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How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future

The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives.
 
 
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The Conservative War On Education continues apace, with charters blooming everywhere, high-stakes testing cementing its grip on classrooms, and legislators and pundits wondering what we need those stupid liberal arts colleges for anyway. (Isn't college about job prep? Who needs to know anything about art history, anthropology or ancient Greek?)

Amid the din, there's a worrisome trend: liberals keep affirming right-wing talking points, usually without realizing that they're even right wing. Or saying things like, "The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should exist outside of any ideological debate."

The hell it is. People who say stuff like this have no idea what they're talking about. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives -- because every educational conversation must start with the fundamental philosophical question: What is an education for?

Our answers to that question could not be more diametrically opposed.

A Question of Human Nature

Our beliefs about the purpose of education are rooted in even deeper beliefs about the basic nature of humanity.

All conservative politics springs from one central premise: they believe that human beings are essentially fallen and deeply flawed. Human beings are swayed by uncontrollable passions, we make consistently bad choices, and we are incapable of governing ourselves. Given our basic depravity, civilization can only work if we submit ourselves to the external guidance of society's appointed authorities; and stay on the straight and narrow path our betters have clearly marked out with rules, oversight and punishments. Without those constraints, we cannot be trusted: our own perverse natures will inevitably lure us into ruin.

George Lakoff pointed out that in this worldview, children are born evil, and it's the duty of the Strict Father to beat it out of them. For their own good, kids must learn to accept the boundaries and order imposed by the authorities who've magnanimously consented to take on the responsibility for their wretched and unworthy souls. The main imperative of education is to break the child's will, force him to conform to society's expectations, make him an obedient and compliant employee, and prepare him to survive in a hostile and competitive world that will cut him no breaks. Nobody's going to protect you; for good or bad, you'll only be given what you earn. What kids need most from school are hard skills and marketable credentials that will enable them to find a stable place in the hierarchy, thus securing their futures.

Libertarian education critic John Taylor Gatto has pointed out that the "hidden curriculum" of public schools is designed from the ground up to reinforce these deeply authoritarian lessons. According to Gatto, the student is trained to eat, sleep, excrete, and think by the bells -- no daydreaming about history during math class! She also learns to accept the judgment of the teachers, peers and other worthies who are entitled to evaluate her worth; it's beyond her pay grade to assess her own performance or value. This lesson fosters a lifelong dependence on external authority, and further quashes self-assessment and critical thinking. High-stakes testing is an artifact of the conservative belief that education is about acquiring a required body of knowledge that's been determined by experts. If it's not in the book, you don't need to know it. And the ultimate outcome -- the purpose of this whole process -- is to graduate with a credential that will certify your acceptability to the established hierarchies of the economic world.

In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment -- a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students -- the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that's been in place since the Renaissance.

 
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