The Debate

Texas to Ban Critical Thinking Skills?

Texas Republicans have doubts about doubt, writes Dr. John W. Traphagan. They should look to Japan.

The following is a guest editor’s entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Last month, the Republican Party of Texas approved its platform for the 2012 election campaign.  One of the more striking elements of the platform is the Party’s position on education.  The platform states, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs…”  While this position from conservatives is unsurprising, it bodes ill for the maintenance of a healthy democracy.  It also lends a reactionary tinge to the education debate in the U.S. and to a political party that seems woefully out of touch with educational trends in other parts of the world in the 21st Century.

Japan, for example, has had an ongoing national debate on the nature of compulsory education in terms of both contact hours in the classroom and the underlying approach to learning.  While there are differences of opinion on changes that have been made—and there have been widespread concern that reduction of class time and curricular changes have weakened the rigor previously characteristic of the Japanese system in favor of a more relaxed, and less stressful, school experience—one idea that has remained consistent over the past twenty years is that there is a need to develop a curriculum that promotes independent thinking and encourages self-motivated learning.  For many Japanese, the previous curriculum was far too focused on rote learning, which limited the capacity of citizens to think critically and creatively.

Indeed, in the town of Kanegasaki, located in Iwate Prefecture and where I have conducted anthropological research for many years, the mayor developed a system of Lifelong Learning Centers, three decades ago, that were intended to function as a context where people can continue to explore new ideas and better themselves through education.  Officials in the town government, no doubt channeling national rhetoric, often told me that encouraging lifelong education and learning generates mentally engaged and healthy people and this, in turn, leads to a healthy society. The Japanese seem to have long recognized that a well-educated populace with people who can think critically and creatively is a fundamental element in ensuring a positive future.

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This mindset is in sharp contrast to the platform of Texas Republicans, which expresses ideas that are likely held much more broadly in the U.S. These notions work from the perspective that a properly educated individual is one who does not have his or her fixed beliefs challenged and who does not question the authority of those fixed beliefs. Such a perspective is, however, anathema to a healthy, functioning democracy. For democracy to work well, people need to have the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and question the actions of their leaders.  Beyond this, not only does a healthy democracy demand critical thinking skills, so does a capitalist economy. The development of critical thinking skills in children leads to adults who become entrepreneurs, engineers, computer scientists, medical researchers, physicians and nurses, and even enlightened politicians. If citizens only have fixed beliefs to rely upon, creativity will be stifled and a growing economy will be unsustainable.  Without developing such skills in children, the future of the U.S. is one in which its economy will languish and its democracy will wither. Confucius wrote over two thousand years ago that if the words of a ruler are not good, and no one opposes them, one should expect the ruin of his country.  Thomas Jefferson might well have said the same thing.

The basis of a healthy society is a citizenry that can think critically and, thus, determine whether the words of its rulers are good or bad.  Yes, this may mean that one’s fixed beliefs are challenged from time to time. But since we live in a world characterized by diversity and change, it seems unlikely that dogmatic adherence to any set of fixed beliefs is likely to lead to a healthy economy, a successful democracy, or a society that values human differences, educational integrity, and intelligence.