Is America a nation at risk?


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Is America a nation at risk?

In 1983, in its landmark report A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned:

"Many 17-year-olds do not possess the 'higher-order' intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps."

“The religious believer assigns dignity to whatever his religion holds sacred—a set of moral laws, a way of life, or particular objects of worship. He grows angry when the dignity of what he holds sacred is violated.” Quote from The End of History and the Last Man.

To what does the non believer assign dignity? If the non believer does not assign dignity to rationality, upon what foundation does s/he stand? If the non believer does depend upon rationality for dignity how is it possible that so few know anything about rationality?

Our schools and colleges are beginning to introduce our young people to the domain of knowledge called Critical Thinking. CT (Critical Thinking) is taught because our educators have begun to recognize that teaching a young person what to think is not sufficient for the citizens of a democracy in an age of high technology. CT is an attempt to teach young people how to think. Like the adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish, a youngster who knows how to think is prepared for a lifetime rather than for a day.

What about today’s adult? Today’s adult was educated in a time when schools and colleges never gave universal instruction in the art and science of thinking—rationality.

If today’s adult wishes to learn CT s/he must learn it on their own nickel. I think a good read to begin with is this one:

Bertrand Russell on Critical Thinking

“ABSTRACT: The ideal of critical thinking is a central one in Russell's philosophy, though this is not yet generally recognized in the literature on critical thinking. For Russell, the ideal is embedded in the fabric of philosophy, science, liberalism and rationality, and this paper reconstructs Russell's account, which is scattered throughout numerous papers and books. It appears that he has developed a rich conception, involving a complex set of skills, dispositions and attitudes, which together delineate a virtue which has both intellectual and moral aspects. It is a view which is rooted in Russell's epistemological conviction that knowledge is difficult but not impossible to attain, and in his ethical conviction that freedom and independence in inquiry are vital. Russell's account anticipates many of the insights to be found in the recent critical thinking literature, and his views on critical thinking are of enormous importance in understanding the nature of educational aims. Moreover, it is argued that Russell manages to avoid many of the objections which have been raised against recent accounts. With respect to impartiality, thinking for oneself, the importance of feelings and relational skills, the connection with action, and the problem of generalizability, Russell shows a deep understanding of problems and issues which have been at the forefront of recent debate.”
My opinion, having taught at university about 8 years (many freshman students), is that our public education system is designed too much like McDonalds. It's a day care for dual income earner families, but little money goes into making it a place that actually works for producing critical thinkers. This is because it is much more costly and risky to produce a nation of critical thinkers. So instead we produce a nation of kids who can only memorize things on lists and regurgitate them on bubble-in-the-answer tests. These people make poor workers and struggle in college, but on the other hand, they are easy to manipulate politically and socially.

We try to change this in college, but by then it also depends on the willingness of the student to work hard and to give up time from television and drinking beer with friends. So it has mixed results.

The average American watches four hours of television a day. We train our kids not to think. Just watch the TV, buy some junk, eat some junk. This is the American dream. So it is not surprising that people perform poorly in critical thinking tasks, because the bulk of our time is spent avoiding critical thinking.

/End rant