Critical Thinking, Humanities Needed for Widespread Educational Success

There are two visions of what education can provide, as a service: it can provide the opportunity for integral cultivation of the full human self, with the aim of yielding productive, conscientious citizens of a dynamic, free society; or, it can produce workers to take their place in a faceless workforce, where individual rights are subsumed in the thrust of the major forces that govern society.

For most of our history, we have understood the value of citizenship-focused education, a humanizing process whereby the individual is introduced to higher-order critical thinking and the ability to formulate and pursue knowledge in new and unique ways, but the trend toward standardization and processization of our educational system has shifted the focus away from the humanizing effects of education and toward the idea of an able workforce.

There was a time when this attitude was considered to be the misguided, dehumanizing domain of totalitarian states and Communist dictatorships, but bottom-line-obsessed corporate accounting model for education is yielding similar effects, with the caveat that the most affluent can escape the declining mainstream thinking and do better for themselves and their children.

A proposed way back to humanizing, democratic educational priorities, aimed at cultivating an awakened electorate:

1. Give no short shrift to any of the basics: language, art, athletics, music, math, science and history—Make sure everyone is able to find their forte and excel…

2. Cultivate critical thinking—Teach students to use their knowledge to apply their minds to creative problem solving and an understanding of what it is to challenge convention responsibly…

3. Don’t privilege quantification over qualification—Numbers don’t always tell the story; up-front costs can be deceiving: education spending has higher ROI than other public spending, but the bottom line has to be whether students are becoming better, more complete human beings, not whether the numbers used to evaluate the system tell us we have a more valuable workforce…

4. Honor the educators—Teaching is not an easy business; it takes years to really master the art, and the science of what works best evolves from year to year and from student to student. The teachers are the front-line change agents who do the hard work; honor their service.

Unless we do all of the above, we are not taking seriously the challenges and the complexity of the educational process as such. We can do far better than we are doing, but silver bullets fired by consulting firms are not the answer; the answer has to be on the ground, in the community, and sustained by funding that shows a solid, civilization-wide commitment to doing the best by our common humanity.

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Originally published January 5, 2011, at

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