How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future
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Gatto argues that this kind of regimented education is profoundly inappropriate in a democracy. If you teach a child that he is incapable (and intrinsically unworthy) of governing himself -- a central assumption of conservatism -- then how on earth can he participate in governing his country?
The answer, of course, is that he can't. And indeed: that is the whole point.
A Democratic Education
Democracy begins with the premise that most people are intrinsically decent and good, and that they can usually be trusted to make the right choices for themselves. Without this humanist belief in people's essential moral and intellectual competence, a system of universal citizenship and collective governance would be philosophically unthinkable -- and functionally impossible. This assumption also has profound implications for education.
Among liberals, the ultimate purpose of both education and parenting is to bring forward the best that lies within us, with the ultimate goal of maximizing the unique potential of each child. The stronger each of us is individually, the stronger civilization is as a whole. Education should, above all, foster self-knowledge and self-discipline, equipping us to make the best possible contributions to the collective -- and to pursue life, liberty and happiness wherever those pursuits may take us. It's hoped that they will take us on many unforseeable adventures -- adventures for which we will need to be ready.
Central to this preparation is the development of our own internal authority and judgment, which we rely on to guide us through life and make us thoughtful, moral citizens. It's assumed that people who are accustomed to this kind of personal freedom will also fiercely resist authoritarian leaders, whom we know we can never trust as thoroughly as we trust ourselves.
Our system relies on citizens who can think critically and clearly about any new situation they're facing, and reason out solutions to problems without input from others when it's necessary. And in today's economy, it will often be necessary. We've known for 25 years that the old paternalistic workplaces -- the ones with rigid hierarchies, where people could spend 40 years at the same plant -- are gone. Most workers these days can expect to change careers two, three or four times over the course of what may well be a 50-year working life.
Given this reality, the college-as-job-training model the conservatives are promoting looks patently insane. Subjects like logic and philosophy, anthropology and rhetoric, foreign languages and history provide the mental flexibility, deep perspective, and sharp critical thinking skills that allow one to make one's own way on unfamiliar landscapes, a skill that's useful when the world keeps changing around you. People with rich liberal arts backgrounds are also far better prepared for leadership roles, and better positioned to recognize and seize on whatever opportunities fate throws their way. And survival in the economy of the future is going to depend far more heavily on our ability to create and maintain strong, broad social networks -- to make and maintain supportive relationships with people who understand your value.
It's obvious that stripping these mind-expanding fripperies out of the curriculum -- as conservatives are proposing, often with no push-back at all from liberals -- serves the narrow, functional conservative view of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It's not exactly accurate -- but nonetheless true -- to say that the reason we call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you're likely to be. If we buy into the idea that critical thinking is somehow non-essential, we're not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in America; we're also depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they'll need to defend their democracy from the plutocrats who are always standing in the shadows, determined to wrest it from them.