Half True: What Politifact Got Wrong About the GOP and Critical Thinking

Fact checking the fact checkers

Half True: What Politifact Got Wrong About the GOP and Critical Thinking

As exercises in "gotcha" journalism go, Politifact may be the most elaborate and well-researched. But once in a while its rulings should be subject to the same kind of arbitrary true/false analysis that its judgments bestow. Case in point: Do Texas Republicans really oppose critical thinking?

On Aug. 11, in a piece called "Says Texas GOP platform calls for end to teaching 'critical thinking' in public schools", Politifact cast its beady eye over a New York Times column by Gail Collins. The subject was the Republican Party of Texas platform, and claims that the GOP explicitly opposes critical thinking. Here's the section in question:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Why exactly Politifact went after Collins, whose column was mostly about Ted Cruz's golf-related conspiracy theories, evades understanding. After all, there were plenty of other people rolling their eyes at this GOP gem, including Stephen Colbert, Leonard Pitts and, erm, NewsDesk.

But here's where Politifact missed the point. Their 'fact checking' concentrated on outcome based education, a school of educational thinking championed by sociologist Bill Spady. Its basic philosophy is that the purpose of education is more about the goal than the process (that's a broad sweep description: Find out more here.)

Why does the GOP care about any of this stuff? That's what Politifact missed, and it's deeper down in this very brief statement:

behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority

OBE is supposed to be about dismantling the super-standardized, centralized method of education, and replacing it with common standards. Yet somehow in the GOP platform it becomes a tool for indoctrination. The fringe right of the GOP (which, increasingly, has become its mainstream after driving out its center and moderates) has spent years spinning an intricate conspiracy theory that public schools are thinly veiled Stalinist re-education camps. You see an elementary campus; they see a Khmer Rouge re-education camp. Think I'm kidding or overstating? Check out this Fox News story from 2001. Or the American Thinker piece from earlier this year, which claimed that "The socialists and Marxists still have your children." Or how about when Bishop Joseph McFadden told CBS News that "Hitler and Mussolini" would love the Pennsylvania Public School System. Because, you know, totalitarianism.

Oh, and any time the Texas GOP talks about fixed beliefs, that seems to inevitably lead to Creationism in science classes. Then that leads to Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, advising teachers to sneak bits of the Book of Proverbs into their teaching plans. After all, as she wrote, "As for other religions – the wisdom won’t do them any harm."

The idea that education should not teach kids how to think is baffling. What the GOP platform dresses up in dog whistle code words is simply an opposition to evaluating the world. Everything should be broken down into simplistic yes/no, fill-in-the-bubble thinking. That is in no small part why the testing industry rubs its hands in glee whenever this kind of statement appears. If you actually teach real critical thinking – of the kind that the Founding Fathers and their fellow sons of the Enlightenment would support – than you understand the world better. But that's a lot harder to analyze using standardized tests, isn't it?

And so what if a child's "fixed beliefs" are challenged? If those beliefs can't withstand a challenge or two, they are blind dogma, and deserve to be challenged. Hey, if it's good enough for Martin Luther, it's good enough for a Texas classroom. As Pitts wrote in the Miami Herald, "Presumably, if a child is of the 'fixed belief' that Jesus was the first president of the United States or that 2+2 = apple trees or that Florida is an island in an ocean on the moon, educators ought not correct the little genius lest she (gasp!) change her fixed belief, thereby undermining mom and dad."

It's hard not to ignore the dramatic irony of Politifact – the self-appointed arbiter of truth through critical thinking – getting caught in this discussion. However, it does continue its other role as a purveyor of useful straw men. One campaign manager told me that getting a mostly false rating from Politifact was the best thing that could have happened to him, because he got to spend weeks (1) rebutting them via press releases and (2) raising funds because he'd proved them wrong.

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