A juicy tidbit has been going around the Internet over the past few days that seems to confirm some of our worst fears about an anti-intellectual streak within the GOP. On the surface, it seems like the GOP in Texas, at least, has come out against critical thinking. Despite some apparent backpedaling, I think they might be onto something.

GOP Platform Fail?

H/T to Zen Faulkes who, in a recent post at NeuroDojo, drew attention to a plank in the platform of the Republican Party of Texas (RPT). To quote from the platform document directly:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. [Source].

Why the animus towards critical thinking? Could the GOP really be against it?  At least some people within the RPT are backpedaling:

Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Communications Director Chris Elam said the “critical thinking skills” language made it into the platform by mistake. “[The chairman of the Education Subcommittee] indicated that it was an oversight of the committee, that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification,’” Elam said. “And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.” [Source]

It is still a fair question to ask how this plank made it into the platform in the first place.  On the issue, it is worth parsing their statement of opposition a little more closely. Notice that the objection is not to critical thinking per se, but rather to those critical thinking initiatives that are “simply a relabeling” of the “OBE” reforms proposed over 20 years ago, as well as the successor pedagogical reform efforts like “HOTS” cut from the same cloth.

Phyllis Schlafly vs. OBE

The platform reflects the criticisms that were made years ago in “What’s Wrong With Outcome-Based Education?” in the conservative Phyllis Schlafly Report (May 1993).

Assuming that the complaints documented in “What’s Wrong With Outcome-Based Education” have merit, there are a number of things about OBE that are ignorant and stupid. But among government educational reform programs, OBE doesn’t stand out in that regard. And most of the patently stupid things about it have little to do with critical thinking (e.g., rejection of phonics as a tool for language learning).

One criticism that does bear on critical thinking is that if “students are to think critically and creatively, and integrate experience and knowledge to form reasoned judgments and solve problems,” then “it is unclear whether or not ‘knowledge’ includes the kind of specific fact-oriented knowledge that most of us consider an essential part of education.” The report complains that critical thinking would displace the learning of  “academic and factual subject matter,” substituting “vague and subjective learning outcomes.” The article cites Bill Spady (described as an “OBE guru”) as asserting “the traditional subject-based curriculum disappears [from OBE].” The report continues:

In the elementary grades, OBE does not teach children essential reading, writing, and arithmetic skills (such as addition, subtraction and multiplication tables), but pretends to teach them “higher order thinking skills” instead. OBE ignores the obvious fact that one can’t engage in “higher order thinking” until one has some facts to think about.

We’ve heard this refrain before, i.e., that imparting subject matter knowledge is the primary goal of education. If OBE and its pedagogical heirs really do dispense with subject-based curricula entirely, then there is a serious problem. But teaching subject matter and teaching critical thinking skills are not incompatible.  I would predict that among top-performing schools, we would find that many of them have successfully integrated the teaching of critical thinking skills into a subject matter oriented curriculum. (If readers know of any empirical research supporting or contradicting that prediction, kindly reply in the comments.)

A more telling criticism from the same report is this one:

OBE advocates continually use double-entendre expressions that parents assume mean one thing but really mean something different in the OBE context. … When they talk about “higher order thinking skills” or “critical thinking,” they mean a relativistic process of questioning traditional moral values.

Besides that, for all this nice sounding rhetoric, OBE is a trojan horse for a politically progressive agenda for “world citizenship and government (instead of patriotism), population control, radical environmentalism, and government “solutions” for every problem.” Furthermore, the report goes on to assert that 

Outcome-Based Education is a process for government telling our children how to live, what to say, what to think, what to know, and what not to know. What the children say, think and know must conform to the liberal Politically Correct ideology, attitudes and behaviour.

These are criticisms of Outcome-Based Education as a pedagogical movement, based on the suspicion that OBE and its descendants undermine the conservative agenda. Now, I’m not interested in defending the conservative agenda. I am only interested in defending the integrity of critical thinking, properly understood (that is, as effective thinking).  Can any of these criticisms can be laid at the feet of critical thinking as such

Let’s go back to the Texas GOP platform for a minute.  Would I affirm that critical thinking education encourages students to challenge their “fixed beliefs?” In a word: yes. But what is the harm? It is difficult to imagine children not questioning their “fixed belief” in Santa Claus at some point. Challenging and changing fixed beliefs is part of growing up. Refusing to encourage pupils to challenge their “fixed beliefs” is an abdication of an educator’s responsibility to foster their intellectual maturation.

Do I admit that critical thinking undermines parental authority? It’s an odd allegation. If the suggestion is that critical thinking encourages students to question the beliefs of their parents, then again, I’d say “yes.” Parents who find their authority being called into question are free to redeem it through conversation with their children. Parents should encourage their children to talk freely about what they are learning in school, giving them a safe place to have those conversations. Of course, they retain the prerogative to declare “your teacher is wrong; this is the way it is and this is the way I expect you to think.”  If the children are repeatedly bringing home kooky notions, parents still retain the authority to send their kids to another school.

The bottom line: the charge that critical thinking skills enable children to challenge their fixed beliefs and those of their parents does not provide a logical basis for objecting to its being taught – for conservatives or for anyone else.

Despite the partial concession by the Texas GOP that the anti-critical-thinking plank was included “by mistake,” I have a strong suspicions that the sorts of concerns the Phyllis Schlafly Report article raises were lurking somewhere in the minds of the Texas GOP education platform subcommittee when the anti-critical-thinking plank was written. It is at least understandable why parents with religious/conservative values would be concerned with the pedagogical approach of OBE-oriented educators. The Texas GOP platform is an unspoken nod to those concerns.

Even if the advocates of OBE are members of the political left, and progressive values would leak into the curriculum that implemented it, it is still not clear how and why critical thinking should be implicated. Aren’t the practices of critical thinking politically neutral? Clearly, Schlafly and the Republican Party of Texas suspect there is some connection between the methods of critical thinking and the promulgation of anti-conservative views.

In my next post, I’ll outline my theory of what that connection is.