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Abdul-Jabbar writes: "America’s most dangerous enemy is not terrorism, war or immigration. The greatest threat to our country is ignorance."

Students raise their hands during lunch in the cafeteria at Hendron-Lone Oak Elementary in Kentucky. Aug. 6, 2015. (photo: Ellen O’Nan/AP)
Students raise their hands during lunch in the cafeteria at Hendron-Lone Oak Elementary in Kentucky. Aug. 6, 2015. (photo: Ellen O’Nan/AP)


How We Can Really Make America Great

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Washington Post

08 June 18

 

merica’s most dangerous enemy is not terrorism, war or immigration. The greatest threat to our country is ignorance.

A healthy democracy depends on knowledgeable discourse for survival, but our national conversation is incessantly muddied. Information is twisted, contorted and butchered — so much so that Americans struggle to reach informed decisions about which policies or politicians to support. In order to arm Americans with the ability to distinguish truth from distortion, we must implement critical thinking into our K-12 education system.

Sixty-two percent of American adults get their news from social media. During the 2016 election, malicious fake news stories were more popular and shared more often on Facebook than legitimate headlines. Facebook itself brags it has the power to influence voters. According to a former Facebook employee, “There’s an entire political team and a massive office in D.C. that tries to convince political advertisers that Facebook can convince users to vote one way or the other.”

To make matters worse, we have junk science advocates in Congress (such as the senator who threw a snowball while on the Senate floor in an effort to disprove climate change); sanitized history lessons in schools (a history textbook describes slaves as “workers” and the Atlantic slave trade as a part of “patterns of immigration”); and Fox News, where only 10 percent of statements are true, according to PunditFact. Then of course, there’s our woefully uninformed president who routinely cries “Fake news!” in response to reports that are proven true.

Instead of acknowledging the leaks inside our own ship, we wave enormous flags, launch impressive fireworks, march in star-spangled parades and brag about American exceptionalism. We do everything to celebrate ourselves, but we do little to actually feed our malnourished democracy what it needs to thrive: informed citizens. Informed citizens are made, not born, and to make them, a nationally mandated program that teaches critical thinking in our schools is the lasting solution that we need.

Critical thinking isn’t just for political purposes — it also has practical career and life applications. It is a skill listed by employers, so learning how to think critically in childhood will increase employability in adulthood. It also appears to improve problem-solving abilities. A study of 85,000 teenagers across 44 countries and regions showed that students from countries that encourage critical thinking were better at problem-solving.

Here’s what it would take to add critical thinking to an already embattled U.S. education system:

1. Change our teaching model.

Critical thinking should be taught the same way we teach a language: through constant practical use and repetition until students are fluent. Starting in middle school, every student should have a formal class that teaches how to identify logical fallacies that may come from the Internet, media, authority figures or even textbooks.

Other classes would then include practical applications of critical thinking, according to the subject. English classes would examine fictional characters’ logic in their motivations. Non-fiction essays would be studied to show flaws and strengths in logical persuasion. And history classes would analyze political speeches from current and historical leaders for signs of emotional manipulation.

Teachers need to emphasize how to think, not what to think. Students must learn to acknowledge that their opinions are formed from a plethora of influences: parents, religion, peers, friends, teachers, government and so forth. They must be taught to be aware of these influences and to evaluate both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion.

2. Change how we measure success.

Current systems of standardized testing are illusions of progress and accountability. They do not measure students’ intellectual capabilities so much as they measure their ability to take tests. According to one study, students in U.S. public schools typically take around 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade. Countries that out-perform American students on international exams typically only give three tests during that time.

We have to shape tests so they evaluate students’ abilities to practically apply what they have learned. This could be done through a combination of standardized tests and project-based evaluations, in which students demonstrate, through guided projects, what they learned.

Educating our children on how to deal with political and intellectual dishonesty — and on how to make decisions based on corroborated evidence — is a necessary form of self-defense. It protects children from social or political brainwashing and provides them with the intellectual means to form their own beliefs.

It is the responsibility of every American to form opinions based on gathering as much information as possible, evaluating that information for veracity and then using logic to form conclusions devoid of personal prejudices. That is the process that will make America great. If we want a stronger America, we need to educate our children so they are adequately equipped for the task of making it so.


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+28 # margpark 2018-06-08 10:06
I so agree. Ignorance seems to be rife in this country. Our educational system is broken and needs to be re-done.
 
 
-17 # Cowboy 45 2018-06-09 06:51
That is why we have charter schools, because the public education system is a complete failure.
 
 
+12 # Caliban 2018-06-09 15:00
No. We have charter schools to promote religious and racial bigotry.

Get your facts straight, please.
 
 
+1 # AldoJay69 2018-06-11 18:42
And to bleed the public schools. There's a reason the tuition money transferred is less than total charter school tuition. It's to subsidize the well off, who were going to send their kids to private school anyway, while weeding out those who can't afford the difference.
And don't forget the brain drain, public schools can't reject anyone, unlike charters.
If charters really had magic secrets, they could easily be applied in public schools...
 
 
+29 # dotlady 2018-06-08 10:23
Absolutely right. We are bringing down American democracy (as we have envisioned it ideally) to the level of a mediocracy, or media-ocracy if you will, an ignorant and maleable people who will follow its government's plan and narrative unquestioningly .
 
 
+22 # starhelix 2018-06-08 11:18
Mr. Jabbar and I are part of the last generation in this nation to be taught critical analysis as students. When I entered high school, I had no idea what critical analysis was, let alone know how to apply it. The ability to discern the truth provided part of the impetus for revolution against the Old Order during the 1960s. The Ruling Class was dismayed. They ultimately discovered their error. They didn't want the masses to become individuals who could criticize their decisions. They merely wanted us to be functional. That is to be educated enough to program the computers, but not enough to question the inputs. The biggest problem with recent generations is they don't read. You can't be fully informed without reading about current events. It's important to consider the opinions of others in order to validate your own. Donald Trump doesn't read. Therefore, he has no capacity to lead.
 
 
+4 # economagic 2018-06-08 20:49
Well said.
 
 
+8 # janie1893 2018-06-08 12:11
This is the result of a fat, affluent, lazy society and a very dangerous occurrence in a world that has many starving people.
 
 
+21 # barbell1941 2018-06-08 12:20
I also agree wholeheartedly. I suggest we get rid of the profit motive in any and all areas that are traditional functions of government, such as charter schools, private prisons, private police forces. Also, pay for teachers and police officers be raised to the point that well qualified applicants applying would eliminate the racist, gun nut, ideologue class from those positions. Well qualified and well paid teachers could actually teach critical thinking. It obviously would also require intelligent and qualified people at the top, nothing like the current crop of idiots in the cabinet. It all gets back to voting intelligently; ie never Republican.
 
 
+16 # Observer 47 2018-06-08 12:26
And, one would hope, those critical thinking skills would remain in place as children grew up and, say, ran for elected office. That way, most of the House and Senate WOULDN'T vote to invade another country to prevent its unleashing WMD on the U.S., when the leader of that other country would never have attacked us, most demonstrably NOT being suicidal.
 
 
+5 # MikeAF48 2018-06-08 15:57
You might want to watch Rob Reiner's new film, Shock and Awe reviews June 14th on Vertical Entertainment.
 
 
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-06-09 07:26
Why is this film so important? I do want to see it but I'm curious about what you know. I know the story it presents very well. But what does Reiner make of it? When that story came out in 2003-2004, it was a devastating indictment of the NYT, Wapo, and other major media for their complicity with the Bush/Cheney propaganda assault on America. |Is Reiner saying we are going through the same shit today?
 
 
+3 # economagic 2018-06-08 20:59
Yes, another three-pointer for Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. (Did they even HAVE three-pointers when he was playing?)

His two points regarding what is needed and how to do it are as good as any I have seen. But I must add a definition of "critical thinking" I received from a colleague some years ago when I was tasked with teaching an intro to the subject from a book whose authors and publishers had no idea what it meant. Since the term did not even exist until long after I had graduated from college, I asked a few friends who I thought might have something intelligent to say about the subject. Here is my favorite:

"[Critical thinking is] a redundant expression, like "widow woman" or "mortal man." Philosophers have always claimed that their work was teaching people to think, because most of what goes on in most people's minds is semi-automatic management of habitual tasks, or at best processing of occasional new information. Unlike the peasants of "Merrye Olde Englande," modern Americans are insulted at the suggestion that they don't know how to think, so we have to call it something "special."
 
 
+7 # economagic 2018-06-08 21:16
Oh--and let's give Mr. Abdul-Jabbar credit for his subtle suggestion that "America" has yet to actually BECOME "great" in several important senses, such as providing health care to all of its citizens, much less its residents and visitors, as many civilized nations do.
 
 
+5 # Working Class 2018-06-09 08:38
It is not just the educational system that is responsible for the dumbing down of the US. While in the Nixon Administration Roger Ailres proposed establishing a "news" network that would push the conservative agenda. In short, a propaganda machine to push the conservative/pr o-corporate agenda. Years later FOX was born. Through its advocacy style "reporting" it shapes the opinion of a large portion of the US population. Where the educational system falls down is by not equipping views with the critical thinking ability to see through the FOX motivation.
 
 
0 # economagic 2018-06-09 20:35
A-bleepin'-men! The US educational system as a whole is in pretty bad shape, but nowhere near as bad as its detractors would have us believe. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing well into the present era, the typical USian child spent more hours in front of a television (later a different kind of "screen") before entering first grade than s/he would spend in a classroom in the next twelve years. It sounds impossible, but do the math.
 

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