Think? No Thanks, I Go To Public School

Obama was elected by lazy thinkers.

My husband and I met 7 years ago.  At the beginning of our relationship, he would sit around and debate friends and colleagues and the debates would be way over my head.  I would sit and think to myself, wow - how did they even start thinking of this?

Having always been a very take-it-at-face-value type of person, I had always accepted things for what they were (or what someone told me they were), with very little thought behind why or how they got to be that way.

As I've been around him and others like him over the years, questioning the status quo has become a little easier, but it led me to a number of questions.  Having learned how to talk at my husband's level, I know that I am perfectly intelligent and capable of thought.

Why did I have such a hard time thinking deeply?  Why did it take so long for me to learn how to question the status quo?

Blame Public Schools

I attended 5 different public schools growing up.  Some were better than others, but all had one thing in common - teachers taught to the lowest common denominator; they asked for no more than the dumbest kid in the class could do.  Being as lazy as most kids are, I quickly figured out what I needed to do to get through school with the least amount of work possible, keeping my grades just high enough to keep my parents off my back.

My strategy?  The day or so before the test, I would skim the reading material, keeping an eye out for the words in bold.  Those words would almost always be what we were tested on, in the form of a multiple-choice test.

Cramming in just enough to be able to distinguish between A, B, C, and D let me skate through school, being able to sleep through most of my classes.  Hence, I didn't need to know why "Remember the Alamo" was important, just that it was, and that it was the right answer to question 15.

Talking with my husband about what was acceptable at his private school, it became very quickly clear to me just how much more work his education was.  Multiple choice tests were hardly given.  It wasn't okay to just know something was important, one had to know why.  I remember my surprise the first time I heard that the grading scale was harder - 94 to 100 equaled an "A" whereas I could get an A with a mere 90.

I started to wonder what would have happened if I had been challenged like that.  Would I have risen to it and learned how to form opinions of my own and back them up, starting at age 15, instead of age 23?

Dummies Hurt Elections

During the 2008 election season, I began thinking back on the 2000 election.  Being 17 and not able to vote, my opinion didn't really matter all that much.

I feel very lucky now that it didn't.  Bush?  Bad.  Gore?  Good!

If anyone had questioned my viewpoint about why Bush was bad and Gore was good, they wouldn't have found much to go on.  Policies?  Nope, no idea.  I can't help but wonder if I would have felt the same way had I not had such a "multiple choice" viewpoint on the world.

Seeing young people out in the world campaigning and getting involved in the political process should make a person's heart feel good.  However, when I saw huge groups of young people this election season, I had to wonder how many of them were like the old me.

How many had the "multiple choice" outlook?  How many of them knew what policies their candidate was for and against, and why and how the world would be affected by those policies?  How many were just out there for the candidate who was the "Maverick" or who promised "Hope and Change"?

I believe that this plague of non-thinkers will get larger as the years go on unless something is changed.  I am a frequent Facebook user, and have many friends who were quite invigorated by the 2008 election.

On the surface, that sounds fantastic - young people getting involved in how the world works.  However, when I see a status update from one of the aforementioned friends saying he "believes that Jon Stewart conducts the best interview on television", it really makes me wonder.

Did the voters really understand what they were voting for?  Some of them did, no doubt; others were captivated by dreams of "Hope" and "Change", without thinking about what exactly they hoped for and what they wanted to change.

Dummies Hurt The Economy

Politics weren't the only area that my "multiple choice" outlook affected. Like most teenagers, looking into the future was not my forte. Even at 16 years old, credit card companies had already started the junk mail assault in my name, promising low interest rates and no annual fees.

One of my close friends got the idea to fill out an application with all of the information correct, except for the birth date, just to see what happened. He fudged the year so that it seemed like he had been born 2 years earlier. I decided to watch what happened, because I thought, surely they would be able to look up his birthday by looking up his social security number or something!

Nope, 3 weeks later, he got his very first credit card, in his name. He was even able to pick the design, and his was metallic red and shiny. Of course, word got around our circle very quickly. Less than a month later, we all had credit cards of our very own, with 23% interest, a $500 limit, and cute designs.  Mine was leopard print.

Yes, the leopard print part of it was really the only thing that mattered to me.  It arrived in the mail a week before spring break, and by the time I was back in school, it was completely at its limit.

I can only remember a few of the things I purchased with that $500 - a new stereo for my car, a pair of shoes.  It didn't matter after awhile - suddenly I was $500 in debt. That doesn't sound like a lot to me now, but when you're a cashier at a grocery store making minimum wage, $500 can be hard to come by.

Soon all my other partners in crime were in the same predicament. Someone's parents got involved, and figured out that we teenagers were not legally responsible for all of that debt, because we could not enter into a legally binding agreement, being under 18.

One call to the credit card company by her parents, and her debt was absolved! No more bills! Just about everyone else followed suit.

My parents, hearing about this arrangement, said absolutely not. I ran up the debt, it was my responsibility to pay off.  It didn't matter to them if I was legally responsible, to them, I was responsible, or should be.

Most of today's parents would not have handled the situation the same way.  As a consequence, those teenagers who were bailed out of their debt will become adults who expect to be bailed out of their debt.

If more teenagers had been taught to think deeply about why, when, and how, and shown that there were consequences when bad decisions were made, would we be facing the economic crisis we are today?  Would as many people be expecting the government to help them out when debt collectors and repo men come knocking on their doors?

Accumulating a large amount of debt is an easy road to go down.  Responsible adults who want to live responsible lives with good credit have to think deeply about spending before they do it, and be disciplined enough to not get in over their heads.

Isn't self-discipline supposed to be the difference between an adult and a child? It seems like we have an awful lot of children celebrating birthdays in their 30s these days, however.  A nation full of Peter Pans is not going to be one that stays great.

Deep Thought

Public schools are perpetuating a cycle that is affecting very large parts of our society - when they don't teach kids to think, the chances are exponentially greater that those kids will grow up and still be politically, financially and socially ignorant.  Nowadays, our inner cities have cycles of welfare spanning generations, where today's illiterate welfare babies had mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers in just the same situation, taught by "teachers" barely better educated than they were.

In the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be". There are lots of areas in the United States where the "state of civilization" seems tenuous at best; but people there still vote, and there are more of them every year.

Don't worry, it's not too late!  I wasn't introduced to really thinking until I was a grown woman - but life, experience, and a husband who had been taught to think all worked a world of difference.

Mankind has an inherent desire to be free, and just as much, almost everyone has a desire not to be thought of as dumb.  Our public schools churn out uneducated graduates by the thousands, and even the "well-educated" are often not taught critical thinking.  But it's never too late to learn... if those of us who can, are willing to teach.

Read other articles by Felicity Gladwell or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Great post.

"and even the "well-educated" are often not taught critical thinking. But it's never too late to learn... if those of us who can, are willing to teach."

How true. I belong to one listserv in particular, where most of the posters have their Ph.D. in psychology. I am constantly amazed at how inept these people are at critical thinking.

These are not dumb people by any usual measure, however they can be incredibly stupid when even slightly out of their field. Most of the time they are mentally paralyzed by an inability to apply basic critical thinking skills. As a result, they get pre-programed to say things like Bush = Bad no matter what the issue might be. It's kind of frightening actually.

So from my long experience, you are right on the mark.

November 26, 2008 12:08 PM
If in doubt, always blame public schools for America's problems. It is difficult to imagine a more common, single culprit for what ails us.
November 26, 2008 12:48 PM
"...that is affecting very large parts of our society"

Not all of it? I think you can trace everything back to the DoE in one way or another.
November 26, 2008 5:02 PM
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