How to Think Critically

So, I can sit here and tell you what I think about this article. And, you might believe me, or not. But, then, I thought I would try promoting critical thinking. So, read the article and then i’ll tell you HOW I think about it (which will also include some of WHAT I think about it.).

First, I want to point out that all news is propaganda for someone. I don’t care what a journalist says about being objective, it is impossible not to exhibit some bias. After all, just the decision to tell a story is a bias. In order for me to decide that a given event is newsworthy betrays some world view or another. As well, I might include and discard certain facts because of my bias. Now, that being said, that doesn’t render news unusable. In fact, I think that knowing the bias of a reporter is good because it helps you understand their story better.

Critical thinking means that you don’t automatically just accept what the speaker/author is saying. It means asking questions about who is saying it, what they’re saying, why they’re saying it and who stands to benefit from you believing what they’re saying. Critical thinking means examining both the message and the delivery method. As a high school teacher, I absolutely love when a teenager gets mouthy and says, “What? All I did was say I’m already working.” Right, because the tone of voice and body language that was telling me to go piss in the wind should be completely disregarded. As a critical thinker, I can tell from the way the words are being said what the speaker really means.

The example is a little bit facetious, but true, to a point. If you watch a TV show, thinking critically means you listen to the words that are being said but you pay attention to the music, the lighting, the colors, the images that go along with it. You listen to the word choice. Connotation and denotation can be interchanged and used cleverly. This happens all the time with the news. The reporter will refer to one person fighting their government as a rebel and another as a terrorist. Somewhere in between those two are guerrilla fighters. Think about that. If I tell you a group of rebels stormed a police station because they were fighting for freedom, that sounds noble. But, if I tell you that terrorists stormed a police station seeking to overthrow the government, well, that sounds awful. But, both sentences could be describing the exact same incident.

Critical thinking means you listen to the message within the message. We all put messages within messages. It’s not evil. But, be aware that news programs do it to. I remember hearing on TV about the Soviet Union news service Tass. Tass meant “truth” in Russian. Occasionally, the news would report something that Tass had reported to the Soviet people. It was always in direct opposition to what we were being told and I remember thinking, “Gosh, do the Russians really believe that?” Well, yeah, they did. And, we believe what our news tells us too.

The article that I’m looking at here is not, technically speaking, news. It’s Op-Ed (opinion and editorial) which means that this is what someone thinks about the news and is, journalistically, distinct from news reporting.

Okay, with all of that being said, I am going to promise you that I will be as honest and transparent as possible. I will write down my thoughts as they occur as I go through this process.

Protective Bargaining by Thomas A. Cochran
Boston Review | MARCH 23, 2011

Just when America needs everyone working together to resolve the severest economic crisis since the Great Depression, we are … Read more

One thing I consider as I read the article is where it came from. I’m not familiar with the Boston Review, or the author, Thomas A. Cochran. The page provides a blurb about the author:

Thomas A. Kochan is George M. Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.

That doesn’t tell me a lot. MIT has a reputation as a good school and is well known for it’s engineering and mathematics programs. But, I’m not familiar with the Sloan School of Management. Right off the bat, though, I’m going to make a guess that the School of Management probably leans more toward the employers’ point of view than the employees. From that I would guess that many of the professors are conservative. So, for further evaluation, I’m going to go to Wikipedia. And, yes, I’m well aware of the criticism that Wikipedia is not necessarily a reliable source. I will say, true, anyone can edit it. So, generally speaking, I would not use Wikipedia as a sole source for research. But, to get a general idea of something, and as a starting point, Wikipedia is excellent and without peer.

Having now read/skimmed those two pages, I have a little more information. And, note that I didn’t read those pages word for word. I skimmed a lot of it. Here’s what I think about what I read. MIT is an extremely prestigious private university that has been around since the 1860’s. It is, indeed, primarily known for engineering and mathematics but is heavily into scientific research. One thing I saw was that a founder of Koch Industries graduated from MIT. Also, reading about the Sloan School, I see it is well known and is designed to train leaders, that is, CEO’s. As such, I feel pretty safe thinking that the professors there are going to be conservative, and business-minded. I wouldn’t immediately think that they would be on the worker’s side.

Could I be wrong? Sure. But, this is what I’m thinking. Now, also, what I’m thinking is that it’s possible, although I have no proof of it, that this particular piece of writing is a whitewash of the Walker/Wisconsin episode. For me, what Governor Walker did in Wisconsin is straight up wrong. I disagree with both the premise (that government workers are the problem) and his solution (stripping away collective bargaining rights). I agree with the United Nations that collective bargaining and unions are human rights and not privileges. I’m not going to go into my reasoning on this right now (though I will be happy to in another blog post). And, even though this article appears critical of Walker and what happened in Wisconsin, it’s possible that this is a veiled attempt to continue taking away the power of unions.

Why? Well, for one thing, while Kochan appears to be supportive of unions and collective bargaining, he is also critical of unions. Specifically, he states that teachers’ unions are protecting “poor” teachers (he means that they don’t teach well) at the expense of students. He also says that unions are slowing education reform.

“Teacher unions have also been slow to accept the call for education reform and are doing so now only after considerable pressure and incentives from the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement programs. The public will no longer tolerate seniority, tenure, or other barriers that protect poor teachers from competition, at the expense of their students.”

I disagree with these statements and the fact that it is thrown in the middle of the article with no facts to back it up gives me pause. By doing it this way, Kochan allows those opinions to look like facts that not in dispute. It’s intellectually dishonest.

Teachers have been slow to accept the call for education reform largely because most of the current proposals to “reform” education suck. Standardized testing is useful to a degree but it’s use has grown to fetishistic levels. Merit pay sounds good at first but in reality research has shown it to be ineffective, plus no one seems to be able to show a good, fair way to judge teachers.

Let me put this one to rest: Tenure does not protect bad teachers, bad administrators and districts do. My tenure as a teacher does not protect me if I suck at teaching. If I suck at teaching, my administrator can observe me, evaluate me, write me up, offer some interventions, observe me some more, document the observations, write me up again, and then, terminate me if there is no improvement.

Is it “easy” to get rid of a bad teacher? Not necessarily. There are steps to take. Tenure is my protection against bad administrators who don’t like me or my views or the cut of my jib or whatever. But, I have seen “bad” teachers improve because of these steps. Look at it this way. There is a lot of research to show that veteran teachers are far more effective than their brand new counterparts. The only people that don’t think this is so are not teachers and couldn’t survive a month in a classroom.

Teaching is hard. It is complex. And firing teachers without cause is stupid. If you can get a veteran teacher back on track it is far more effective for students in the long run.

Know the best reason to get rid of a veteran teacher? They cost more than their greener counterparts. So, if you are a “business person” (ie. maybe someone that teaches management at a private university), you might think that a less expensive teacher is a good thing.

Okay, so that was a huge digression. But, I think it is useful and appropriate because it tears apart a hugely biased and misinformed paragraph smack dab in the middle of this discussion that is obviously about teachers unions and Wisconsin. Why? It’s the lead of the article! So, if you throw in a grenade like that in the middle of the article after looking fair and researched from the start (see where he refutes the idea that public employees are overpaid), then it makes your other statements look true and verified.

So, now I’m deeply suspicious of the rest of the article. When he declares that Kaiser Permanente is a model for how to reorganize and improve an organization, I’m now thinking he’s either willfully ignorant or very badly informed. At worst, he’s evil. Yes, evil because he lies. He writes, “By working together in this way the partnership helped turn the organization’s finances around, supported steady growth in wages, increased employee and patient satisfaction, and improved patient care.”

Oh really? Personally, I refuse to be a patient for Kaiser Permanente. This is partially biased by the fact that I believe poor care by KP was a deciding factor in my mother’s death. I think that the way KP compartmentalizes care is completely awful. Have you been a patient there? You never see the same doctor (or rarely). They have to read your chart to find out who you are and what’s been wrong with you. Look, I’m not a doctor but I think I’m safe in saying that knowing a patient’s history is a great way to solve problems in the present. So, for me, KP is an awful medical HMO and a poster child for how bad medical care can be in the United States.

So, what I think now, having read his article is that it is suspect at least. I noted above that a founder of Koch Industries graduated from MIT which is the employer of the author of this article. Koch Industries has been well documented as fully supporting Governor Walker and his actions in Wisconsin. I think it is possible, though not necessarily probable, that this author has been influenced by the Koch brothers. It’s not probable just because, for example, I went to U.S.C. but that doesn’t mean I’m going to share the same views as other alumni. However, being the George M. Bunker professor in the Sloan School of Management is a pretty high profile position. It’s not impossible that Mr. Kochan wrote this article as a favor.

How does it benefit Koch and others who want to break unions? Well, the episode in Wisconsin was ugly and drew a lot of attention. They would much rather have unions forced into conceding all kinds of things quietly. This article very much says that unions have to move faster, bargain more reasonably, and give up more for the good of all involved. Kochan writes how Massachusetts was facing a Wisconsin-type situation. Describing the solution, Kochan says:

“To avoid these consequences, a new union coalition formed and bargained as a single entity. Management agreed to negotiate with the coalition in return for full freedom to integrate the workforce without regard to traditional jurisdictional boundaries and work rules. A multiparty negotiation ensued, producing an agreement that “red circled” (froze in place) the wages of the higher-paid employees in return for the right to hire new employees on the state salary schedule. The parties called this the “grand bargain” because nobody thought it could be accomplished.

The agreement also created an operations-improvement program in which 10 percent of the workforce savings achieved would go to into an equity fund to help close the wage gaps between employees doing similar work. Joint labor-management committees were created and chartered to address the myriad issues that will arise as the integration proceeds and to modernize the job structures inherited from the old state system. In short, this negotiation established the framework and alignment of interests needed to build an efficient, indeed model, organization for public transportation.”

If this kind of thing was implemented in California, it would mean, for example, that the wages of teachers currently employed would be frozen in place at current levels. In return, laid off teachers would be hired back by need instead of seniority. (Yes, I’m making this up but it’s not far-fetched.) Teachers currently employed would keep benefits as they are. Teachers hired in the future would receive reduced benefits plans to save money (this would effectively divide the union, by the way). It’s still having the union give up some pretty fundamental rights.

As a reasonable person, I want to like this article. The summary at the end seems very fair and useful. But, some of the premises are not right.

And, as I’m sure you know if you read any more of my posts, it absolutely pisses me off that for some reason, we, the people have to pay for the mistakes of Wall Street. Nowhere does this article discuss the true roots and causes of the Market Meltdown of 2008 which is what got us to this point. Rather than point more fingers at teachers and other public employees, I wish more would be done to recover the tax dollars we flat out gave to the banks.

Honestly, before you come to me and ask for concessions, could you at least punish the people who created the problem? Teachers didn’t do it. AIG, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan did it. Where are their concessions? What are they giving up? The Bush tax cuts are still in place. The corporate tax exemptions are still in place. The TARP money is still outstanding, largely.

So, for all of it’s reasonableness, this article clearly is written to benefit the top 1% and ask the middle class and working class to give up more so they can have more.

Critical thinking means you have to question what the news, the opinion, the “facts” are really saying. Who is the author and what is their background? What are their possible biases? Critical thinking means you don’t just accept what people tell you. Don’t even accept what I’m telling you in this article. Talk to some teachers, read some books, find information from a variety of scources. As a teacher of ten years, I have a good deal of personal experience, and bias, regarding this situation. But, I’ve talked to union representatives. I’ve read books and magazine and newspaper articles about the budget and the financial meltdown. My bachelor’s degree was heavily weighted toward critical thinking and examination of media presentations.

News is propaganda. Don’t just consume it. Question it. Find the truth. Vote accordingly. Don’t accept what you’re told just because you think you believe the same things that the person telling you does. Those people on TV are not us and they are not automatically on our side. In fact, based on the amount of money they make, I am gonna guess they pretty much are not on our side. Think critically. Research. Vote.

Edited to add: I looked at the Wikipedia page on the Boston Review after writing this. This gives me some reason to reconsider a little because the Boston Review appears to be a respected periodical. I note that it is, at least tangentially, related to MIT, in that it partners with the university in an book imprint. In my mind, this could make them a little less critical of an MIT professor and his article. Like I said, I want to believe a lot of this article. It seems reasoned and reasonable. But, those statements about teachers and teachers’ unions really throw me off. To me, this article still looks like a wolf in sheep’s clothing more than anything. But, I could be wrong. 🙂


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