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Haste Makes Waste

Haste is sometimes pedagogically dangerous, as can now be seen in an understandable flap over the Rialto (California) Unified School District’s “critical thinking” assignment on whether or not the Holocaust occurred.  Like many other school districts, Rialto’s was laboring under the mistaken notion, encouraged by RAce to the Top, that it is better to adopt the Common Core in a hurry than to take the time needed to think through what its adoption means and requires. In the resultant rush, the district’s Language Arts teachers, of all people, undertook to set their 8th-graders a task that occupied the British historian Sir Ian Kershaw for years as he ratified his unequivocal answer to the question.

But haste is not Rialto’s (and other districts’) only or even predominant danger in working up the new curriculum. One of the lurking dangers  is the notion that “critical thinking,” being taken as a constituent of advanced intellect in general, can be abstracted from the subjects in which it is found and bottled as a separate stuff, a kind of mental A-1 sauce to be added to any dish. What else could explain the otherwise untenable view that skill in history is a language art[1]? It is one thing to assert that the transfer effect is real, but quite another to deny that transferring must be done with care.

In fact, Grade 8 is nowhere near the age at which this kind of project can or should be undertaken[2]. The Modern Researcher[3], now in its sixth edition but originally meant as an aid to graduate history students at Columbia, discusses what is needed in order to do historical research. “No matter how it is described, no piece of evidence can be used in the state in which it is found [emphasis in the original]. It must undergo the scrutiny” of a mind practiced in the methods of historical research.

This means that a Rialto 8th-grader must be able to answer the following questions of his or her sources:

·     Is this object or piece of writing genuine?

·     Is its message trustworthy?

·     How do I know?

These questions lead to others:

·     What does it state or imply?

·     Who is its author or maker?

·     What is the relation in time and space between the author and the information, overt or implied, that is conveyed by the item?

·     How does the statement compare with others on the same point?

·     What do we know independently about the author and his credibility?

Only when all the “safeguards” implied in these questions are in place, can the young historian then ascertain the truth by “systematically applied” or “informed” common sense. Sounds like a tall order to me! And the order is being given not in a history class but in a language arts class. What is more, a suspicious part of me fears that all this might have turned out to be preliminary to a class debate on the subject. Since the object of class debates is usually victory rather than truth, the canons of critical historical thinking are likely to be violated in the hopes of gaining “debating points.” Some “critical thinking”![4]

To see the genuine article in its proper disciplinary matrix[5], look at the web site of The Concord Review. This admirable publication features history papers by high-school students. The quality is remarkable, and the work is genuine. Schools with students who produce such work begin the students’ preparation early—perhaps even earlier than 8th grade. What is more, rather than seeing “critical thinking” as some kind of all-purpose additive sprinkled by English teachers, they develop in their students the sense of how thinking goes in each different subject taken. It is painstaking work and lasts years.

One of the dangers of the Avalanche Method of curriculum development favored by the Haste Brigade is that all this trouble will be overlooked or the work insufficiently planned. The consequence will be 8th-graders who assert by implication that Simon Wiesenthal and Primo Levi are liars[6].



[1] It is a rather different thing to say that skill in language is an art of the historian, as proved by Sir Ian, John Keegan, and Jacques Barzun.

[2] One discussion about what is appropriate to 8th-graders is Barzun’s in The Paideia Proposal, pp. 109 – 121.

[3] By Barzun and Henry F. Graff

[4] By contrast, Barzun’s & Graff’s prescriptions for class discussion: “The teacher who conducts a discussion on readings in history should start out with a definite historical question, and it should never be, who was right or wrong, but what was possible at such and such a juncture? What could so-and-so have done, or refrained from doing, to achieve this purpose? Was the purpose really in the interests of the group he or she was leading? Were other choices open?—and so on. Every student’s spoken contribution to the discussion should meet the point made just before, to amplify, correct, or refute it. Errors of fact must naturally be caught up, by questioning inaccurate statements and having another student supply the truth; for no argument can rest on a false basis. All assertions other than factual reminders must be accompanied by reasons: What is the evidence for what you say? What reasoning leads you to conclude as you do? The whole group may possibly settle some issue with unanimity, but more often diversity will prevail, one or more groups and individuals being persuaded or confirmed in a different position. And that too is highly instructive.”

[5] Kuhn’s term

[6] In “STEM,” that bloody hunk of an acronym, it leads to 10th-graders who follow Jungle Gym Math with AP Physics. No wonder 40% of students who take AP tests fail them.

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