be wrong and many parents are tyrants in their own homes. Critical thinking challenges those social institutions and ideas that need rectifying and gives children the opportunity to become agents of their own lives and not victims of bullies.

While no society raises children to flout its core values, real education must challenge obedience to authority. A vibrant and humane society rides the twin horses of culture and intellect.