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"LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!"

Thinking Critically

Note: the following post was drawn into a wider debate when it was seen by Diane Ravitch, fearless advocate for public education. Diane sent my post to Mike Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and asked him to respond. That prompted a flurry of responses. To see that exchange, go to Diane's blog.

This week, public school teachers in Chicago went on strike. I say, Go, teachers! But it’s hard for me to tune into the media and hear people trashing teachers and the unions that protect them. Because those teachers and their union are protecting our children as well. Teachers are one of our most precious national resources. And this strike is largely about the use of test scores as the sole and punishing measure of teacher effectiveness and job security.

I’ve been a scrappy public school mom for 12 years and counting, and I’ve watched the increasing encroachment of the data and accountability business, which would have our kids prepping for and taking deadening tests at every turn, and our teachers endlessly graded and derided for test results that are a meaningless distraction from real learning. A rich and full education digs deeper; it’s inextricably entwined with books, literature, writing, and the life of the mind; it develops critical thinking.

Examples from two exemplary teachers illustrate how this can be possible in the classroom. The first, Jason Rosenbaum, is a humanities teacher at Salk School of Science, a public middle school in NYC, and my son was lucky to be in his 7th grade American history class. Jason opened the class with this assignment: read the chapter on the European discovery of America in two separate textbooks, a traditional textbook and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Write down the specific events included in each separate account. Which events are the same? Which are different? Why would the authors choose to highlight the particular events they did?

Later in the year, when the class was studying the American Revolution, Jason gave another assignment. He chose iconic pieces of art representing the Revolution, such as the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware and Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride, works that contain some historical inaccuracies. Jason asked the kids to sleuth out the inaccuracies, and to write a paper discussing why they thought the artists might have chosen to alter the historical record in the particular way they did.

The second teacher, Patsy Wainwright, was my own American history teacher in high school. In her class, we had no textbook. We read historians who were writing at the time, such as Richard Hofstadter and Carl Degler. For our term paper, we had to choose a book on a topic in American history, but instead of reporting on the historical information we found therein, we were tasked with determining the bias of the author and combing the text for evidence of that bias.

What these excellent assignments by Rosenbaum and Wainwright get at is that all books, all works of art, all messages, are created from distinct points of view. We might agree with the particular point of view or we might not, but the bias is there, and we should be aware. At the time I took Mrs. Wainwright’s class, I was 16, dewy and corn-fed, and this was an epiphany to me. I would never again approach the written word uncritically, as sacrosanct.

It’s interesting for me to remember that Mrs. Wainwright extended her teaching beyond the classroom. Once a week, she drove interested students from our affluent suburb to tutor reading at the Harlem Boys Club. Since the sessions were only once a week, I don’t know that I actually helped the student I worked with learn to read. But I do know that it knit our communities together. I would not have known this young man; he would not have known me. I also would not have had the glimpse I got of life in Harlem. At the Boys Club, I was unnerved to see very young boys – boys of 8 or 9 – marching around the building in military uniforms as part of an armed forces recruiting program. I understood that these boys were getting a different education than I was. They wouldn't have choices. They didn't go to a school where they would read and discuss Degler; they were being outfitted for Vietnam.

For me, many years later, the task is this: determine the bias of those currently attempting to bury our public education system in data and testing requirements. One motivation is obvious: there’s profit to be made. If education can be wrested from the classroom – from teachers, principals, and other actual educators – and the focus shifted to cold data and analysis, then tech companies and faux educational corporations can gorge themselves at the public trough. Hey, if it looks like greed and smells like greed, it’s greed!

But there’s another, underlying motivation. It seems no accident that prominent among those who would hijack our nation’s public education system are powerful billionaires such as Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch. Why are these billionaires, men with no experience in the field of education, demonizing our smart and hard-working teachers in order to promote their own corporate interests? Why do they want students reduced to a string of data, our kids to fill in bubbles, not learn to think? Perhaps because kids who think critically will ask questions, key questions. For instance, why is there an increasing and radical disparity of wealth in our nation? And who exactly controls our nation’s political system now that corporations are free not only to pour money into lobbying, but also to anonymously contribute boatloads of bucks to political campaigns?

To have a real democracy one needs an educated populace. Why don’t these billionaires want our kids to think critically? And why are they trying to bust the union that serves and protects our nation’s schools? What exactly are they afraid of?