Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Surrender of Critical Thought

The high aspirations and the low accomplishment of public education. 107

This morning's conversation at the coffee shop arose from the general topic of the most troubling news of the day. No, it did not range even further among the twisted wreckage of the health insurance corporations' outrageous public relations campaign. It hardly brushed the cheek of the good news from North Korea or the dismal news from Continental Africa. Perhaps it was more than casually directed by the interests of the company at the table.

A teacher.

The troubling news? MeanMesa originates in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What reporting survives in the remnant of a highly biased local paper, that is, a local paper which steadfastly continues the subtle promotion of neoconservative ideology in every possible word selection, there was the embarrassing announcement from the local public school system that only 54% of the senior class graduated in 2009. The educational participant in our little chat was savoring the remnants of her morning latte and a last, desperate cigarette or two before rushing off to her daily teaching duties.

Quite aside from any sort of refutation or denial of the report's conclusions, her comments were reassuringly skeptical concerning the performance of the school system. She dutifully noted the unavoidable demographic difficulties inherent in a population of students affected by every well defined disadvantage from a bi-lingual home life to the myriad insults of undeniable poverty. Her defense for the failing system especially bemoaned the difficulty of inspiring newly learned talents for "critical thinking" in Albuquerque's regional students.

She admirably related her conviction that success or failure of such a public educational system seem to orbit around the critical thinking capacity of the education it produced, an interesting premise which she applied expansively to all grade levels from Kindergarten to High School Senior. Her central concerns with the current process delivering such unremarkable results was chiefly focused on the motivation of teachers to inspire an exciting style of “ownership” in the minds of the pupils. Supporting this idea, she noted that far too many of the tenured teaching staff had carelessly slipped into a malaise of indifference and remained there, securely protected by labor agreements and other unexamined habits dependably yielding a sickening, well congealed mediocrity.

When confronted with such dire and immediate challenges to civil society – after all, the consequences are disturbingly predictable – MeanMesa thoughts quickly ranged to classical examples for possible solutions. Of course, there is the stalwart, patient Aristotle delivering his inspired, optimum effort in the finishing of the young Macedonian Prince (not so many students inherit the trailing qualifiers of “..The Great” in the manner of Alexander). At Aristotle's famous shoulder stands Niccolo Machiavelli with his “dynasty saving” pragmatism so craftily imbued into young Lorenzo DeMedici a few centuries later.

Yes, history undeniably delivers these and many more examples of extremely well accomplished cases of successfully teaching “critical thinking.” Both the details and the applications of it vary throughout history. Charlemagne and Ghengis Kahn undoubtedly learned their “critical thinking” based on very different conditions and possibilities, but there runs along the theme a commonality which might interest us here. The teacher at our table unthinkingly represented her understanding of “critical thinking” as a sort of socially imposed performance metric which, once resurrected and accomplished in a manner consistent with the “good old days,” would remove the “thorn” its omission had imposed on her school system's “batting average.”

What precisely does this society demand to satisfy its appetite for “critically thinking” public school students? Is it reasonable to expect parents and scholastic measuring authorities to enjoy a comfortably well defined concept of exactly what might be required to meet their demands? Do these sponsors and judges of public education know from their own experience what it is they value so highly?

Or, is the question simply too complex? Perhaps successful “critically thinking” students only manifest evidence of such an education long after they have departed the schools and entered the world where such capabilities might produce observable, measurable, “critical thinking” results. But wait, are any of these players presently willing or able to define a serious meaning for the term which might serve to validate such a judgement or define a target for educators to achieve?

When that reasonable requirement is cast into the fray, none of these well armed critics turns out to be endowed with either an actual capacity for the pursuit of “critical thinking” or even a convincing discourse as to its possible definition. What this “mob of critics” is endowed with is a carefully groomed, blind insistence on educating their little darlings to perform “critical thinking,” a desire artfully introduced into their thoughts by “educational experts” of all stripes to make certain that the demand for “critical thinking” is both perpetual and, because it remains mysteriously undefined, never satisfied.

There remains that troubling ratio. 54%.

Did Aristotle and Machiavelli commence the first day of their teaching with an ambition of leading their charges as expeditiously as possible right to a state of “critical thinking?” Or, was that distinguished accomplishment an aside, something that simply “happened” along with all sorts of “non-critical thinking” education which was proceeding with the less flamboyant study of all the “gears and wheels” of more pedestrian topics? Would we expect to encounter 21st Century equivalents to Aristotle and Machiavelli if we were to examine the teachers in this disturbing system grumbling along in Albuquerque public schools?

The abrasive impact of this shocking performance is material enough. Yes, of course, the “missing” 46% of non-graduating seniors could have been well served with more inspiring instruction, but would classes led by Aristotle and Machiavelli have accomplished that? The affront of that 54% number suggests that the primary focus has strayed from the point of its best attention. 54% is not a questionable, subtle hint that focus has faltered. It is a screaming, immediate outrage.

New Mexico, a poor state, spends precious billions on its educational system. Among the states in our country, it is not unique in this respect.

The realization of any “critical thinking” ambitions are clearly not among the modest successes of last year's graduates. Most likely, the more pedestrian elements of a reasonably effective education, once having been sidelined by tantalizing distractions such as “critical thinking,” have failed to materialize right along with more ambitious goals. We dare not “give up,” surrendering to more years of relentless educational mediocrity, but we must face facts. The consequences of not accomplishing “critical thinking” will visit us, but we should not be willing to endure that setback in addition to the company of the consequences of not accomplishing the far more fundamental education of “lesser goals.”

You know, “lesser.” Like arithmetic, grammar, civics and history.

This is not rocket science. There is nothing noticeably defective about our students. We can hope that a well educated student who has mastered these “lesser” subjects, is adequately encouraged by his teachers and not “crushed under the wheel” of a modern educational monstrosity will, perhaps, later master some of the “critical thinking” we have been taught to value so highly.

First things first. And that means “first” – “right away” – “next semester” and not after another dozen tedious evaluation studies. How long will it take to “turn this tanker?”

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