Thursday, July 19, 2007

What Skills Should Schools Be Teaching?

When we think of the skills that schools teach or should be teaching, what comes to mind?
- literacy
- numeracy
- computer programming

Each of the above, I think everyone would agree, are necessary for students to make their way in the world, both today and tomorrow. But what role does public education play in inculcating the skill of critical thinking? Do we assume, with the existing curriculum, that the ability to think and reason is an inevitable byproduct? Or are there some additional specific measures educators should be taking to achieve this goal? Indeed, some cynics might ask, is independent thinking really encouraged in North American society today?

Having just completed Al Gore’s excellent book, The Assault on Reason, these questions have taken on a new urgency in my mind. If the author’s thesis is to be accepted, democracy is under assault today, not from some shadowy terrorist organization of Mid-East origin, but rather from a threat much closer to home: the government itself and its insidious abandonment of reason as the basis of public policy. Although I am a Canadian, I am not so complacent as to think that this assault is a uniquely American problem; indeed, to varying degrees, I suspect that most Western democracies are thus threatened.

Whenever there is a restriction on the flow of information, the threat exists.

Whenever a government looks upon its populace as incapable of understanding the larger issues, the threat exists.

Whenever a population feels sufficiently disaffected with politics to disengage from the process, the threat exists.

Whenever government caters to those it deems its friends and chooses to ignore the rest, the threat exists.

These realities place a special responsibility on the shoulders of teachers in public education today. How good a job are they doing, and what obstacles do they face?

I would really like to hear from teachers in the coming days as I continue writing on this vitally important issue. If, for example, you teach social studies, history, English, etc., are there aspects of the curriculum that allow you to teach the ability to separate fact from opinion, opinion from propaganda, emotion from logic, not just within historical contexts, but within the framework of contemporary society? Or does the injunction against being political or partisan prevent you from evaluating the public policy pronouncements of domestic political and corporate leaders?

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