Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Gratefulbeing!

Being thankful implies there is someone or something to be thankful to--as in a higher power, a supernatural being. And when people begin to think in that manner, it implies that that hypothetical being has been especially favorable to them by providing these things, perhaps to them rather than someone else (perhaps to their family, their co-religionists, their country).
However, I see a slight, but significant difference in being grateful. I can be grateful for what I have because of my good luck or my hard work, the vagaries of the natural lottery--being born in the time and place and to the family that I was with a gene code that gives me certain advantages and presents certain challenges. And I am. Grateful. I have a wonderful life. And I am grateful that you are my friend and are willing to read this and click like. For what it's worth. Happy Gratefulbeing. Eat turkey (or tofu). Watch football. Read a book. Hug your family and friends.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Electorate Lacks Critical Thinking Skills

In recent elections, why have so many voted for candidates who support policies they say they oppose or that are harmful to their economic interests?

Why vote for politicians who seek to dismantle public education, are against raising the minimum wage, pass tax cuts to further increase the wealth gap, and who want to continue to allow corporations and billionaires to flood the political system with money when generally you disagree with those policies? Polling shows that even many who disagree with their policies chose the Republican party in this election.

Benefits from Social Security Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Unemployment Insurance, Workman’s Compensation, SNAP (food stamps) are designed to keep working people and those unable to work out of poverty.  What does it mean when even people who are receiving these benefits vote for a party that seeks to dismantle or undermine these programs?

I believe it’s because many simply reject facts regardless of scientific and historical evidence in favor of voting based on their mood, feelings, or beliefs. They do this at least partly because many lack a skill that educators call “critical thinking,” an essential backbone of a competent education, and an area of emphasis in the Common Core State Standards. Republicans have now turned against this challenging set of educational principles, which was developed by the states in a non-partisan process. I wonder if they are concerned they might work.

When George W. Bush, with help from liberal lion Ted Kennedy, passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, many saw it as an attack on public education. NCLB required annual testing that would not only label schools in which the majority of students were not reaching annual benchmarks in reading and math as failing, but would give parents the option of sending their children to another school, often a charter school run by a private company. Kennedy had apparently signed on because he hoped that after identifying struggling schools, which he knew would mostly be in poor neighborhoods, the law made provisions to provide large influxes of money to the school to implement change. Naturally, the law was never fully funded by the Republicans. Regardless, even a large amount of money rarely turns around a school serving a population of students who are growing up in poverty in only a year or two.

The most laughable (or more accurately, tear-inducing) part of the law was the goal it established that declared that ALL students must reach mastery in Reading and Math by 2014. The only reason that most all schools have not been labeled failures is that the Obama administration has allowed states to apply for waivers from the most onerous provisions of the law.

Critical thinking is the highest goal of education. It can’t be taught in one lesson or in one year. You can find short definitions and full-length books on the topic. In a word, it is rationality: the ability to weigh evidence objectively, to identify and distance the emotional triggers and beliefs that may cloud one’s thinking, so that one can analyze the validity of “facts” and assemble a theory or argument.

Americans often wonder how masses of people in other parts of the world can be convinced to support dictatorial governments or follow religious leaders who exhort them to hatred of others and rejection of freedom and Democracy. The answer is simple: a powerful combination of control of the media, religious belief, and weak or religiously based education systems and systems of law which do not operate on the basis of critical thinking, but on pre-determined belief systems, whether they are economic, secular, or religious.

In recent years America’s radio and TV airways have increasingly been filled with intelligent right wing personalities who craft seemingly rational arguments based on faulty premises and suspect “facts”. They almost always wrap their propaganda in expressions of religious belief, patriotic fervor, and fear that the opposition is trying to destroy the American way of life, nostalgically bringing to mind an America of small towns, picket fences, and….for many, segregated schools.

The Republican strategy seems to include weakening education, instilling fear of an increasingly diverse society in their low and middle income white male base, and allowing the rich to spend limitless money on elections in order to maintain power and win elections.

If I were President Obama, I would challenge the nation to embark on a simple mission. Congress should come together to pass an education law to repeal and replace No Child Left Behind and its patchwork waiver system. The Common Core has become a punching bag, so start over. Call the new law, or some major part of it “FACTS: For All, Critical Thinking Skills.” From pre-school to free adult classes in libraries and community centers, make rational discussions and analysis a national pastime. We could start by studying the campaign ads from this season.

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher, a musician, and writer who lives in Charleston, WV. He blogs at