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The Value of Knowledge

When we value skills over knowledge, we get doctors who can’t name a supreme court justice.

· 10 min read
The Value of Knowledge
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

To no one’s surprise, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the mind behind the New York Times‘s 1619 Project, has spread a new falsehood. On Twitter, she confidently declared that school choice—a policy that allows families, not zoning laws, to choose their schools—“came about to stymie integration.” This claim is wrong in at least three ways. First, both John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine recommended some scheme of school choice long before Jim Crow laws were introduced in the United States. Second, Milton Friedman, the popularizer of the policy, considered it a means to integrate American schools without top-down mandates. Finally, many segregationists came to reject choice, preferring school zoning laws as a means to achieve their racist agenda.

Why would a journalist as renowned and supposedly well-read as Nikole Hannah-Jones make such a statement?

What is critical thinking?

While it is a bit simplistic to put it like this, the goal of education is to produce experts in various fields—be they historians, carpenters, or neurosurgeons. So, teachers and educators ought to be concerned with the question of what makes an expert an expert.

Ideally, we value experts for their ability to evaluate and solve problems. However, our society misunderstands the role of “critical thinking” in this process. Popular but incorrect conceptions of critical thinking consider it a teachable skill akin to writing that, once mastered, is applicable across contexts. Therefore, we trust professors, who seem to have mastered critical thinking, to pontificate in the pages of august publications on whatever interests them at any given moment. If critical thinking is a transferable skill, then a professor of linguistics can hold forth on public policy.

American philosopher of education John Dewey attempted to explain this skill-centric conception of critical thinking in his book How We Think. He defined critical thinking as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the ground that supports it and the further conclusion to which it tends.” He then broke critical thinking down into its elemental components: doubting, searching, and concluding. Critical thinking doubts a proposition, searches for relevant data, and arrives at an accurate conclusion. It is, Dewey held, a process to be learned and honed.

Ironically, in the opening pages of his book, Dewey offered an illustrative example: a man who, enjoying a beautiful day, notices a chill in the air, sees darkening clouds on the horizon, and comes to the conclusion that a storm is inbound. The man doubted, sought data, and arrived at a conclusion. If this is all that critical thinking is, then in reality, it’s a pretty simple and arguably natural process innate to every individual.

But Dewey’s example misses an essential element that distinguishes critical thinking from mere thinking: we all doubt and consider naturally but to do so critically requires knowledge. This conclusion is evident in Dewey’s first step; even doubt requires knowledge. For example, any thoughtful criticism of religion beyond adolescent misgivings requires knowledge of a faith’s tenets, history, common philosophical arguments for and against theism, ethics, epistemology, and so on. As an educator, I can instill a reflexive tendency to doubt within my students but without the knowledge needed to evaluate those doubts, this reflex is mere cynicism.

In a similar vein, Allan Bloom famously quipped that “only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labor, that he was ignorant. Now every high school student knows that. How did it become so easy?” Bloom knew that it required years of accrued knowledge to doubt and, relatedly, to think critically about any topic. Even if we equate “critical thinking” with formal logic, knowledge is still essential. To prove any proposition requires statistics and anecdotes. Logic may be a skill but its application requires knowledge.

E.D. Hirsch, professor of education at the University of Virginia, has written extensively about the place of knowledge in education and expertise. In his seminal work Cultural Literacy, he defines expertise as access to a “schema” of knowledge, a network of links and facts that encompass everything a person knows. We use our schema to critically consider and even understand new concepts and theories. An American academic who might fancy himself a skilled reader would find a paragraph about the sport of cricket incomprehensible; no amount of literacy or critical thinking skills will help a reader who does not know the rules of the game.

This understanding of critical thinking—knowledge applied to a simple process—is readily demonstrable using an example from my classroom. If I asked my students to write about Trump’s impeachment, for example, many would be unable to do so. Before asking them to think critically about this topic, I would first review the Constitution; perhaps read a relevant passage from the Federalist Papers; discuss the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors”; review examples of impeachment in the past; and only then examine the accusations at hand. I’d build their schema around the subject of impeachment and then invite them to apply it to the example under discussion.

A pertinent metaphor is the human capacity for movement. Everyone has it. Our ability to move can be honed for specific contexts such as ballet or bodybuilding. But doing so may have little to no effect upon—and might even hinder—one’s ability to accomplish other physical activities. A bodybuilder would struggle with ballet as a philologist might struggle to pontificate on complex economic issues.

Critical thinking is not some generally acquired skill applicable across contexts but rather the process of applying content-specific knowledge to a natural, simplistic process. Experts have amassed a wealth of knowledge related to a very specific subfield that allows them to analyze any question related to their field with greater rapidity, accuracy, and depth. There may be some crossover—a chemist might make an above-average biologist—but an ability to think critically within one field of study does not guarantee the ability to do so elsewhere.

Writing about thinkers with similar philosophies to Dewey, Thomas Sowell observed that, in their minds, “the superiority of experts within a narrow slice of the vast spectrum of human understanding was not denied. What was denied was that this expertise conferred a general superiority which should supersede more widely dispersed kinds of knowledge.” Because the totality of human knowledge is incomprehensible, domain-specific expertise gives no special privilege to knowledge. A microbiologist is the same as a plumber when discussing a topic neither of them knows anything about.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a journalist who claims to be an expert in African American history and race relations. Her schema encompasses a wealth of information, theories, studies, books, and other bits of knowledge related to these topics. She brings this schema to bear on any debate relating to these topics and sees connections I might never consider. However, when she steps outside of her realm of expertise, she misses what education-wonks take to be common knowledge: school vouchers predate American segregation.

How to train a dunce

Expertise in one area shouldn’t provide a writer with carte blanche in our leading publications. Perhaps our newspapers should assign reporters “beats” that allow them to focus on one topic instead of turning even the sports page into an opinion section or allowing news anchors to pronounce on complex topics with which they are entirely unfamiliar. There are important distinctions to be drawn between knowledge of science and the fashioning of public policy, and expertise in the former doesn’t necessarily confer responsibility in the latter.

On the Value of Truth
Very few of us can actually deal with too much truth, so we rarely enquire too deeply into the justifications for our beliefs.

If we want to avoid a continued downward trend towards thoughtless experts and uncritical thinking, our schools need to strengthen their commitment to broad-based knowledge and curricula. Since the Jesuits’ Ratio Studiorum, arguably the first attempt to systemize education for the masses, a guiding principle of our education has been a belief that there are certain things that all people ought to know. Few would now question the necessity of understanding basic numeracy, germ theory, or the idea of individual rights. Our educational predecessors believed in the utility of a broad knowledge of everything from math to history, science to languages and the arts, and so they systemized a curriculum to expose children to a little bit of everything. While children would eventually specialize in a specific field, this broad knowledge would allow them to think critically outside of it.

However, at the turn of the century, Dewey began to question this assumption, writing in Experience and Education that “there is no subject that is in and of itself… such that inherent educational value can be attributed to it.” From his belief in thinking as a teachable skill, Dewey concluded that any information is usable so long as a student learns skills from it. Some have gone further, like professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, who introduced critical race theory into the field of education. She called prevailing curricula “culturally specific artifact[s] designed to maintain a white supremacist master script.” In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi asks, “What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments?” We might as well ask students to stare into mirrors all day. While they might still use the word “curriculum,” it’s an empty shell, devoid of meaningful content.

From such theories come popular curricula like Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study. My school mandated that I use Calkins’s method for a number of years. It amounts to independent reading and writing time, during which students are invited to pick their own books and projects. I was no longer to teach, only observe. Accordingly, when professor of reading Timothy Shanahan led a comprehensive review of this popular method of reading instruction, he came to a rather clear conclusion. He wrote that there is “not a single study that supports the use of the above methods” and that they are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public school children.”

Instead, institutions of education—primary, secondary, and collegiate—need to return to instruction that values knowledge. K12 schools should do away with the faulty instructional approaches that permeate our schools and even departments of education. The leaders of some of the world’s most successful charter schools, such as Katharine Birbalsingh in the UK and Doug Lemov in the US, regularly credit their institution’s reliance upon Hirsch’s theories of learning and thoughtfully planned, sequenced, adult-determined curricula in their schools. But the solutions to educational shortcomings needn’t remain within the walls of individual schools. There are policies that can encourage their wholesale adoption.

Common Core would be a good place to begin. For those unfamiliar, it is a list of skills broken down by grade that a high school graduate in America is expected to have mastered during their time in the school system. While the impulse to standardize education is commendable, its application leaves much to be desired. It is Deweyism condensed. A student could achieve mastery over skills like “identifying a theme” or “drawing an inference,” regardless of the text in hand, be it Shakespeare or a tweet.

To rectify this shortcoming, an improved federal curriculum would include content alongside skills. A high school graduate should not only be able to identify a theme but also have read the Constitution, not only be able to make an inference but also know the basics of germ theory. The Aspen Institute has already begun such an initiative, asking the question “What should every American know?” The consensus includes slavery, September 11th, the Constitution, and human rights; I doubt many would take issue with those topics being universally taught across schools. At the very least, such an initiative would signal that it is incumbent upon adults to direct a child’s learning instead of leaving it up to adolescent whims.

Another policy comes through pro-charter regulations. Most of the schools that rely upon the successful theories of learning promoted by Lemov and Birbalsingh are charter schools, publicly funded but locally run institutions. Laws favorable to charter schools would allow their approach to spread, reaching more students and encouraging replication even in private and traditional public schools.

Finally, standardized testing is in need of reform. As long as reputations across the country are beholden to universal tests like the SAT, whatever is on the test will dictate what happens in the classroom. Since most readings on the SAT come from editorials or textbooks instead of primary source documents or great literature, the SAT does not promote traditionalism in curricula. Conversely, the Classic Learning Test (an alternative to the SAT) maintains the standardization of universal testing but relies upon the historically significant documents and great literature that the SAT eschews. While it has gained enough traction that over 150 colleges accept its results, increased acceptance would pressure schools to refocus on the texts that appear on these tests.

The implications of our education system as it currently stands are far more dire than the prospect of a few uninformed commentators in the pages of the New York Times. In the United States, only a third of the population can name all three branches of government and 22 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single one. More worrying is the finding that two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was. How can a society make wise electoral or institutional decisions when they know neither how their government functions nor essential historical facts?

Discussing education, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” When people wield this authority in a society, it is imperative that they understand how their government functions, the perils and warnings that history provides, and the important wisdom within great works of literature. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a representative product of our education system’s failings. When we value skills over knowledge, we get doctors who can’t name a supreme court justice.

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