The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking
Critical education and critical thinking are about equipping students to interrogate knowledge, to ask “In whose interest is this?” and “Who is in power and why?”
Everything about Williamson M. Evers is politically conservative, right-wing. Evers is a research fellow for the conservative Hoover Institution, explicitly dedicated to market economics and antagonistic to “government intrusion into the lives of individuals” (a libertarian strain of conservatism in the U.S.).
Evers has also been an appointee in a number of Republican state and federal administrations, often connected with education despite his academic background being entirely in the field of political science.
So let’s explore for a moment the great irony in Evers’ opinion/commentary piece for the Wall Street Journal — California Wants to Teach Your Kids That Capitalism Is Racist. Two elements of this screed are worth highlighting, in fact.
Over the course of about 770 inflammatory words that repeatedly misrepresent concepts and terminology in order to rush to his central arguments, Evers builds to these sweeping conclusions: “The curriculum is entirely wrongheaded when it comes to critical thinking” and “Teaching objective history clearly isn’t the goal.”
These claims are nested in the larger argument that the California curriculum Evers is criticizing is somehow a veiled left-wing agenda (while Evers carefully avoids making a case about the possibility of “objective” teaching and learning and is entirely uncritical himself in terms of his own conservative agenda).
Ultimately, Evers is resisting, ironically, a critical examination of capitalism and endorsing the free market ideology of his think tank and political party as if those are what counts as “objective.”
The ideological spectrum of the right in the U.S. (which is by far the dominant ideology, especially when compared to Europe) is conservative in the sense of tradition — meaning that an institution such as public education would be dedicated to transmitting a fixed set of knowledge (this, in fact, is what Evers frames as “objective” even though this approach to teaching and learning is also biased since some agent in power must decide what knowledge counts and what knowledge doesn’t).
Public education in the U.S. has always been mostly conservative and used primarily to perpetuate traditional values associated with the country’s foundational ideals; as such, public education has mostly avoided critical thinking.
And therein lies the great irony of Evers opinion piece.
Critical education and critical thinking do come out of a leftist position, broadly a Marxist tradition. As an academic or scholarly lens, however, “left” in this context is far less about narrow partisan politics and more about how anyone navigates knowledge and human behavior.
For example, a traditional (thus conservative) approach to the Founding Fathers would offer students the ideals and actions taken by the men typically framed as founders in order to establish what makes the United States a free country. In many ways, this traditional approach to teaching is not factually incorrect, but it is misleading by omission.
If we pull back from this narrow history lesson, we must also acknowledge that the teaching of history in U.S. public schools is almost exclusively the promoting of positive and thus uncritical views of U.S. policies, wars, and political leaders.
In other words, the biased and incomplete approach to history that Evers idealizes as “objective” has not only dominated the teaching and learning of history in U.S. public education for more than a century, it remains the norm of how most history courses are taught — except in outlier situations where teachers inject critical history such as Howard Zinn’s history-as-activism or a marginally popular text, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.
While Evers and many on the right enjoy demonizing government and government institutions as leftist, the reality is that all formal organizations are inherently conservative in that for any cohesive body to exist, it must maintain its structure. To be critical is to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.
This is the essential partisan political tension between conservative (keeping things as they are) and progressive (seeking change, idealistically for the better).
Many on the right struggle with genuine criticism because to be critical is viewed as always negative (as in “to criticize) and criticism of X is almost always assumed to be an endorsement of Y.
Here is the great flaw of thinking perpetuated by partisan politics in the U.S., a system that is almost entirely divorced of an ideological spectrum and any real range of choice. Republican and Democrats in the U.S. are mostly well right of center ideologically and barely indistinguishable from each other beyond party affiliation.
Academic settings in the U.S. — at both the K-12 and high education levels — are rarely about endorsing either Republicans and Democrats (because the traditional nature of teaching and learning is not critical and thus is endorsing the system that perpetuates both). And any left-leaning elements in formal education, by being critical, are pulling back from that simplistic binary and from the incomplete knowledge base taught in traditional curriculum in order to ask critical questions.
Thomas Jefferson is not simply a great thinker and leader, but a man deeply stained by slavery during the inception of the country. Slavery as well is not simply a scar on the history of the nation, but a key element in how capitalism gained momentum and so-called economic progress flourished in the early years of the country.
And thus, the lazy and misguided approach to critical thinking on the right would be having students investigate which car is the better choice, a Honda Civic or a Toyota Camry.
Authentic critical thinking would be having students investigate who benefits from the U.S. being so invested in car ownership while considering the option of not owning a car at all (seeking better public transportation, for example).
Evers as a conservative ideologue, then, is incapable of recognizing that he is endorsing a curriculum that is biased propaganda (pro-capitalism) and a way of teaching that lacks critical thinking.
In fact, Evers is the one wrongheaded about critical thinking: “Critical thinking is described not as reasoning through logic and consideration of evidence but rather a vague deconstruction of power relationships so that one can ‘speak out on social issues.’”
Critical education and critical thinking in that tradition are entirely about equipping students to interrogate knowledge, to ask “In whose interest is this?” and “Who is in power and why?”
The right in the U.S. is the power class, and Evers is among that power elite.
Those of us on the left, never among the power elites, are not threatened by critical thinking that seeks to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.
Those of us who are critically progressive are capable of seeing that the U.S. historically and currently is good for some while failing many. To be critical and progressive, then, is to seek better for all, not just maintaining the good for some.
As a critical educator and scholar, I have always wondered about the failed logic on the right. If the traditional values the right so eagerly endorses and protects are in fact as wonderful as they claim, why can they not stand against criticism and interrogation?
The authoritarian tendencies of the right suggest a fear of individual thinking and autonomy; the right is deeply invested in power, but the left remains deeply skeptical of all power and authority.
Formal education dedicated to human liberation must be grounded in critical thinking, the ways of calling all knowledge into question and seeking the full story — not simply the aspects of the story endorsed by the ruling elites.
The final irony is that commentaries such as Evers is unintended proof of the ultimate dangers of incomplete knowledge and a failure to think critically.