MONEY TALKS - What's wrong with 'Critical Thinking'? It was good enough when I was in school

A quote from John Edwards about the Bush administration's educational rgime caught my eye this week. Once again our testing system has come under attack, even as we, in Norwalk, have just received new evidence we are now pretty good at this whole testing thing. Edwards criticized testing with the following "folksy" metaphor: "You don't make a hog fatter by weighing it."
editor
Jul 25, 2010

A quote from John Edwards about the Bush administration's educational rgime caught my eye this week. Once again our testing system has come under attack, even as we, in Norwalk, have just received new evidence we are now pretty good at this whole testing thing.

Edwards criticized testing with the following "folksy" metaphor: "You don't make a hog fatter by weighing it."

No, you don't. You feed it to make it fatter and you weigh it to see if you're feeding it enough. Of course, plenty of people pointed that out and called Edwards' statement a fallacy.

I have no idea what point Edwards was trying to make. As far as Edwards goes, he's supposedly the best stump speaker ever (according to James Carville, who has plenty of experience with stump speaking, having seen more than his fair share of the previous greatest stump speaker ever, Bill Clinton). But so far I'm not convinced he's anything more than a hairdo.

In other words this is not a commercial for Edwards.

However, I do think Edwards' statement was pointing to a subtler, but much more important critique of modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) education. The real problem with our current educational system is that the testing has become the point of education.

To go back to the pig metaphor: The farmer doesn't feed the pig just to make the scale move. The farmer feeds the pig to make good pork chops. OK, OK, the good farmer feeds the pig to make good pork chops. Or he should feed the pig for the pork chops. He uses the scale, and probably several other gauges, to monitor his progress toward his real goal.

So what would happen if he did feed the pig just because he liked seeing the scale move? Well, my particular education didn't include pig raising, but I'll hazard a few guesses.

It seems like there'd be two ways to go. The easiest for the farmer would be to immobilize the pig and force feed it the most fattening diet he could find. But then I'd expect the pork chops to contain a lot of fat and not much meat.

Instead, he could put the pig on a steady diet of Met-RX shakes and put together a pig gym and make the little guy pump iron all day. But then it seems like you'd end up with pork chops that are tough and dry.

A really good pig farmer would be pretty badly served by living and dying with that scale.

Something very similar happens with education.

I went to a very snotty prep school. It was private, so it was not subject to any rules and regulations. We took none of the standardized tests. Whether or not I'm smart, I was definitely well-educated when it came time to take the SAT.

I took the PSAT and I got an OK score. I went to a SAT class and I suddenly got a very good score.

I learned all the tricks, which mostly come down to: you have to be very literal when you take a standardized test.

Standardized tests have to be, well, standard. Every question has to have a clear, unambiguous, and simplistic answer. Clear and unambiguous because you have to be able to say these children are right and those children are wrong. Simplistic because you have to fit at least five questions on each page.

So if you teach to the test, what skills is a student learning that he can use in later life? The only time I have ever actually used what I learned in my SAT class is when I took the GREs. In your life, how often have you been faced with a dilemma that is clear, unambiguous, and simplistic?

For life, you need what we called when I was in high school "Critical Thinking," though who knows what the kids are calling it nowadays. Critical thinking is what American schools always used to emphasize.

I'm not saying education doesn't need improvement, but I'm concerned that we've managed to keep what was bad and throw out what was good.

For most of the American Century, people have been bemoaning the quality of American education and fretting about the quality of our kids' test scores. But you know what they say, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Comments

JEF (Anonymous)

Your column reminded me of Neil Postman's book, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity." It was published in 1971 and was a blistering attack on the U.S. education. To the best of my knowledge little has changed over the past decades since its publication. In his work, Mr. Postman writes something to the effect, that the greatest skill that humankind has ever developed, how to ask questions, is never taught. To the best of my knowledge, memorization and regurgition of same is still prized above all. Oh-so-long-ago, questioning tended to get me in trouble.