It’s easy, and appropriate, to feel gloom mixed with contempt at the way some right-wing flamethrowers, abetted by mass media’s love of conflict, have turned President Obama’s webcast to the nation’s schoolchildren into a new socialist manifesto. They cherry-picked an innocuous idea from a lesson plan — the president asking kids to help him do his job better — and claimed it was radical ideology.

So they’ve persuaded quite a few districts to either not show it or ask parents’ permission. The administrators in those districts have put on a fine demonstration of cowardice. But that is, let’s be fair, what it takes to run a school system in much of America today, where the worst sin seems to be teaching children how to think for themselves.

That’s the lost opportunity in the Obama talk. Teachers and administrators in the districts that have banned the webcast could have used it in ways that would have put their fear into context. They could have shown it to students and then had a conversation about it.

The Obama critics do have one thing right, though they don’t seem clear on the concept. They’re skeptical of what people in authority say. In this case skepticism has morphed into paranoia, as they claim children watching the talk could be indoctrinated by an authority figure who, in their view, is wrong on policy and morality.

Attempting to prevent children from hearing the president’s words is not just foolish, but counterproductive. I’m betting this has backfired, given kids’ tendency to seek out what adults tell them to stay away from.

Had the fearful administrators chosen to do their jobs, they would have used this speech in at least four ways. They could have shown it and then asked teachers to ask students to to analyze a) what the president had said; b) how he said it; c) how the White House used the media of the day to get his words to the people he wanted to reach; and d) how other media handled the controversy. (They could have done worse than to use the suggested classroom activities (PDFs) related to the talk. And I hope that districts where people generally support Obama would also take the opportunity to address these questions.)

Buried deep in the Obama address is a single reference to critical thinking, where he refers to “the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.” But are kids really gaining such skills and insights? Not enough, that’s clear, but sometimes subtlety invades even the most brazen attempts to keep reality away from people.

The ongoing efforts to to insert religion into science instruction — essentially insisting that biblical creationism be offered as an “alternative theory” to evolution — are deeply ironic in this context. It’s one thing to be skeptical, an essential part of critical thinking. It’s another to turn biology class into Bible study. Yet to the extent that the creationists succeed in this campaign, they are also telling kids to question authority.

Critical thinking is very much about questioning authority, but not to extremes. It’s not about disowning the evidence, but rather using it, including information from sources we’ve come to trust, to make our own decisions. Sometimes we’ll decide badly. That’s part of life.

We’d decide better if we had better journalism. And this entire mess has featured the too-common substandard variety. Perhaps the people most deserving of contempt in this entire episode are the ones running traditional media organizations that have again abdicated their duty by focusing on the political fighting instead of the serious issues. Even in their coverage of the battles, they’ve resorted for the most part to the standard stenographic technique of quoting “both sides” despite the way one side has been overwhelmingly dishonest.

David Carr, in his column in yesterday’s New York Times, took a shot at the problem. He hit the target but missed the bulls-eye. Here’s an extended quote:

The administration seems to believe that if all the information on a given issue is on the table — or in this case, on the Web — then the truth, or at least their version of it, will win out. (The president announced on Friday that with certain exceptions, the names of visitors to the White House would be posted for all to see). For all his modern impulses, President Obama’s press operation seems mired in a high school civics debate version of governance, where points are given for logic and argument.

That is not how the media works, however, in an environment that prizes engagement and conflict. The long town-hall process over health care, for example, has given ordinary citizens a voice but it has also produced hundreds of video clips of angry, scared Americans. For every aging secretary who can’t afford prescriptions, there is a small business owner who wants less government in their life, not more. Tropes like “death panels” may lack substance, but they make for pretty compelling viewing day after day.

In part, the outrage and hyperbole work because the mainstream media, insecure about their own status in an atomizing world, play into the tyranny of split-screen coverage where almost any claim — no matter how outlandish — becomes one side in “an interesting debate.” When not listening to talking heads, the traditional news outlets go to great efforts to get a microphone on vox populi. If the people, even if it is some unknown number, are hopping mad, we don’t want to be the last to tell you about it.

Bingo. Too bad Carr doesn’t take his own logic to a logical conclusion. He merely notes “how the media works” but doesn’t even suggest that journalists who cover these issues bear any responsibility for their preference to feed the lie machine instead of counter it. Oh, there have been a few stories pointing out the fundamental unreality on which the protests have been based, but vastly more on the protests themselves.

The most important concept, which Carr misses, is the one the media have abandoned in recent times: responsibility. Look again at the White House graphic at the top of this piece. The president is urging students “to take responsibility for their educations” because all the good teaching and parenting won’t be enough if the students themselves don’t care.

We share responsibility for knowing what we’re talking about. The traditional media’s unwillingness to help — part of its general collapse — means that, more and more, it’s up to the rest of us to figure things out for ourselves.


2 Responses to “Obama’s School Talk and Critical Thinking: a Lost Opportunity”
  1. Evan Roberts says:

    Hmm where to begin? Coming from a public school system and a private liberal arts college, I completely agree with two things here: the missed critical thinking opp and the lack of responsible journalism. I also agree that it is our responsibility to become informed and know what we’re talking about. I disagree with your creationism example.
    Evolution is also still a theory, which has been proven and disproven and reproven ad nauseam by numerous scientists whose names will forever be lost in Darwin’s shadow. The point of including biblical creationism (or any religious creation story for that matter) is the acquisition of knowledge. Let the student decide for themselves. That is what this administration is trying to achieve by the level of disclosure they promote. Maybe I’m naive but wouldn’t it make more sense for an adequately informed populace to make better decisions than an ignorant one?

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      I’m not going to get into a theological debate here, which is what you’re trying to start. Creationism does not belong in science class, period. It is not evidence-based, whereas there is ample scientific evidence to back up evolution.

      Teaching critical thinking, as noted, is not presenting mythology and evidence-backed science as equally compelling “sides” of an issue. That twists the entire idea.

      I’m entirely okay with having kids read and understand the Bible in other parts of the curriculum, by the way, as part of an understanding of religion’s role in society. (You can’t possibly understand Faulkner, for example, without some knowledge of the Bible.) It just doesn’t belong in science class.

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