Monday, July 30, 2007

Everyone Knows This is Now Here

Back when the Genie SF Roundtable was in operation, there was a fellow who proclaimed that Iraq had a higher literacy rate than the U.S. I thought this a very dubious proposition and told him so. Then I went and checked the statistics given by various sources (including the ones mentioned by my fellow Genian), and the stats said I was right. Iraq has a literacy rate of around 80% and the U.S. comes in at over 99%.

Not that the person in question was convinced, or changed what he said in public; I’ve heard him since say exactly the same thing as he said then, citing exactly the same sources. But I don’t really get into these Culture War arguments expecting to change the minds of antagonists. What I’m interested in is where these talking points come from and to what purpose.

I tracked what I believe was the source of this particular idea to a Clinton-era Dept. of Education study of “functional literacy.” This was a classic “ain’t it awful” document that has been used in advocacy of greater education spending by the left and in advocacy of drastic changes to public education by the right. No surprise there. When I managed to strip away all the obfuscatory verbiage, as nearly as I can tell, it said that 40% of students’ reading comprehension was in the bottom two quintiles of reading performance.

Yes, and it’s a damn shame that half of our children are below average, too.

Now “Why Johnny Can’t Read” has been a teapot tempest for a long while. It’s not hard to find those who think that public schools are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way to the wrong people, and not fulfilling their job of properly indoctrinating children in what someone thinks they should be indoctrinated. And then of course there are those who think that schools should teach “critical thinking,” which I’ve never been able to translate to something other than “teach them to think like me.” That may be a fine thing, (especially if the template is to be me) but I won’t pretend that it isn’t self-serving.

It should come as no surprise that the Conservative Movement has a doctrine, talking points, faux statistics, and ways of making money off of this. In particular, I don’t think that the last point is surprising, since the CM also thinks that free enterprise is an intrinsically moral enterprise. Of course they would create businesses to supply the things they think schools should have, and of course they would work at the local, state, and federal politics of advancing those business interests. That is how they believe the system should work.

Nevertheless, there are certain points of doctrine that can cause real suffering when adamantly asserted and applied to the world. Of those, I think the two most pernicious are the denial that there is such a thing as “dyslexia,” and the assertion that phonics is the only proper way to teach reading.

At RPI, I came to be on good terms with Arthur Burr (now deceased), then the Dean of the School of Engineering. He once confided to me that his son was dyslexic; he had some glitch in his visual perception that made reading difficult. He could and did learn to read, but reading was always an effort for him, and if prolonged, would cause headaches and other maladies. So he read those things that he found essential, but reading for recreation was simply impossible. The result was a gap in shared experience between father and son that could never be bridged.

Still, Art’s son had fashioned a good life as a house carpenter and father, and Art could, and did, treasure their outings and times together. But imagine if he was committed to the belief that dyslexia wasn’t real, but rather a subterfuge to avoid having to read. What sort of alienation between father and son would that produce? For that matter, if I had expressed that opinion, how much of a betrayal of my friendship with Art would that have been?

When I was in the fourth grade, one of my classmates, whom I’ll call Ken, was called upon to read aloud during English class. He was not a good reader; he read slowly and frequently stumbled. The rest of the class listened politely, until Ken hit the word “nowhere,” which he pronounced “now here.” And there was laughter.

With the luxury of decades of hindsight, I can notice that, in fact, Ken was doing the correct thing according to the doctrine of Phonics. He broke the word apart into syllables, sounded them out, then pronounced them. He was betrayed by the nature of English and its spelling, which requires that a lot of words be simply memorized and taken at a glance, rather like the “look-see” method that Phonics advocates deride.

Being doctrinally correct gave no assistance to Ken, of course. I wish that I could say that I was not one of the ones who laughed at him, but I have no memory either way. I do strongly suspect that I did laugh, however. I was young and that’s what young people do. I’d like to think I didn’t laugh, but I’m left only with the wish that I hadn’t, and the probability that I did.


TStockmann said...

It is truly refreshing to read something the implies the contrarian - not to say crank - position that the public educational system in the United States may not be failing.

Of course the implication there isn't something valuable called "critical thinking" apart from the way you or I - may operate is just silly. Would a lengthy comment about what such an approach might look like be unwelcome?

James Killus said...


Only spam and other boring stuff is unwelcome here. I'd be interested in what you have to say about the matter.

I will note that my implication was that "critical thinking" is invariably self-referential. What would one make of a person who does not follow what they themselves believe to be "critical thinking?" Nevertheless, it is my observation that many "critical thinkers" do not agree among themselves on what constitutes critical thought, much less what constitutes a specific critically thought out conclusion.

TStockmann said...

I guess I'd start out with the notion that while I'm going to inevitably start with premises and questions, that critical thinking is more like learning the play basketball than mastering a subject at the secondary school level - hitting a basket once is meaningless and there is almost no end to what practice can do. So, the first lesson would be:

For the rest of your lives, people will be trying to get you to do things their way. They may be deliberately deceitful, but more commonly they will be simply conveying their own self-interested or otherwise unexamined ways of thinking. They have a variety of methods, and my only goal is you realize what they're doing, so you can give informed, fully aware assent when inclined to assent.

The first step is to try to discern what interest your interlocutors may be pursuing - why do they want what they want/ Is thier individual or collective advantage?

The next area to consider is the usefulness and limits of what you consider to be authority . This is primary because we can only know and see so much as individuals, and some amount of trust is required so as to avoid a reliance on immediate experience nearly as restrictive as solipsism.

Do you concede any normative authority? That is, do you believe that any given individual or collective has a privileged position on ultimate should questions for you, apart from propositional or narrative arguments? If so, are there limits to the authority or ways in which the authority can be lost? How do you establish limits when conceding authority. Do you have adequate vision of the person or people in authority to see whether they are operating within the limits you've established and are conducting themselves so as not to lose that authority, if you believe it can be lost.

On questions of fact or theory, what constitutes valid authority for you? Do you trust authority in a circular manner - that those who are normatively agreeable to you also are unassailable authorites in these other matters? Do you allow authorities whose credentialsd are clear in one area to convince you by their own convistions in areas where their authority is weaker or nonexistent? When you agree with an authority, have you looked for the best possible authority 0 not the atrawman or even the lowest common denominator popularizer - on the other side and considered what they had to say? Have you looked for the most despicable or extreme advocate on your side to ensure you know where a line must be drawn to avoid self-caricature?

For arguments that seem propositional: What are the logical fallacies? Are you being given dichotomies?

For any discursive discussion: what do the words mean, particularly abstracts and coolectives. Have you done some Wittgenstein - or at least Orwell -on those terms? Are they constant? If they are defined uniquely to the argument, are you important emotional baggage from other uses?

Are you being flattered? Pandered to?

On narrative arguments (like the discussion of Atlas Shrugged above) - how does the presentation differ from how you view the real world? What oversimplification of loading-of-the-dice do you se? Are emotional effects honest - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Does the resolution seem inevitable in real world terms, likely, possible, or impossible> How will an unrealistc resolution, if you respond to it emotional, change your view of issues.

For various emotive appwaks: are you being called names? Are you responding to shame when you still reject the cognitive argument? If you make judgments on the basis of social considerations, are you aware of this and accept it? If you fit too neatly into an ideologicval category it is likely you are responding in this fashion, since there are many, many ways to tranche up the issues.

Anyway, like that. There are a lot of useful method texts and of course I believe this approach shuold be the kernel of an approach to to all primary and secondary texts on the liberal art/social science side of things. I think that students ought to do an analysis of a contemporary political speech or editorial every week. I think they need to do it to a book or movie every week, I think they need to do it to a commercial or an internet come-on every week. U think especially they need to do it to every common "inspirational" text,

But of course there needs to be the Socratic admonition as well:

What are cognitive biases? What are some examples in your own life? If you were raised uniculturally, what are some of the things you're likely to see less clearly? How do Europeans think? What's the best case you can make for Mideast terrorists?

Do you believe in reciprocity *whatever variety of the Christian/Kantian/Rawlsian/whateverGolden Rule? If you do not, do you acknowledge this openly, or is prevarication part of the you-against-the-world war? Do you accept or reject others' "right" to treat you without reciprocity?

Okay,see, sorry p this goes on for a long time. Critical thinking about personal relationshops. Critical thinking about finance.

Hey, does this count ad boring stuff or spam?

TStockmann said...

Oh, and good and bad research designs. Use and misuse of statistics. Philosophy of science.
Really Stupid Ideas Throughout History.

James Killus said...

So which of the principles you have listed do not correspond to the way you yourself think? Do any of them not line up with your own ego ideal or the way you try to think? Exactly how are you not trying to get people to do things your way?

TStockmann said...

As you noted, on the face that's a question that reaches tautology, unless I want people to think in a way I don't or don't aspire to - in order to take advantage of them, for instance - or to allow myself to live in a fantasy world becuase everyone else has their collective feet firmly planted in reality. Using "ego ideal" is just persiflage. But let me see if I can give you a real (i.e. not an NFL high school debater's) answer.

I don't expect "critical thinkers" doing what I suggest here to end up appreciably closer to my personal sense of ethics, political preferences, or metaphysics, insofar as I have metaphysics. Instructions not to step off a busy city street against the red isn't a suggestion where to go in the city. As a minor kind of example, my conceit is this kind of "critical thinker" wouldn't endorse "creation science" but that doesn't mean he or she couldn't be a consistent, believing creationist. Unlike the Rand of Atlas Shrugged - or the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina, I guess - I don't believe the better you think, the more you will be like me. In yur terms, I don't think critical thought leads to aunitary critically thought out conclusion.

Let me turn the question around - do you think what I suggested wouldn't be a valuable part of a general educational program. Or, conversely, do you think it's already being done?

James Killus said...

We'll skip the question of whether or not I meant "ego ideal" lightly (I usually take my Freudianism a little more seriously than that), and I'll even slip past the baited "creationism" hook without a nibble.

My criticism of your list of educational goals would be that it begins at far too abstract a level. To make a specific point: many of the things that concern you are matters that I encountered in my high school speech class as debating tactics and logical fallacies. That essentially harkens back to the older teaching of "rhetoric" which I think is a fine thing, but which may not appeal to the general student.

Similarly, I'd note in response to your addendum message that the use of statistics is a very complex and complicated subject, and I doubt that it can, in and of itself, be taught generally.

But mostly, I think that critical thinking is one of those matters that is spread more by contagion than education, and there the idea of a general program tends to fail. Finding teachers to pass it on to students would itself be difficult and identifying those teachers might cause more harm than good. It is those sorts of teachers who are most at risk of dismissal in any school system, not the incompetents, and I might prefer that they be allowed to continue their subversive work covertly.

TStockmann said...

"Creationism" wasn't meant as bait, but as the kind of example that might be both clear and appealing.

The reason it all seems so abstract is illustrating how it would be taught woul;d make the comment impossibly lengthy, but you're right to single out your debate class - teaching this kind of thing is a practicum, more akin to a coached sport than a classroom lecture. Depressing you think that teachers aren't capable and students aren't inclined, but that's not to assert you're not right to say it. And, yes, contagion - but can't start a fire without a spark, as the bard would say - and there's very little to lose. I can't imagine you'd mourn the displacement of large chunks of what goes on in the typical 4000 hours of secondarily education.

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