Bad Political Argumentation
Kohn makes a particular argument that I found to epitomize bad argumentation, in a way that is depressingly common among partisans on all sides of virtually every social and political issue. Here's the formula:
Side 1: "I think we should adopt Strategy A, with the goal of causing Result B."
Side 2, with the bad argument: "I don't think Strategy A would cause Result B. In fact, I think it's so clear that Strategy A won't cause Result B, and that it will instead cause horrible Result C, that I'll accuse Side 1 of lying when they say they want Result B in the first place. Thus, if they're proposing Strategy A, it's really because of a sinister and maleficent plot to bring about Result C."
Now this isn't necessarily a bad argument: It could theoretically be true that Side 1 is being dishonest when it claims to want Result B. But in most cases, Side 2 is just inventing the maleficence attributed to Side 1. That is, Side 2 wrongly assumes that no one can honestly disagree with Side 2's assessment of whether the means achieve the ends -- and that therefore anyone who claims Strategy A would cause Result B isn't just mistaken, but is pursuing another dishonest and sinister end.
Well, this is all rather abstract, so let me type out the egregiously bad passage from Alfie Kohn's book:
Knowing a lot of stuff may seem harmless, albeit insufficient, but the problem is that efforts to shape schooling around this goal, dressed up with pretentious labels like "cultural literacy," have the effect of taking time away from more meaningful objectives, such as knowing how to think. . . . .Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this argument is completely wrong, from start to finish. Cognitive psychologists have known for a long time that creative and critical thinking are impossible unless you're working with a huge base of factual knowledge.
The number of people who do, in fact, confuse the possession of a storehouse of knowledge with being "smart" . . . is testament to the naive appeal that such a model holds. But there are also political implications to be considered here. To emphasize the importance of absorbing a pile of information is to support a larger worldview that sees the primary purpose of education as reproducing our current culture. It is probably not a coincidence that a Core Knowledge model wins rave reviews from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum (and other conservative Christian groups) as well as from the likes of Investor's Business Daily. To be sure, not every individual who favors this approach is a right-winger [Kohn doesn't mention that the founder of Core Knowledge himself is anything but a right-winger], but defining the notion of educational mastery in terms of the number of facts one can recall is well suited to the task of preserving the status quo. By contrast, consider Dewey's suggestion that an educated person is one who has "gained the power of reflective attention, the power to hold problems, questions, before the mind."
If you don't believe me, try to come up with a critical assessment -- generated by your own brain, not quoted from elsewhere -- of ten-dimensional superstring theory, or Thomas Gold's abiogenic theory of oil formation. Can't do it? Neither can I, and it's precisely because I don't know enough facts about quantum physics and oil formation to be able even to understand what those theories say, let alone figure out how consistent they are with the evidence.
It's mystifying to me that anyone thinks it possible for students to be taught to "hold problems . . . before the mind" without knowing facts about the subject in question. Would it really be productive to ask students to think critically on the following problem: "Was the Civil War a good idea?," if they don't know who Lincoln was, have never heard about Reconstruction or the Missouri Compromise, and generally haven't learned lots of facts about what caused the Civil War, what happened during the Civil War, and what results occurred afterwards? And make no mistake: Americans are often abysmally ignorant of the most elementary facts (consider the 2007 poll finding that 31% of Americans couldn't even name Cheney when asked who was the Vice-President).
But as I say, leave all that aside. The real problem with Alfie Kohn's argument here is not just that he's wrong, but that he assumes that he's so obviously and indisputably right that no one could possibly disagree with him. To Kohn, trying to get kids to learn facts somehow prevents or precludes critical thinking -- and this is so obvious that no one could really think that it's important for students to learn facts. If anyone wants students to know that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa (as 18% of Americans think), it can only be because they hate critical thinking, and are just a bunch of mean right-wingers trying to oppress people by preserving the "status quo."
Kohn's argument is egregiously bad. But similar arguments can be found everywhere, if you look. Environmentalists couldn't really believe that global warming is a danger; therefore their real motive is to destroy the free market. Education reformers couldn't really believe that giving poor people a choice among schools is a good idea; therefore their real aim is to destroy public schools. Examples abound.