Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Learning to Think, or Not

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So–John thinks it’s impossible to teach anybody to think, and Lymaree thinks it can be done, but I  was really asking for a lot lesst–I want to teach people to read.

You can, in fact, teach some levels of analysis–literary and logical–even to students with very little in the way of intellectual talent, but what I want is to teach them how to figure out if the author of the op-ed is in favor of abortion or against it, and whether the article on autism and vaccinations says that vaccinations cause autism or not.

The simple truth of the matter is that even reading simple informative work like this is a matter of decoding not only the individual words, but the form they’re structured in and the allusions they make.

And every writer makes allusions.   It’s not possible to write much of anything without offhand references to something or the other, usually things the writer thinks all her readers will automaticaly understand.  If we couldn’t do that, we would have a hard time expressing much of anything in a short form. 

Noah and the ark.  A stitch in time saves nine.   One if by land, two if by sea–almost everything we read is full of references of this kind, and if they mean nothing to you, the chances are good that you’re not going to understand what’s in front of you.

What’s more, if you don’t know how to recognize satire, if you don’t know what a hypothetical is, if you can’t tell the difference between a presented point of view and the narrative voice–you’re not going to be able to understand much, either.

All these things can be taught, and they’re not just nice to know, they’re need to know.   Most people will have, in daily life, far more use for this information than they will for any but the most rudimentary forms of algebra, if that.  

I could make a similar case for basic history.

As things go now, we teach virtually nobody any of these things.  Our top ten percent, coming to the process naturally, gets practice, the rest get nothing but one more round of socially concerned young adult novels.

As for psychology and the various witch hunts and moral panics we’re prone to–I agree we’re prone to them, which is why  I think we need to be very careful about who we empower to enforce them.

At the moment, in the United States, we have sent out a vast army of “mandatory reporters” armed with think training in anything, little experience with real life, and endless “checklists” purporting to help even the uninitiated identify children and adults with “mental health issues.”

If you’ve never seen such a checklist, you could try this one:


or, almost better yet, this one:


The first is a checklist for ADHD, and includes such things as disliking homework and interrupting when people are talking.  The second is for childhood onset schizophrenia, and although it’s better–hallucinations!–it includes things like “poor attention span” and “inappropriate expression of emotions.”  Practically every kid has a poor attention span for stuff he doesn’t like, and “inappropriate” is in the eye of the beholder, even when the mismatch between environment and expression is very large.

I wonder what a kid from a large, largely immigrant Italian family like Bill’s would do when, thrust into a buttoned-down WASP school environment, he gets upset–do you think he’d act “appropriately” as the school would define it, or in the way he sees every day at home?

The symptom I like best from the second list, though is, “talking to yourself.”  You’d better lock me up.  I do it all the time, and have, ever since I was a child.  I talk out loud, with emotion, and with hand gestures.  I rehearse arguments I’m about to have with people, I rehearse class presentations, I rehearse stuff I’m about to write, and sometimes I  just fantasize, yes, even at my age. 

Of course, the difference between me and a schixophrenic talking to himself is that, if you stop me mid-talk, I’m usually a little embarrassed, but I’m not disoriented, I can tell you what I was doing and I can go right in to a sensible conversation about it or something else.

But–it’s all well and good to say that “professionals” will be able to tell the difference between cultural dislocations and “real” mental illness, but in clincial psychologists are notoriously bad at this, and the people we have empowered to spot such “disorders” in our children aren’t even clinical psychologists.  They’re teachers, nurses and social workers, often  provincial as hell in terms of their acquaintance with the behavior of cultural groups other than their own, who not only rely on the checklists to tell them when something is wrong, but who are often primed to find “disorders” whether they’re there or not.

After all, if T.S. Eliot was right, and all the evil in the world is caused by people trying to be important, then the school nurse who wishes she was  doctor or the teacher who finds her classroom life boring and meaningless are primed to get their personal significance from the heroic effort to identify and save children with “disorders.”  If parents complain, or people who know the child in other contests protest–well, that’s all just denial, and the child needs to be saved from the other people in his life as well as from his disorder.

If a kid is accused of stealing, or running away, or anything else that can be called a crime, he’s got fewer rights than adults, but he’s got rights–to confront his accusers, to present evidence in his behalf, to go before a judge and in some cases to go before a jury.

A kid accused of having a “disorder” has no rights.  The “diagnosis” can be pasted on him at any time and he can be forced to take drugs, spend time in a “secure” mental health facility, or simply to carry the label for the rest of his life on a record that will follow him to every school, college and job he wants.  Never mind making it untrue of him that “anyone” can grow up to be President.

And any attempt at self defense becomes yet another set of symptoms.  A child who claims to have been sexually abused is showing a symptom of sexual abuse–but a child who claims not to have been sexually abused is also showing a symptom of sexual abuse.   It’s a box that, once entered, cannot be escaped.  

We complain, on this blog and elsewhere, of the stubborness of belief in the face of contrary evidence–the checklists are the biggest and most powerful examples of that that we have in our society today.   Once one of these people decides tha the kid has a “disorder,” there’s no way to disprove it, or protest it, or defend against it.   The kid’s very impulse to reject the diagnosis becomes yet another proof that the diagnosis is true.

Moral panics will come and go, but this is more than the operation of a moral panic.   It’s an institutionalized form of injustice that harms hundreds of children and families every year, and that is going to become increasingly dysfunctional as the society around us becomes more culturally diverse. 

If psychology is science, then it ought to be able to  provide evidence of its efficacy at the same level as any other kind of medicine.

If it’s not science–and I don’t thin kit is–then it should not be allowed to wield this kind of power over children.  

Or anybody.

Written by janeh

March 17th, 2009 at 5:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Learning to Think, or Not'

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  1. All this talk about teaching thinking reminds me about reading about teaching critical thinking – hard to do, and even harder to prove that it has been done, IIRC. I’m not sure even geniuses come to it without work – who was it said genius was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration?

    I do understand that you think psychologists and their amateur companions – teachers, social workers etc – have too much power. I think you may be right, but I don’t think that they are entirely worthless, and I don’t think that that psychology should be eliminated because it’s not science, or because it can’t prove its claims like science.

    Psychology is not a physical science. Even with physical science, there are often questions to which the answers are ambiguous and which experts argue passionately over what exactly has been proved. Medicine operates in much the same way, but with fewer certainties than physics although more than psychology. I think that the excessive power given to those supporting poor psychological theories needs to be challenged, but to eliminate psychology entirely would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater – you’d be eliminating any benefit that comes from an attempt to understand human thinking that, although it may be in its infancy, is still of value. Psychiatry, with its advances in knowledge of the effects of brain chemistry on behaviour and emotions, is a bit more advanced, although still far from being able to prove things with the certainty of some branches of physical science, or even the semi-certainty of other branches.

    And if you’ve got people who think checklists of that sort, probably hardly better than those produced by writers of articles in women’s magasines and almost certainly neither validated nor tested and the reliability determined, they shouldn’t be taken too seriously by the legal or medical authorities.

    Well-designed and tested checklists can be useful. I believe there are some which are of use in both medicine and psychology, and there were news reports recently that using checklists before surgery have been proven to reduce mortality in the patients by ensuring that the right patient is on the table, the right operation is carried out and the right number of tools are outside the patient after the operation.


    17 Mar 09 at 6:37 am

  2. First, I agree that psychology is an art rather than a science and I share Jane’s dislike of checklists and moral panics such as sex abuse which she has discussed. I’d add the recovered memory court cases of a few years ago.

    But Jane wrote “what I want is to teach them how to figure out if the author of the op-ed is in favor of abortion or against it, and whether the article on autism and vaccinations says that vaccinations cause autism or not.”

    She calls that learning to read. I’d call it learning to think. You can certainly take an op ed or article and dissect it for the class or assign it as homework to be dissected by the student. But that is very much like what math or physics professors do.
    They can’t turn people into mathematicians or physicists.

    I doubt you can get turn students into critics who will apply your teaching outside the classroom.


    17 Mar 09 at 5:01 pm

  3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7943906.stm

    “Schools have to hold out that they are educational establishments,” she said. “They are not surrogate psychologists or mental health professionals.”


    19 Mar 09 at 10:51 am

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