Among high school students, I’ve seen puzzled looks in response to the mention of Adolf Hitler, segregation, Thomas Jefferson, the Cold War, Aristotle and the Bill of Rights—among other things. This shocking lack of knowledge has a noxious effect on student thought. Take a question I gave during a video assignment: to which country did many Americans move during the Great Depression? Seconds before, I had prompted my students to listen as the narrator explained that many Americans moved to the Soviet Union in search of work. Nevertheless, after we had finished watching, very few students had a response.
What caused this? It wasn’t a matter of apathy. One student revealingly asked, “wait, the Soviet Union is a country?” As freshmen, these students had only learned ancient history and a smattering of US history, and were unaware that Russia was once part of the Soviet Union. The issue was one of background knowledge, a schema of known facts and information into which an individual can fit new ideas.
Education reformers, teachers, politicians, advocates and parents often call for schools not just to teach rote facts—children can look those up on the internet—but to create critical thinkers. Companies say that they are seeking employees with critical thinking skills. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “from kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing?”
How could I have asked my students, however, to think critically about the Cold War, without knowing that Russia was once part of the Soviet Union? Should we prioritize business and technical writing for students who don’t even know who Martin Luther King Jr. is? How could any college student meaningfully support a cause like socialism if she arguably doesn’t even know what it entails?
So is critical thinking undergirded by a teachable set of skills? Where does it fit within the trite facts versus feelings dichotomy often alluded to on Twitter? To begin to find out, we need to probe an even more foundational skill: reading.