Saturday, April 24, 2010

It All Goes Back to High School

Here are three things you should not do, simultaneously, if you want to keep a sunny disposition: read political blogs; attend online graduate classes; and be married to someone who teaches college-level writing classes.

When I look at the writing skills of my fellow students in online classes, and my wife reads selections from her students' papers, I grimace and think, "Why don't people know how to write?" But when I look past the lousy grammar and sentence structure, and really examine the content of what's being said, the actual question is, "Why don't people know how to think?"

When I include the blogs (left and right) that I sometimes read (some of which are written perfectly competently; they're just insane), it's even worse.

When I say they don't know how to think, I don't mean that I disagree with their arguments. I mean that they are inept at laying out their arguments and, worse, perhaps incapable of forming a coherent argument.

And it all goes back to high school. Maybe even middle school. Because it's not a natural skill, like speaking, or walking. You have to learn how to think. You have to learn how to form a coherent, logical argument. You have to learn what a main idea is, and what a supporting argument is, and the varieties of different ways one can support an argument: emotionally, factually, persausively, and so on. This is supposed to be part of your education. You learn the skills and you practice the skills. You read the arguments of others and you deconstruct them, to see how they built their argument, and why it works. You learn how to look under the hood, or look behind the curtain. You learn the tricks so that you can use the tricks and--much more importantly--so that you can avoid being fooled by them when other people use them.

Or you don't. In which case, you end up thinking Glenn Beck is the savior of American Democracy.

I got into an argument, years ago, with a former theatre colleague who was an unreconstructed hippie and proud Leftist. I was telling him about an interdisciplinary, high school curriculum unit I was designing on the idea of utopia. The history section of the unit focused on the Cold War, and included essays from both the Right and the Left. The essays disagreed on pretty much everything, and it made the kids crazy, because they were used to reading textbooks. But we pushed them to read everything, come up with an opinion, and defend it. We didn't care what opinion they ended up with, as long as they could support it. My friend was very upset. He felt that it was his job to push a Left agenda with his students--hard--to counter what he felt was the larger culture's Rightward drift. I argued that it didn't serve the students, even if he was successful: all he would have done is sway them from Right to Left on the force of his personality or argument, leaving them open to swing right back again on the force of the next teacher. His job, I argued, was to get them to think independently, regardless of what opinion they ended up with, even if they ended up disagreeing with him.

He was unmoved.

Our fear that children will reach conclusions we disagree with keeps us from allowing them to engage in real independent, critical thought. So we give them textbooks that have ready-made, pre-digested conclusions, and then give them multiple-choice tests to see if they have accurately remembered those conclusions. And we leave them open to cultural and political vultures and con-men, who tell them what is cool, or what is right--what they should wear and what they should think. We raise them to be sheep--ready for the shearing--easy to manipulate and bamboozle and con.

And maybe that's good for the economy--I don't know. Maybe we need to raise easily gulled fools to keep people buying ten tens of shit that they don't need. But it's going to be the death of our democracy. Because if we raise generation upon generation of voters who laugh at people who ask questions, and revere people who come with easy answers, then it won't take long before people start asking why we need to bother with a Congress or a Court at all.

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