Poor Elijah’s niece drops by periodically to discuss education issues. The only thing they agree about is they both teach for a living. As far as she’s concerned, he’s a relic of the pedagogical Jurassic Age. He regards her as a visitor from a brave new education world that’s rarely brave or new.
This time, she came preaching the gospel of the new paradigm, specifically the chapter and verse where learning facts is obsolete because thanks to the internet, there’s now too much information to learn, which is why schools should instead teach “critical thinking.”
Like my friend, I’d heard it all before, so I sat and listened politely. He, on the other hand, got up and started moving books one by one from his shelves to the table next to her, where he dropped them one by one from an audible height.
She ignored him as long as she could. “What are you doing?” she finally demanded.
“It’s my 1962 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Twenty-three volumes. It’s not everything there was to know when I was 12, just some of it.”
She got the point. There’s always been too much to learn. That never used to mean, though, that it wasn’t wise to learn as much of it as you could.
Poor Elijah’s superintendent is a typical new-paradigm kind of guy. He dismisses learning content as the “mere retention of facts.”
I want my students to be able to think. I warn them to prepare themselves to deal with people who can outtalk and outthink them, the way I can at present. That said, you can’t think purposefully without a body of knowledge to think about. Yes, I was treated to some useless information when I was a student. My education wasn’t flawless. But it rested, as it should have, on a comprehensive body of content and on the ability to integrate and evaluate that content, as it also should have.
Besides, if allegedly old-fashioned Sputnik-era schools didn’t teach my generation to think, where did all the experts my age who launched the critical thinking movement learn to do it?
There’s more than educational theory behind that movement. Critical thinking rhetoric dresses up a practical classroom reality. It’s more fun to spout what you “think” than it is to do the grunt work required to actually learn something so you know what you’re talking about.
The tilt away from content and the purging of facts from classrooms has blurred the line between fact and opinion. Several years ago, one of Poor Elijah’s students opined that Delaware was in New England. Poor Elijah gently explained this was incorrect, but his student wasn’t impressed. “Many people,” the young man declared, “consider Delaware a New England state.”
Maybe they do. Hopefully, they don’t. Either way, Delaware isn’t in New England any more than beach umbrellas are vegetables.
Simply thinking something doesn’t make it so. Facts are more than opinions stated in a louder voice. They aren’t determined by majority vote. They’re the small details that constitute the truth, what John Adams called “stubborn things” that persist as they are, regardless of what we’d like them to be. “Alternative facts” are, at best, wishful thinking and at worst, deliberate lies.
Most of us equate a fact with something that’s true, but I teach my students an antique definition. We define fact as a statement that can be proven true or false. For example, “Today is Thursday” is a statement of fact because I can prove it with a calendar. If today actually is Thursday, it’s a true statement of fact. If today is actually Wednesday, however, it’s a false statement of fact.
This may seem at first glance like silly mental gymnastics, but the exercise teaches two important lessons. First, a statement can sound like a fact without being true. Second, facts can be proven and require proof.
Opinions, in contrast, are statements that can’t be proven true or false. Instead, opinions are either valid or invalid depending on how well they’re supported by true, relevant facts and sound reasoning.
President Trump, for example, recently intervened on behalf of a Navy SEAL convicted of a war crime. The president supported his opinion and consequent action by asserting that complaints about his decision came from the “deep state” and people in “air-conditioned offices.”
Setting aside our individual feelings about President Trump’s action, that evidence, as he’s presented it, fails to support his opinion. First, his opinion, at best, obscures the fact the decision, in this case, was being made by other Navy SEALs, who rarely work in air-conditioned offices. Second, the air-conditioned “deep state” he refers to consists of military officers and his own secretary of the Navy. Third, the Oval Office is air conditioned. These facts and his tortuous reasoning render his opinion invalid. In short, he didn’t support his opinion and action, even though it might sound like he did.
That insufficiency ought to matter. It should matter whenever we form our own opinions or adopt the opinions of others.
Sometimes facts and reason exist on both sides, which is why we can validly hold differing opinions. Facts, on the other hand, are absolute. A fact can’t be true for me and false for you.
A statement can take the form of a fact and still be false.
An opinion can be stated with passion and still be unsupported and invalid.
These are things students need to understand, especially in a world awash in faulty reasoning, fake news and false charges of fake news. They also need a body of knowledge, so they know what the founders intended and what the First Amendment says, and how a civilized nation like Germany chose to follow Adolf Hitler into catastrophe.
There’s a difference between information and knowledge. Information is found in books and even on the internet. It isn’t knowledge until it resides in a student’s head and heart. There may be more information in our internet world, but despite that glut, our students own less knowledge.
Learning to think is no excuse for knowing even less.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly. He would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.