Neem: We Cannot “Think Critically” Without Knowledge


Johann Neem is on fire.  Earlier today we linked to his Chronicle of Higher Education piece calling for the elimination of the business major.  Now we link to his Hedgehog Review piece on “critical thinking.” I have ordered his book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.

Neem argues that critical thinking cannot take place without knowledge–the kind of knowledge one learns in a particular discipline.  Or, as he puts it, colleges and universities should understand skill development “in relation to the goods of liberal education.”

Here is a taste:

Advocates of critical thinking contrast thinking critically with learning knowledge. College professors, they proclaim, teach a bunch of stuff (facts, dates, formulae) that students don’t need and won’t use. Instead, students need to have intellectual and cognitive skills. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proclaimed, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”

There are two problems with this perspective. First, it is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It presumes that the material colleges teach—the arts and sciences—does not matter, when, in fact, this is the very reason colleges exist. Second, these claims are wrong. Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

In many ways, the turn to skills is a defensive response. At a time when the humanities, in particular, are under attack, what better way to defend the humanities’ “useless knowledge” than by demonstrating that these are means to a larger end: critical thinking? However, one must acknowledge that these defenses reflect the capitulation of academics to utilitarian and pragmatic pressures. Lacking a convincing argument for the knowledge that anthropologists or historians have to offer, they instead proclaim that history and anthropology will serve employers’ needs better than will other fields. But if that’s the case, why does one really need to know anything about anthropology or history? Why should colleges hire anthropologists or historians instead of professors of critical thinking?

This is not an abstract question. When we turn from higher education to the K–12 system, we see that the focus on skills over knowledge has transformed the curriculum. Increasingly, especially under the Common Core State Standards, students devote their energies to learning skills, but they may not learn as much history or civics or science. Therefore, in contrast to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of many reformers, critical thinking must be defended because it encourages students to gain more insight from the arts and sciences.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching Reading Through Historical Sources


Do you want to teach your students how to think historically?  Do you want to teach them to read in a deeper way?  Do you want to teach them about the past?

If your answer to all these questions is a resounding “yes” (as it should be), you will like this piece at Education Week. Reporter Sarah Schwartz spent some time with the teachers attending a Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History summer seminar on native American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Gathering in small groups around folding tables laden with 250-year-old maps, pamphlets, and images, the teachers thought aloud about what the documents could tell their students—and what questions the pages couldn’t answer.

“Even before getting into information—who wrote this?” said Mark Stetina, a local middle school history teacher, pouring over a political cartoon and imagining how he would introduce it to his students. “Then, almost more important is—who’s missing?” he said. This question of missing voices was central to the day’s workshop, part of a project at the Library Company called Redrawing History. The library has digitized hundreds of documents about this massacre, but almost none are from Native American sources. Now, the organization is working with native artists to create an original graphic novel that attempts to recover some of those voices.

For teachers, the workshop offered a look into the archives and lessons on how to use the forthcoming novel. And it raised a question about teaching history: How do you paint a full picture of the past for your students when some voices have long been silenced?

Since the introduction of the Common Core State Standards a decade ago, teachers have been encouraged to give primary sources a more prominent place in the classroom. The standards emphasize close analysis of texts across subject areas, which in history and social studies can mean reading these kinds of archival documents. In the years since, both the U.S. Library of Congress and the National Archives have expanded their digital collections in an effort to make resources available for teachers.

Read the entire piece here.

By the way, you can view of a lot of the sources used in this Gilder-Lehrman seminar at the Digital Paxton website.

Politico on David Barton

In case you have not seen it yet, Stephanie Simon of the blog Politico has written a piece about Christian culture warrior David Barton.

Here is a taste:

An informal adviser to several prominent Republican politicians, including Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, Barton argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and must return to those roots.

His ideas have shaped the social studies curriculum in his home state of Texas. Now, he’s gunning for even bigger influence, advising state legislators across the country on how to fight the Common Core academic standards that the Obama administration is promoting. And that’s not all; Barton hints he’ll soon be back in the arena of presidential politics, advising candidates looking to appeal to the religious right.

“I remain available to whoever wants to move that ball down the court,” Barton told POLITICO.

According to Simon, Barton has “bounced back” from the criticism surrounding The Jefferson Lies.  It seems as if he has found a new hobby-horse: The Common Core.

Barton may be on a new crusade, but I am hesitant to say that he has “bounced back.” In fact, nothing has really changed. He still gives the faithful what they want to hear–a skewed view of American history designed to serve Barton’s political ends.  As long as people want a sanitized past that they can use to fight the culture wars, Barton will have followers.  But I can’t help but think that he is a lot weaker than he once was in the wake of so many historians–many of them evangelical Christians–discrediting his approach to the American past.

I wish Simon would have said more about the credible evangelical historians who have spoken out against Barton’s propaganda crusade.

More Changes at "American Heritage" Magazine

In 2007 the esteemed popular history magazine American Heritage could not find a buyer and thus suspended operations after fifty-three years of publication.  It was revived a year later when Edwin S. Grosvenor, a popular historian with experience in the magazine industry, bought the company.

Today American Heritage has 120,000 subscribers, but as David Austin Walsh informs us at History Network, it has once again suspended operations.  Grosvenor claims that the suspension of the print edition is temporary so that the company can “refocus its mission on education and digital history.”

Here is a taste of Walsh’s piece:

“We’re building probably the biggest system on the Internet for teaching American history,” Grosvenor told HNN. The project will feature “6,000 essays by 1,800 historians – the pieces that have been in American Heritage over the last half century, and thousands and thousands of primary documents.” Once digitized, these articles will be bundled with documents, multimedia, and suggestions for how to integrate the material into the Common Core Standards. The Helmsley Charitable Trust is one of the major funders of the Common Core. The expected launch date is in August. “Our eventual goal is five million students a year,” Grosvenor said. 

“Our content is tailor-made for education,” he added. “Our marketing is focused on school districts and teachers. If we can solve their problems and provide excellent tools at little or no cost, we’re convinced we’ll get pretty quickly implemented.” 

“We’ve been trying to figure out for five years how to take a print magazine and make it relevant for a digital age.” The digitization project is one of the solutions, but eventually the goal, according to Grosvenor, is to raise the funds to relaunch the print magazine. “We want to be able to offer subscribers a package: the print magazine, a digital magazine for the iPad, and access to our archives,” which will eventually go behind a paywall. “We’re 100 percent committed to our print magazine,” he insisted. Still, it’s a difficult problem as retrenchment continues across the print media landscape. “Newsweek is gone,” he said, “and Time is up for sale.” He paused. “Time Magazine.”

It seems that the so-called “Common Core Standards” are driving everything these days.  Even the Gilder-Lerhman Institute of American History is retooling to serve its needs.