Arm Kids to Combat Propaganda: Teach Reason - the Fourth "R" - in the Classroom

Friday, 22 February 2013 11:10 By Carmen Yarrusso, Truthout | Op-Ed
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Children Classroom.(Photo: sean dreilinger / Flickr)Yarrusso proposes an essential new discipline: teaching children how to think, rather than what to think, so that they will be armed against the potentially deadly deluge of propaganda and deceit promulgated throughout society.

At a bare minimum, our children must acquire skills in the "3 Rs" (reading, writing and 'rithmetic) to succeed in life. Humanity is dangerously past due adding a fourth critical R to our children's curriculum - reason (actually something much broader than reason, which I call sound thinking, outlined below). Sound thinking skills are vital not only to the well-being of individuals, but also vital to the well-being (indeed, the very survival) of our species in this increasingly interdependent, complex and dangerous world.

Our schools (and almost all of us) teach our children what to think instead of how to think - like giving them fish instead of teaching them how to fish. It takes years of studying and practicing basic principles for our children to become proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. Why should we expect our children, or anyone else for that matter, to become proficient in sound thinking without similarly studying and practicing the basic principles for many years?

Thinking About Thinking

Most people go through their entire lives frequently making poor decisions because they lack the skills to consistently distinguish truth from falsehood, or to skeptically question the values they unconsciously adopted from others because they never learned how to think for themselves; they're not stupid, they simply don't know how to think soundly. For example, observe how most Americans are easily fooled by specious government lies that result in massive suffering and death here and around the world. The justifications given for the Iraq war, the drug war and the war on terror are prime examples of blatant government deceit that easily fools millions of us.

We humans tend to believe even absurdly unreasonable things if these beliefs give us enough comfort or ease enough pain. Millions of Americans sincerely believe our government representatives primarily work for the people's interests, even as they openly take millions in legal bribes from corporate interests. We humans much prefer false beliefs that feel good over beliefs that are true, but don't feel good. The only way to defeat these extremely harmful human propensities is to begin to formally teach our children how to think soundly.

I propose establishing a new discipline called sound thinking that eventually would be taught as a "fourth R" as specific courses of study are developed and gradually introduced into each grade level (discussed below).

The Insane World Around Us

Why should we expect any other world when even the most basic principles of sound thinking aren't a prominent part of humanity's basic education? Very few people learned how to read proficiently until it became part of basic education.

It's really quite astounding that a skill so vital for a harmonious, happy, productive and peaceful human existence is not taught right along with the 3 Rs. We live in a world where the label on a can of paint says: "Do not drink," which assumes the user can read, but can't think. Our culture has countless constructs designed to protect us, or at least mitigate the harm, from our ubiquitous unsound thinking. Moronic warning labels, laws and lists of prescribed and proscribed behavior in magazines, books and TV relentlessly try to compensate for our poor thinking skills.

Again, we teach our children what to think instead of how to think. We arm them with long lists, compiled over the years, that say do this, but don't do that; believe this, but don't believe that -absolving them from thinking for themselves. We literally teach our children not to think. When decision time comes, if it isn't on their list, they must either go by their gut feelings or let someone else "think" for them. If the outcome goes well, they add it to the "do" side of the list; if it doesn't go well, they add it to the "don't" side - assuming they don't kill themselves in the process.

Instead of teaching our children a method of thinking that applies to all decision-making, we let them suffer as they learn about the world the hard way by trial and error and fire. Is there a more obvious fact in the universe: that poor thinking skills guarantee poor decisions, which guarantee poor actions, which guarantee human misery?

Humankind took a giant step forward when reading, writing, and arithmetic skills became a basic part of formal education throughout the world. It's way past time for humankind to take another giant step forward by making sound thinking skills a basic part of formal education throughout the world.

Sound Thinking as a New Discipline

The proposed new discipline I call sound thinking would combine principles from three existing disciplines: psychology (about 45 percent), philosophy (about 45 percent), and math (about 10 percent).

So-called critical thinking courses offered in high schools haven't been very successful. Most critical thinking courses concentrate on teaching reason using principles of logic, while totally ignoring the much more significant psychological component of sound thinking. Understanding basic principles of logic is certainly an important part of acquiring sound thinking skills, but understanding basic principles of psychology is a much more significant part.

The Psychological Catch-22 of Sound Thinking

Until we attain a certain skill level in sound thinking - which we won't attain unless we study and practice the essential principles - we humans are blissfully unaware of just how poor our own sound thinking skills are. Thus we see no reason to study and practice the essential principles. A Catch-22.

It's something like the conundrum of using our eyes to see our eyes. Unless we use a tool (like a mirror) our eyes can't see our own eyes. Unless we use a tool (like sound thinking skills) our minds can't think effectively about our own thinking and thus our inability to think soundly remains invisible to us.

The Psychology Component of Sound Thinking

This area of sound thinking could be summarized as thinking about what it means to be human.

We humans have evolved to be credulous - to believe readily - as a survival mechanism. Children who "used their own minds" to decide what was dangerous and what wasn't, instead of just accepting what their caregivers told them, often didn't survive to pass on their genes. So we humans are primed to believe things without evidence. It's in our genes. But this strong human tendency doesn't serve us well in a highly interdependent, complex world where powerful corporate and government representatives regularly use (often sophisticated) deception and propaganda techniques to gain our approval. In fact, deception is clearly the currency of power centers throughout the world.

Couple this strong propensity to believe without evidence with our strong propensity to believe what makes us feel good - and disbelieve what makes us feel bad - and we humans have a recipe for major disaster. A hundred years ago, all the unsound thinking in the world couldn't begin to destroy the planet. Today the unsound thinking of a relatively small number of powerful individuals could easily put humanity on the road to Armageddon. In fact, some very intelligent people think we're already speeding down that road.

As parents, it's gross dereliction of duty for us to not teach our children the extreme ramifications of human psychological propensities. There are hundreds of psychology books out there that could be used to develop a sound thinking curriculum for our schools. Consider the titles of just three: How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich, Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds, by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, and Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman. The knowledge is clearly out there, it just needs to become part of humanity's basic education.

We humans are masters of self-deception. We're much like blind people who don't realize they're blind, walking into walls, falling down stairs, yet seeing no need for a cane. Understanding the mechanisms of our inborn mental blindness and our distorting psychological propensities are of prime importance in acquiring sound thinking skills.

The Philosophy Component of Sound Thinking

This area of sound thinking could be summarized as thinking about thinking.

Philosophy typically makes its formal entry into the curriculum at the college level, though a growing number of high schools offer some introduction to philosophy. Introducing philosophy as part of a sound thinking curriculum is a perfect way to get our children to start thinking about thinking.

Swiss philosopher and psychologist, Jean Piaget, is considered one of the most important contributors to modern developmental psychology. He's famous for his pioneering studies of the development of thought processes, particularly in children. His work has had great influence on child psychology and education theory.

But Piaget claimed that most children, prior to age 11 or 12, aren't capable of philosophical thinking, because prior to this age they aren't capable of thinking about thinking - the meta-level thinking that typifies philosophical thought. But current research contradicts his ideas. There's now broad agreement among educators that even young children are capable of thinking about thinking.

The Socratic Method (named after Greek philosopher Socrates) would be a prominent part of a sound thinking curriculum. The basic form is a series of back and forth questions formulated as tests of logic and fact, which help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic. It seeks to expose contradictions in the students' thought processes, which eventually guides them to sound, tenable conclusions.

William Ralph Inge said: "The object of studying philosophy is to know one's own mind, not other people's." As students become more proficient at thinking about thinking, they'll be able to step back and examine the inner workings of their own minds. Not only will this hone their sound thinking skills, it will allow them to listen to their inner spirits and guide them in their personal pursuit of happy, fulfilling lives.

The Mathematics Component of Sound Thinking

This area of sound thinking could be summarized as mastering the arithmetic of sound thinking.

Though logic is a main branch of philosophy, here logic refers to a field of mathematics. Students would study the basics of Boolean algebra, which can be thought of as the arithmetic of logic. Students would learn to manipulate statements and propositions based on their logical form, rather than their content.

This area would cover the foundations of logic. For example, the law of contradiction (statements can't be true and false at the same time), the law of the excluded middle (statements must be either true or false), and the various identified logical fallacies. It would be tedious to go into detail here. Suffice it to say this area would cover the more formal aspects of logic with emphasis on the math.

This area would also borrow some basic principles from game theory, which is essentially the study of strategic decision making. Game theory should probably be called "decision theory," but since it was originally developed around "games," the name stuck.


We simply can't go on like this. Corrupt governments and corporations around the world exploit the gullible masses they're supposed to serve using various forms of deceit that fool most of the people most of the time. Mainstream media do much more to aid and abet these processes of deception than to expose it.

Our government "representatives" openly sell us out to multi-national corporations. We're rapidly destroying our natural resources for profit. A major scientific study predicts there will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas in 50 years if current trends continue. Experts say there won't be any summer ice in the Arctic within ten years. Glacier-melting around the world is accelerating. Storms are becoming more violent. But millions of us are easily duped into thinking climate change is no big deal or is even a hoax.

Millions of us vote in meaningless elections oblivious to the fact the candidates are all pre-chosen by the power elites. No matter who wins, we the people lose. Millions of us have no jobs. Millions of us live in poverty. Millions of us have no health insurance. Our president can now execute our citizens without any due process. Domestic and international laws are becoming a quaint joke. The powerful can break laws with impunity. War has become a perpetual, legitimate business that generates massive profits for those in power. The list goes on and on.

Humanity is on a bus racing toward a cliff. Unless we begin to arm our children with the sound thinking skills they'll need to reverse our mindless path of death and destruction, our species is doomed. The stakes couldn't be higher and time is short.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Carmen Yarrusso

Carmen Yarrusso, a software engineer for 35 years, designed and modified computer operating systems (including Internet software). He has a BS in physics and studied game theory and formal logic during his years with the math department at Brookhaven National Lab. He lives in New Hampshire and often writes about uncomfortable truths.

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