RIP Critical Thinking: A Field Report
More news of weak links in American higher education has made the rounds in recent weeks. Researchers tell us that thirty percent of college seniors are no better at writing or thinking critically than they were as freshmen. This revelation probably doesn't surprise many of us who work in the academy. Nonetheless, it's not easy to hear, especially if you care about teaching. And I do. A lot.
It’s because I care about teaching, in fact, that I recently partnered with a school district north of Philadelphia to apply for a Teaching American History (TAH) grant. For those of you who don't know, TAH grants are competitively awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help K-12 teachers fine tune their history chops. Big wads of Federal cash support partnerships between school districts and organizations with "content expertise" (e.g. a university history department or a professional association like the NCPH) that, together, work toward improving our kids' ability to--this is the important part--think critically about history. It's a crucial program that, of course, is in imminent danger of being cut.
In any event, I offered Temple's Center for Public History as a vehicle through which to launch what I thought was a pretty smart three-year course of TAH seminars and summer institutes for about 30 high school teachers. Imagine my surprise, however, when I arrived at our first planning meeting to discover that my partner had asked a third party, a professional TAH grant getter, to join our meeting. This had evidently been a last-minute request, born of fears that my partner's own grant writer and the Center's collateral expertise might not be enough to get the proposal in on time.
Some background. Almost as soon as the TAH program began in 2001, professional TAH hacks started popping up everywhere. These businesses, with official sounding names like the "American Institute for History and so and so," are parasitic in the same way that test prep companies like Kaplan are. The test prep folks feed off of the demand created by educational standards that American schools are perpetually unable to achieve by themselves. The TAH hacks feed off of K-12 educators' inability (perceived rather than real, I'd argue) to gather the time and resources necessary to wade through a cumbersome grant application. The hack makes money by taking a cut of the grant in trade for assembling the application materials and contracting with university faculty who sign on as talking heads.
In other words, TAH hacks write TAH grants and they do it fast and reliably. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that even hacks have to make a living. Here's where we get into trouble...
Hacks are good at getting grants because: 1) they've got the manpower; 2) they're fluent in granteese (and regional dialects therein); 3) they assemble reliable pools of cash-hungry faculty, er, content expertise; and, 4) they dress their proposals up with a lot of spiffy extras like client-ready websites with, and this is key in K-12 circles, lots of "free" course materials (e.g. handouts about Ben Franklin and stuff). The hacks are good at getting grants because they've put together a strong business model.
There are at least four very big problems, however, with this particular business model. First, it is a business model. In other words, what these folks do is motivated not so much by a commitment to critical thinking (remember the purpose of the TAH grant?) as it is a commitment to, well, staying in business. Second, when a school district partners with a hack, it partners with a business, not a community of historians. This is a bad recipe for ongoing partnerships between school districts and regional colleges and universities. Third, toward improving their odds of securing the grant, hacks design safe programs that emulate past successes. So much for innovative pedagogy. And finally, in our case at least, the hack’s business model demanded a closed shop. If my partner chose to work with the hack, then I and my plan would be...history.
Faced with a choice between convenience and vision, and even though the teachers preferred my plan, my partner chose the hack.
I’m mad about this. I’m mad that my partner sold me out so easily. I’m mad that I invested so much time in developing a proposal that, at best, will be ignored and, at worst, will be co-opted by the hack. I’m mad that the Center, whose interest in this project was primarily intellectual, got outmaneuvered by a hack whose interest was primarily pecuniary. But what really irks me is knowing what my partner will get if the hack's plan is funded.
An example. I proposed using the grant to help teachers and students curate their own digital (and 100% free, by the way) local history archive in cooperation with several regional museums and historical societies. We even had a cool tie-in lined up with ExplorePAHistory.com. This was going to be a fun, cheap, and fairly innovative way to confront students with hard questions about which parts of our past get remembered, and which do not.
The hack countered with his company's canned WEB resource. An "award-winning" website packed full of freebies and with all the javaesque glitz of the internet a la 1997. Granted, a crummy WEB site isn't necessarily the end of the world. It's how you use it. The hack showed us how to use his. Pointing to a digital reproduction of Emanuel Leutze's iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the hack demonstrated an interactive feature that revealed flaws in the artist's rendering. He made a game of it:
"O.k., everyone, what's wrong with this painting?"
"The sun is shining," someone offered.
"Good!," said the hack, "Remember that Washington crossed at night."
Another someone: "Why's he standing?"
"Ha," the hack snorted, "would somebody as smart as George Washington really stand up in a rickety old boat!?"
And so forth. We never got to juicier questions about why Leutze painted this scene seventy-five years after the fact (and in Europe, no less) or why Americans have come to cherish such a "flawed" painting. What’s more, the hack’s larger vision for the TAH grant was as generic as the Leutze exercise—a big one-size-fits-all themes-and-issues-in-American-history routine, even though the school district had specifically requested an emphasis on local history that might help young folks understand the devastating poverty that had overcome its rural coal-mining community during the last generation.
Underwhelming website and limited vision notwithstanding, the brutal reality of this unfortunate episode is that what passes as "critical thinking" among our nation's TAH hacks and their various educational products seems to be, in this case at least, a vacuous true-and-false game in the myth buster tradition. Difficult questions are traded for platitudes. Teachable moments are lost to content experts whose expertise doesn’t necessarily pertain to the places where school kids struggle to make sense of their own worlds. Teachers never realize that the classroom freebies offered by hacks are freely available elsewhere and that co-authoring new and free digital tools with students requires little more than a few days training. It’s not hard to see, in this light, how long-term gains in critical thinking loose out to short-term profits.
And the American education system stumbles along on its path to oblivion…
So, who is to blame for this problem? The hack? Maybe the Fed’s byzantine grant apparatus? What about all those professors who cash in on TAH gigs without really understanding how the money works, or doesn’t work? The list could go on since, in one way or the other, all of us with a hand in the education game are implicated. My concern, however, is not to point fingers or even to beat up too much on the hack. All of us, after all, are trying to make a living. I’m more worried about how to make my colleagues aware of the impact they have, even if unwittingly, at every level of the American education system. If it’s critical thinking that we want, then all of us must ensure that it’s critical thinking we get. Talk to K-12 teachers, learn what they’re dealing with, leverage your university resources, and create partnerships with these folks that prevent them from having to choose between innovative vision and the promise of convenience.
And, perhaps most importantly, show your advisees that doing history well requires an ethical commitment to doing the best work possible, no matter what the context. We can’t get rid of the hacks, but we can encourage a new generation of entrepreneurial historians to find a better balance between profit and professionalism.