We used to teach kids how to think in America. Now we don’t. The problem started with envy. We looked at other countries and saw their standardized test scores and we got nervous. We started to worry that we weren’t turning out enough math and science students. Eventually an insidious idea took root, that we were losing ground to ascendant countries like China and before that Japan. So we focused on improving standardized tests. Now we’re turning out unthinking clones, as our teachers struggle desperately to prep kids for these useless exams that teach nothing but memorization and regurgitation. There’s still time to change, but it’s already slipping away from us.
Make no mistake, our system was never perfect. But we did a lot of things right. We were the first nation to require all kids to go to school. As the 20th century started, we passed compulsory education laws and by 1920, 72% of all kids went to school. Moves like that made all the difference in the world, singlehandedly bootstrapping entire generations out of farming and manual labor. Back then we used to give teachers and individual school districts the chance to make their own decisions. Each state acted like an idea factory. The best ideas won and spread to other states. That’s why I never worry when conservative school districts do stupid things like force Creationism into text books. Eventually, Darwinism weeds foolish ideas out of existence.
Unfortunately, in 1965 we passed the first standardized tests laws. I say unfortunately because we couldn’t leave well enough alone and just stop there. We kept going as more bad ideas beget more bad ideas and more laws. As the 80’s rolled around, we formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education to study how we could do better than the Japanese and other countries that we felt were rising to take our place in the world. Their report, called A Nation at Risk, underscored the xenophobic paranoia of other nations set to steal our future. In 2001 we did something about it and passed the No Child Left Behind laws, that stripped most teachers of their freedoms and forced them to spend most of the school year teaching children to memorize nonsense and throw it back up. What’s left out is critical thinking. The laws focused almost exclusively on reading, writing and math, the skills thought to deliver economic success for individuals and nation states. Of course, all of those skills are crucial but they are absolutely not the most important factor in creating the next generations of entrepreneurs and free thinkers. That takes critical thinking. It’s not memorizing Shakespeare, but understanding what Shakespeare means. Critical thinkers are the people who produce real change. The question everything. They look at the world, see what’s broken and come up with a new way to fix it. Unfortunately, now kids will need to learn these skills out of the classroom. Maybe if they’re lucky, they’ll learn them in college, but that’s probably too late. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it wasn’t for me. I was lucky enough to find one teacher that taught me critical thinking at a young age. Even when I was a kid it was already a rare skill. Now it might be almost impossible with the way education is structured.
The most important teacher I ever had was Mr. Dawson. This man was a true teacher, someone who spent his entire summers traveling the world and reading every book you could imagine. He used to teach the freshman English class so he could find the critical thinkers. That was a more structured class with a lot of memorization. But he was looking for the right kind of student, ones with inquisitive minds, who wanted to learn something. He selected me and others for AP English and that was a very different type of class. We sat in a circle. There were no tests. We wrote long papers that required thought and understanding. When we debated in class we had to defend our points with clear examples. We broke down film and literature like were were breaking down the football highlights on ESPN. It was back then that I learned how to think and that’s made all the difference in the world. I’ve been able to adapt to changes, get jobs in multiple fields, and understand the inner workings of political, social and physical dynamics. When I don’t know how to do something I just figure it out by looking at it critically, asking questions and mastering it by trial and error. I believe most people are capable of this and probably a hell of a lot more.
Just think what it would be like if we were training the next scientists to think freely instead of just count? What could they discover by thinking outside the prison of current thought patterns? Maybe the next cancer breakthrough never comes, because we never taught our kids how to really look and understand. What unknown inventions might the world miss out on because people are taught to follow rules slavishly instead of finding the ones that need changing? What if teachers were taught classes in logic and critical thinking? How much more could they pass on to their children? I don’t have all the answers, as much as I like to delude myself sometimes that I do. Once that nonsense fantasy has passed me by, I usually realize that I don’t know one tenth of one percent about anything. By I do know one thing. I’m not worth a shit when it comes to proof reading. That’s all right. I’ll trade that for big picture viewpoint any day.
We have a future. It’s not too late. We can turn things around. We need to recognize that people need a complete education, one that takes into account all aspects of life and thought. Art is as important as math. Literature is as important as science. Logic is as important as anything. We have some wonderful shoulders to stand on. If you’re lucky enough to be born an American, you started with a leg up on a lot of the world. Most of the inventions that power the modern world were made right here. Things like the light bulb, television, radio, airplanes, computers, the internet, they were all made right here. American history is filled with brilliant critical thinkers who looked at the world and saw that it could be different. And they did something about it. They made things happen. They blanketed the night with electric light, sent signals bouncing around the globe, sent man into space and probes to the outer reaches of our solar systems. They created the skyscraper and the railroad and massive hunks of metal that can fly in the sky. These are miracles that we take for granted every day. They are all around us and they were created by critical thinkers. We need more of them. They were always in short supply anyway. Now they’re an endangered species.
We need to turn this thing around, ignore the siren song of standardized results and refocus on critical thinking and imagination, the true hallmarks of American genius.