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By Jane Yoder-Short
I’m still digesting Thanksgiving leftovers, not turkey, but conversations.
Unlike some family conversations, bitterness and deep divisions did not flavor these. Instead, they were seasoned with curiosity.
I’m still considering why we as a society seem less skilled at detecting inconsistencies, fake news, and manipulations. Can civic education foster critical thinking?
The dialog may have gotten a little heated when my school-teaching daughter accused me of blaming teachers for our society’s lack of critical thinking skills. I thought I was blaming the education system.
I listened as my daughter passionately explained that teachers have less time for creative activities. Their job is being reduced to improving test scores. Test scores don’t measure creative or critical thinking.
Prescribed curriculums, too many tests and too little funding, leave teachers with little space for addressing critical thinking. Thinking skills and civics are pushed to the margins.
In spite of their limits, some teachers manage to insert creative and interactive lessons. Can we enable more teachers to prepare students to constructively dialog across our society’s divisions?
Teachers may expect more from their students than we do from each other. Julia Putnam, principal of James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit revealed, “I look at adult behavior [in civic discourse] right now, and I think ‘that person would be in my office.””
Teaching critical thinking can be tricky. Are we ready to make space for honesty? John Marciano in Civic Illiteracy and Education argues, “Students are ethically quarantined from the truth about what the U.S. has done in their name.” Quarantining students from the truth doesn’t teach critical thinking.
E. Wayne Ross, professor of education at the University of British Columbia along with a colleague coined the phrase “dangerous citizens.” Dangerous citizenship aims to teach students critical awareness by honestly exploring exploitation and violence in our society. Dangerous citizens are willing to act.
Curious about what is happening in Iowa, I checked in with Marcus Miller, the social studies and history teacher at Iowa Mennonite School. He seemed to be in agreement with my daughter that emphasis on testing, but also on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEAM with art added) means less attention to civics education and critical thinking.
Miller also pointed out “one of the other things which causes problems is that teaching civics and social studies in these times can quickly become controversial. Some teachers find it easier to avoid looking at issues surrounding current events and so avoid anything, which might be seen as political.”
It takes courage to teach critical thinking. Miller’s class in American history is doing this. Rather than teaching history chronologically, he is teaching thematically.
He recently had students look at the Three-Fifths Compromise, John Ross and the Cherokee, Dred Scott, John Brown, Plessy v Ferguson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Hiram Evans (KKK), Brown v Board of Education, Malcolm X, and the Anthony Kennedy decision on gay marriage.
Students thought about how each of these define equality. Students considered who the “we” in “We the people” includes. We could all benefit from doing Miller’s assignment.
Are we ready to insist that our students learn civic history complete with blemishes? Are we ready for our students to become critical thinkers even if it leads them to become dangerous and questioning citizens?
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Let’s admit we could use help mending our divided society. I’m rooting for teachers.
Miller added that schools can’t do it all. His family modeled arguing passionately without insulting. “If we can’t do it with family members why should we expect to do it with others?”
Are we brave enough to include a lively compassionately-seasoned discussion at our holiday gatherings?
Jane Yoder-Short lives in Kalona. This article first appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.