Friday, May 1, 2009

The Death of Critical Thinking

Each year one of the units I taught in my Junior and Senior English classes was a Speech and Debate unit. I would have students draw teams, draw topics, and draw sides to those topics. Inevitably, there would be some students "stuck" on the side of an issue with which they personally disagreed. Abortion, Immigration Reform, and Parental Consent for Birth Control were always the topics that elicited the strongest reactions.

I always began by explaining the research process. I would walk them through the importance of finding statistics and facts to support their position and also to start anticipating what the opposing side would use for support and then finding evidence or information to refute that. Without fail I would have a handful of students that would say, "But I don't believe that. I can't argue that. That is not what I really think." I would explain that part of being an effective communicator is being able to "see" the other side and whether you agree with it or not at least be able to acknowledge that there is another side and try to understand what the reasoning for that belief is. With that I would require them to find information that "the other side" might use to help support their cause or beliefs.

Some of the best persuasive arguments were done by students who were able to separate their personal feelings or biases toward a subject and focus solely on the facts of the issue at hand. Or by those who were able to channel the passion they personally felt into truly trying to understand the other side and doggedly trying to find information that someone on that side might use to explain his/her beliefs. It would always amaze me how passionate pro-life students could argue effortlessly and convincingly for pro-choice legislation. It stunned me when a Hispanic student, one whom I knew was not in our country legally, argued solidly for the deportation of all illegal aliens. While arguing for the other side rarely changed their personal views it at least made them realize that people who had views different from their own weren't these evil, ignorant people that they were made out to be by many of their like-minded peers. They were people just like them who took information, much of it the same information, but simply interpreted it differently, maybe saw shades of grey where they only saw black or white, and felt just as passionately that they were right.

I loved teaching this unit because it encouraged critical thinking skills. It forced them to be able to find information that defended the position they were charged with supporting. It made them think about what the "other side" would use for support and in so doing made them think two steps ahead and find information to refute those claims. Talk about seeing and having to understand an issue from all sides. Beyond that, the sheer research and organization of information and then being able to articulate all that information in a concise, coherent manner requires critical thinking skills that many simply do not have because they have never been forced to use them.

Of course there was an elaborate Rubric that I used to grade them. The one "rule" I always had, year after year, issue after issue was that there were to be no personal attacks. Never. A violation of this rule would result in a serious loss of points, enough to potentially lower their score two to three letter grades. I wanted the focus to be solely on the issue, never the person. They were to attack flaws or misrepresentations in the other side's facts and statistics. They were to point out examples of faulty reasoning. They were to attack holes in the information the other side presented, but under no circumstance was there to be name calling. There was to be no condemnation of those on the other side. I reiterated constantly that we debate the issues, not the people. Only once in six years did someone break that rule and get docked because of it. Once. These are high school kids I am talking about. By definition they are kids which means they are impulsive and sometimes lack judgment. Yet, year after year they sat in my classroom and argued issues without attacking or name calling.

At the end of this unit I always came away so impressed with the level of commitment they displayed and the seriousness with which they took this task. Kids were pushed out of their comfort zones, forced to think outside the box, and each year most of them exceeded all expectations. When I think about teaching this is one of the things I truly miss.

You may be asking at this point what this story has to do with anything. For starters, the fact that a lot of the general population lacks crucial critical thinking skills. In the absence of knowledge, ignorance breeds. Those who can't rationally and logically defend themselves result to name-calling and personal attacks and this leads to a further breakdown of critical thinking skills. In my personal life I like to surround myself with a variety of people who think differently, believe differently, act differently, and in general are just different than myself. Sure, I have many like-minded friends and family members whose company and discussions I cherish and enjoy. In the same vein I don't feel that my way of life is being threatened if others believe differently than I do. I acknowledge that they can be just as passionate about their ideas and beliefs as I am mine without it being an assault on my morals, values, and ideals.

I mentioned before my frustration with the constant political debates that we are bombarded with. My problem with them is that very few of them focus on the issues. Almost all of them attack the people holding these beliefs. Sadly, many are incapable of differentiating between the person and the idea. They assume that because they believe one way and that one way is different from the way someone else believes then the person who has that different belief is bad, evil, wrong, a threat, and the list goes on and on and on. If discussions on politics remained about the actual issues at hand, much like I demanded in my classroom, instead of resorting to name calling and accusations it would be a different story. But to call someone you disagree with “evil” or “stupid” or “unwise” or the host of other insults heaped upon those who think or feel or believe differently is immature and quite frankly says more about them and their character than it does about the person they are attacking, not to mention that it does nothing to defend or support the issue they are trying to fight for.

Sadly, where most of this name calling is coming from is the religious-right. I am a Christian and so I say this cautiously, but I think Christianity would be much better served if it took the rule from my classroom and applied it to its daily dealings with those who differ politically and/or religiously from them. The relentless criticism and condemnation flies directly in the face of Christian principles and that bothers me immensely. While Christians used to be lumped into one category, "Christians" we now have the "religious right", Liberal Christians, Christian Democrats, yada yada and a hierarchy of holiness is being handed out by the "heads" of this religious right contingency and their minions.

I just wonder when the issues stopped being about the issues. It seemed sudden, like the flip of a light switch. I just wonder who deemed "The Right" the moral authority. I was recently told that I was an “unwise Christian” for voting for Obama. I was told this by someone who claims to be a Christian. I am proud to be a Christian and I take my faith very seriously. Part of how I interpret my faith is a general respect for all other faiths even ones that aren't my own. While I may not share your beliefs I respect your right to your beliefs. I don't take my vote lightly. I weigh ALL issues and unfortunately sometimes have to vote for a candidate that doesn't share ALL of my same beliefs but shares MORE of them than the other candidate. I would venture to say that this is true for most voters. I refuse to be a one or two issue voter. While my faith and beliefs help guide my decision about who to vote for I don't vote for who the majority of those in my religion believe I should vote for simply because I am a member of that religion.

So, while I am proud of my faith, when Christians attack other Christians and attempt to minimize or discredit their faith based on a belief that their ideas are wrong because they are not the exact same as theirs it embarrasses me. If this is the witness that non-believers see, if this is the glimpse of Christianity they are exposed to, why would anyone want to be a Christian? If all people see is the religious-right railing against those who care about the environment, railing against those who think a 14 year old girl who is raped should be able to abort that baby, railing against those who think our government shouldn't torture, and railing against those who want the education in this country funded appropriately, then what picture of Christianity are they getting? I doubt it's an image that is going to be sending them scurrying to the nearest church anytime soon. If I were not already a Christian, I have serious doubts that I would want to be one, based on what I have seen from the self-appointed “Moral Voice” in this country.

Feeling compelled to say any of this is upsetting to me and what really disturbs me is that the people who cry the loudest about Christianity being ruined or eliminated in this country are the ones who are doing the most to contribute to is extinction. It worries me that Christians are doing themselves a great disservice by making every issue a personal attack on one's character and one's Christianity. Mark Twain once said, “If Christ were here, there is one thing he would certainly not be – a Christian." I think there is a lot of truth to that statement. The Christ I know is a loving one, a forgiving one, and yes, when necessary a vengeful one. He has His rules and there are distinct consequences for breaking those rules, but anyone, Christian or not, who has read the Bible knows that he ate with tax-collectors (lowly and dishonest in Biblical times) and hung out with sinners, he washed his disciple's feet in an act of humility, he took care of the poor and needy, he be-friended and forgave prostitutes. So, why are his supposed present-day followers so quick to condemn the modern-day versions of those Biblical "sinners?"

For me, I can only hope that we as a nation and we as Christians or members of any religion can return to a healthy debate of the issues void of any personal attacks, name calling or character assassinations. I hope that Christianity isn't associated all over the world as a right-winged extremist religion that hates those who are different from them. We are raising our children Christian, to stand true to their convictions, to take a stand when things are wrong. However, we are also raising our kids to be kind, and compassionate, to understand that people are different and to respect those differences instead of condemn them, and most importantly to love and to forgive. Will it be enough? I hope so.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Great post Moxie - will you ever go back to teaching? I think the education world could use someone like you!