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Curriculum: Thinkpower for the 21st Century

One size does not fit all. It goes without saying that we must emphasize education in mathematics and the sciences, as these skills provide the foundation we need to compete in a world of increasing technical complexity. Language, writing and communication skills, which have been sadly de-emphasized in the past 20 years, are also essential. Somewhere along the line we’ve come to accept the idea that these faculties aren’t all that important in our commercial culture, but ask any senior executive how plummeting written and verbal communication deficits are affecting business.

Additionally, we must strongly emphasize the teaching of critical thinking. The Millennial generation of students, who currently range from 7 to 27 or so, have been victimized by cultural dynamics and educational approaches that leave them severely lacking in thinking and problem solving skills. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do to quickly remedy this, and we’re going to pay a steep price for it in the next 20-30 years. However, we can assure that future generations aren’t similarly sabotaged.

Our curriculum will foster generations of students who, if dropped into novel, unfamiliar, even hostile situations, with few tools at their disposal, can nonetheless think their way to success. The story of past American triumph has always been about resourcefulness, and a renewed commitment to inculcating ingenuity will assure countless future chapters in that story.

Critical thinking is also our best hedge against tyranny and corruption. Our current administration has done all in its power to promote vocational learning while stifling the Liberal Arts, and this is a strategy that brazenly serves one master – the economic power elite. It has encouraged all manner of abuses in its quest for a “do, don’t think” society that profits the haves and assures that the have-nots stay in their place. A strong commitment to teaching social studies, civics and history will go a long way toward inoculating young Americans against home-grown despotism, and curricular elements that shine the light on propagandist communication techniques – both verbal and visual – will diminish the manipulative impact of our nation’s merchants of spin and disinformation.

Our curriculum will provide significant support for the development of creative and artistic faculties. While legions of brilliant, Nobel-worthy scientists are critical to our future greatness, a truly bright society cherishes and cultivates excellence across all human endeavors. The Arts and Humanities provide tremendous insights into the truth of our condition, and we should strive to be a nation whose collective right brain is as spectacularly brilliant as its left.

Finally, the simple reality of human society is that not everybody is destined for leadership, scientific accomplishment or artistic immortality. America has always thrived on the back of a dedicated working class, and despite the observation above about the power elite’s lust for a do, don’t think society, we in fact need people who do. Our educational system should account for those who have neither the interest nor aptitude for advanced study, but who are better suited for a career in industry or our surging service economy. These citizens should have access to exceptional vocational and technical training, which will be required if we are to compete with offshore competitors like India and China.

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Comments»

1. Denny Wilkins - March 27, 2007

A plank touting “critical thinking” is a no-brainer. Yet, since WWII, critical thinking has declined in most, if not all aspects of American life. It’s sad that a campaign has to be predicated on this most basic aspect of human existence.

It’s ironic that a capitalistic imperative — keep on growin’ — has, as you point out, diminished the role of critical thinking by those who do the actual work that produces the economic gains that provide the excess wealth enjoyed by the “elite.”

People at any level in American society just do better if they think better. The educational system, particularly under “No Child Left Behind,” has taught the students in my classes that rote responses to inquiry are sufficient rather the critically examining a question.

If the so-called “middle” or “working” class was actively encouraged to think critically, to engage in the use of the brain in creative ways, I’d bet wads of money that efficiencies in production, creative technological solutions to difficult issues (global warming, anyone?), and a rebirth of the arts would ensue.

Damn. Wouldn’t that be great?

2. drslammy - March 27, 2007

As you know, I’ve been fighting an inner war over the working class for most of my adult life. On the one hand, I know – for a FACT – that the “average” American is smarter (or is at least capable of being smarter) than he or she is given credit. On the other hand, we’re talking about a class that, if I might overgeneralize for a moment, has a history of appalling sloth. There are many reasons for this, and no campaign can solve them all. But I still hold out hope that if we actually implement programs that make clear there’s some payoff to pursuing education we might make a little headway.

Also, if we make clear that we’re willing to respect the intellectual endeavor and that we’re THROUGH respecting the right to ignorance…

3. Lotte - March 27, 2007

I was expecting something more detailed and controversial from ya, LP! This is what pretty much everyone will say the public school curriculum should look like; the devil, as always, is in the details. And the allocation of resources. And the assessment.

I will disagree with you, though, that students without “interest” in “advanced studies” should be let off the hook. All citizens need to be able to navigate political process, and that requires a sophisticated level of literacy, numeracy, etc.

4. Lotte - March 27, 2007

On the other hand, we’re talking about a class that, if I might overgeneralize for a moment, has a history of appalling sloth.

Wow, I don’t think you’ve ever said anything that appalled me quite that much. Are you being serious? The working class is, by definition, the class that has to work — and work HARD — for its livelihood. There’s nothing slothful about putting in sixty hours a week of back-aching toil in an unfulfilling career.

5. drslammy - March 27, 2007

On comment 3: I actually don’t think many candidates will agree with me on this. They’ll talk about science and math, of course. But when it comes to art, humanities, and critical thinking get back to me when you see something more than lip service. As for the advanced study part, let’s be clear. Everybody does the basics, and the basics are far more serious than they are now. But there comes a point where it’s clear that little Janie is suited to a life of science while little Billy’s heart and aptitude are more oriented toward auto mechanics. At that point Billy needs a well-developed vocational track. We have de facto tracking now, but it needs to be better defined and supported.

On the second comment, let me insert the word that needed to be there but isn’t: “intellectual.” As in, “On the other hand, we’re talking about a class that, if I might overgeneralize for a moment, has a history of appalling intellectual sloth.”

Never meant to suggest that it’s a lazy class, because it ain’t. But it’s an anti-intellectual class, on the whole, and that’s bad.

I stand behind this, too. I grew up working-class in the South, and can provide you with the names and addresses of more on-point examples than you can shake a stick at.

6. Jim Pangborn - March 27, 2007

Thanks, Slam. I teach English and Critical Thinking to mostly working-class students at the teachers’ college and community college levels and yeah, they’re intellectually lazy, for the most part. No news there, though. Frost had it right in “Mending Wall”: “he will not go behind his father’s saying . . and he likes having thought of it so well that he repeats it: [insert favorite glitteringly general cliche here].”

But they’re sold this laziness very effectively nowadays. “Don’t sweat the details, don’t be nerdy, just buy the right product and you’ll be cool. ” Scholars seem like idiots to them, precisely because we complicate things on purpose.

You’ll get my vote when you can come up with a practical plank for combating the anti-intellectualism of the commercial culture, because without that, teaching critical thinking is just pissing in the wind. Take it from a guy with stinky-wet trouser legs: there’s only so much education can do in this regard.

7. drslammy - March 27, 2007

Thanks for your comments, Jim. One of the things that I acknowledge in the platform (perhaps in a plank I haven’t posted yet) is that the anti-intellectualism you’re talking about represents a long war for folks like us. Even if I were miraculously elected, re-elected, and blessed with the most brilliant and cooperative Congress in American history, the best I could do in eight years would be to lay some pieces in place for future thinkers and leaders to build on. As you suggest, the consumerist demon is a sly and seductive one – not only is it a long war, it’s one in which we’re dramatically outnumbered.

That said, there are things that can be done, and while a few smart ed programs now don’t solve the whole problem, they represent a damned fine improvement over the status quo, which not only doesn’t address the problems, it frequently glorifies them.

And while I appreciate what you and other educators like you out there are doing, when was the last time you felt like the system was working with you instead of against you?

8. Michael "Ubertramp" Pecaut - March 27, 2007

I have to agree with Lotte. I need more details. I agree that it’s a problem. It scares the crap out of me that I have to teach college kids – kids in science, even – how to go about solving a problem. Hell, some actually seem to be belligerently against the idea of “thinking it through.” That’s not to say they aren’t smart. They are. They just don’t know what the heck to do with smarts.

In science, you eventually have to figure it out. It’s the whole “publish or perish” mentality. But you learn it more through one-on-one with a mentor (or, evil grant/manuscript reviewers) than through anything you do in a class room. So unless parents get a hell of a lot more involved with their kids education, I’m not sure how this can be solved. There are only so many mentors to go around.

Granted. Some are lucky. Some are born asking questions from day 1. Some of them are actually asking questions that don’t involve Anna Nicole, Paris Hilton, or Brittney Spears. And some of those are encouraged (or at least allowed) to keep ASKING questions. But, I suspect, they are in the minority.

How do you change that in a classroom?

9. drslammy - March 27, 2007

Details matter, but as we know, victory begins with strategy and then translates that vision into details that deliver on it. Until we agree on what it is we’re trying to accomplish, we can’t even begin to talk about the how to.

Now, when people like you and Lotte want more details, I take that as a really good sign, for a couple reasons. First, I think it points up the fact that people are feeling frustration and pain in very tactile ways – you don’t carp about detail if you don’t feel detail, you know?

The second positive thing about it is that it suggests a concern with getting it done. Big ideas have to find a shape at street level, and as this process moves along I’m going to rely more and more on those with a strong sense for tactical execution.

10. Michael "Ubertramp" Pecaut - March 27, 2007

Sure. Long, detailed plans don’t survive first contact with the enemy. I agree. But, at the same time, I still think you need to have a few examples. Something like, “Podunk High School has a program which encourages critical thinking by doing X, Y, and Z. Some of these programs work, some don’t…” Or even, “Thirty years ago Al Gore took a class in critical thinking, and he ended up inventing the internet.” (Ok, that last one was a low blow).

Just saying, “We need to teach our kids critical thinking” is almost like saying “Kicking Saddam out of Iraq will solve all of our Middle East problems.” In both situations, we need a reasonable, well-vetted plan of attack.

This is why I think the “No Child Left Behind,” test-em-to-death, idea flew in the first place. There were examples. There was a plan (without funding, of course, but that’s another issue). There was also a testable hypothesis. Testing is theoretically easy to do and you get quantifiable results. I’m not saying that it was necessarily a good thing, but it was easier to sell than some abstract idea.

Elections are probably not the ideal environment to talk about too many details. Especially since today’s political world is more about damage control than anything else. Its unfortunate, but that seems to be the way things are now.

On top of that, in order to deal with details, you have to already have a “critical thinking skill set.” Kind of circular, isn’t it? 🙂

11. Lotte - March 27, 2007

But there comes a point where it’s clear that little Janie is suited to a life of science while little Billy’s heart and aptitude are more oriented toward auto mechanics. At that point Billy needs a well-developed vocational track.

Ah, well, now we’re getting down to it. Do you think the purpose of public schools is to prepare students for work, or for citizenship? I believe it’s the latter. Vocational training is a lovely things for public schools to offer, but it should NEVER substitute for meaningful education in math, science, history, and language arts.

12. Lou - March 28, 2007

no one has freedom from facts

13. The Very Rev. Thomas J. Shortell, Esq. - March 28, 2007

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but clearly I’ve become more pessimistic and cynical than you. Combat the anti-intellectualist movement? Ignore the messages in my commercials? It will be a sad day in the Slammy household when the election results come in.

As for your strategy before details bit, this is YOUR house. Generally, the people on this site are backbone to the Slammy campaign. Argue strategy with the talking heads out on the road, out in the public debates. The people coming here want to know how. We’ve heard your disciples preaching about you in the streets. Now we’ve come here for enlightenment.

On a final note, you need a more patriotic image. I think the only way to beat anti-intellectualism is by using the movement’s own images, winning the people’s hearts, and then lift them out of their intellectual quagmire from amongst them. The best way to start that is with a photo of you in front of a billowing American flag. At least smile.

14. drslammy - March 28, 2007

Tom,

There’s the great Yogi Berra story. He’s going some where and the guy he’s with says “Yogi, we’re lost.” And Yogi replies “yeah, but we’re making great time.”

This is what happens when you put tactics before strategy, and I assure you, I could write books filled with examples from my professional career of organizations, companies, universities, departments, teams and individuals who were making great time.

I’m not being evasive, and nowhere have I said details don’t matter. Further, I haven’t said details aren’t forthcoming. But – there’s a right way of constructing a platform and there’s a way of making great time. Several of the most unbearable months of my fairly recent professional life were spent in service to a guy who began with tactics and then would try to reverse engineer a strategic plan from there. “Since we appear to be heading west at a breakneck pace, the strategic document should say that our goal is to be somewhere west of here.” That’s where trainwrecks come from.

Let’s understand – I don’t have a budget and I don’t have a staff. It’s an All-Volunteer Force around here. So I’m going to proceed thusly:

1: Roll out the platform plank first drafts one at a time at a pace where each can be considered, reflected upon, digested. This process will include people who are positioned to do a better job of various pieces than I am.

2: Once the planks are out there, I’ll start back through, fixing and revising and trying to get the strategic direction in the kind of fighting shape it needs to be in.

3: Then I’ll begin working with those interested in the project to develop some tactical planning.

As for the patriotic image part, I’ll smile when there’s something on the political horizon to smile about. Right now, if my campaign photos had me smiling, I’d be lying.

15. drslammy - March 28, 2007

Lotte says: Do you think the purpose of public schools is to prepare students for work, or for citizenship? I believe it’s the latter. Vocational training is a lovely things for public schools to offer, but it should NEVER substitute for meaningful education in math, science, history, and language arts.

I never viewed my own education as job prep, per se, and yet it seems to have afforded me all kinds of useful skills I can make money with. I can think. I can write. I can comprehend things like basic math and the claims made on behalf of science and social research. And so forth.

I always marvel at how much better Liberal Arts majors are equipped for the actual professional world than most of the people I’ve encountered who took the professional approach. So I’m big on the “citizenship” category.

That said, you do a good job of teaching the basics and training people to be solid, thoughtful citizens, and there still comes a time when what kinds of classes they’re taking and need to be taking diverge. If somebody is clearly headed toward a career as a tech, the curriculum needs to support the development of those kinds of skills. No, public schools don’t become Microsoft’s training department, but our society does have a clear interest in the cultivation of strong technical skills.

Again, let me be clear – this does not supplant the goal of teaching citizenship. It merely acknowledges that different tracks are needed to serve the different kinds of paths students are going to follow in life.

This is an area where, at some point down the road, I know I’m going to have to get more tactical. How exactly our tracking and channeling programs work – that’s a big mother, no matter how you slice it. With luck, by the time we get there the team will be populated by folks with strong ideas on how to execute at street level…


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