Critical Thinking for Me, But Not for Thee

by Robert Pondiscio
April 12th, 2010

At Edutopia, blogger Elena Aguilar, a “school improvement coach” in Oakland, California, is peeved that her six-year old son thinks George Washington was “a good president,” an idea he apparently picked up in kindergarten.  “Why do you say that?” Aguilar asks him.

“Because he freed us from England,” he said.

“Some people think he was good, others disagree,” I said.

“My teacher thinks he was good,” my kindergartner responded.

I then explained to my son that I thought he’d done some things that weren’t fair. “George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was,” I told him.

Aguilar, who explains that “we’re pretty anti-slavery in our house,” goes on to describe how the exchange left her “boiling” at her son’s teacher for two reasons.  “First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach — an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power — is not acceptable for my kid or any kid,” she writes. 

“Secondly, I’m shocked by any teacher’s lack of cultural competence. I can’t imagine what one might think as they look at students’ faces, such as those of my son’s classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, “George Washington freed us from England.” He sure didn’t free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn’t free my husband’s ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.”

That’s all fine and well (we’re pretty anti-slavery in my house, too) but Washington was motivated by a desire “to be even richer than he already was?” Really? I’m no David McCullough, but didn’t Washington, a wealthy planter whose wealth was largely created by planting tobacco for export, have much more to lose than gain–including his life–by rebelling?  I was surprised to read that his leading the American Revolution was essentially a business decision.  Too, there’s the issue of viewing historical figures through a contemporary lens.  And isn’t all of this a bit much to put on the plate of six-year-olds?  Presumably over the course of a K-12 education there should be several occasions to expand one’s knowledge, see with more nuance, and come to see history in all its contradictions and complexities.

I posted questions and comments for Aguilar; at least three others posted similarly asking for a reference to support her interpretation of Washington’s role.  But when I returned to the thread yesterday to rejoin the conversation, a curious thing happened.  All of the comments critical of Aguilar’s post that I had read in my email the day before had mysteriously disappeared from the thread.

“I have no problem with kindergartners being taught about George Washington,” Aguilar generously allows, ”as long as they are being asked to think critically and consider multiple perspectives, and as long as they are also learning about other people.”  Agreed.  The original post was supposed to be on the need to apply critical thinking to history.  But critical thinking about that post seems to have been censored.

Maybe there’s a benign explanation.  But it sure looks like someone’s preaching it, but not teaching it.

20 Comments »

  1. Of course, it is possible that the teacher was referring to Washington’s role in freeing (“us”) AMERICANS from England, because WE (regardless of when/how we arrived here) are AMERICANS. Those who do not wish to be so are free to leave, as did many Colonial residents who did not wish to challenge English rule. Stressing family/ethnic group over citizenship doesn’t match “e pluribus unum”. Both in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Arab/Muslim world, tribalism has been and still is causing problems we don’t need to emulate.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  2. Washington was indeed motivated by financial concerns. Read Joesph Ellis’ book “His Excellency George Washington”pages 41-53 where he outlines how Washington grew in debt to British creditors over his tobacco and wheat production at Mount Vernon.In 1766, Washington actually switched from tobacco to wheat which Mount Vernon would eventually be the maker of because wheat was more profitable in the colonies than tobacco was abroad. Washington opposed the Townshead Acts of 1767 and the later Intolerable Acts of 1774 because they levied direct taxes on imports of sugar, tea, and other products(including the domsetically produced wheat he and others relied on for income) coming into the colonies which put financial pressure on distributors who acquired the goods once they came ashore to sell, taking away profits. The taxes also angered the exporters beacause the British wanted to raise revenue by taxing in some cases products that came from their own colonies such as Barbados in additon to French and Dutch imported goods into the colonies. Washington was in debt of what would be the equivalent of $125,000 in today’s dollars to the British until at least 1774 when he was able to pay down most of what he owed. This only occured because his stepdaughter Eleanor Parke Custis died and left half of her inheiritance to him. Washington was thus motivated not by any “patriotic ideals” but by trying to increase his own wealth to join the revolution as so many others were as well. Without the British imposing taxes on imports to the American colonies, distributors could increase profits and planters would be able to sell their crops such as wheat, tobacco, and cotton aborad for lower prices and make more profits.

    In addition, Washington held slaves in Pennsylvania in violation of that state’s 1780 Gradual Abolition Law which stated that anybody holding slaves in the state longer than six months had to free them. Washington, as president when the capital was in Philadelphia, was thus legally required to free his nine slaves that he brought with him to the capitol. Two of his slaves, Oney Judge and Hercules escaped from Philadelphia where Washington kept them in May,1796 and March,1797 respectively. Washington just before the revolution had approximately 140 slaves that he paid taxes on, at least sixty percent of which came from his wife’s dowry. He wrote in 1778 that he “wanted to get quit of negroes” because the slaves painting and selling the tobacco and wheat had lead him into debt in the first place. The only reason why Washington considered freeing his slaves later on in his life is not because of any humanitarian concern but because slavery, for him anyway, was becoming economically inefficent. Only 123 of the 320 slaves at Mount Vernon at the time of his death in 1799 were freed and he was to the very end only willing to free them when he finally died.

    Comment by Al — April 12, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  3. Hi Robert – Regarding the comments that were taken down, Edutopia does have a terms of use here http://www.edutopia.org/terms-of-use which prohibits the transmission of content that “GLEF considers [to be]… racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable.”

    The two comments that were deleted were deemed to be as such. That said, we did err in taking them down without more public dialog – including a reference to our Terms of Use – and for this, we apologize.

    Here are the comments in their entirety:

    Ro wrote:
    America the Last Best Hope
    I don’t see where in this conversation it talks about African War Lords and native tribal kings SELLING their own people as slaves. If you want the child’s own history told first, and you’re from Africa, do you go back to how their own people were willing to “sell” them into slavery to earn a profit? Yes, the same criticism that the “white” slave owners are constantly crucified for. No matter how true it was that the Founding Fathers of America had slaves, remember who was also profiting from the sale. America is the Last Best Hope of Earth. Please tell me what African American today isn’t GLAD they are here in America and not in Africa. Seriously, do you know any African Americans who want to move back? They are free to go aren’t they? Also, I have a very diverse group of dark skinned students in my room and they aren’t all from Africa yet they get grouped into this culture. Are you addressing this? I certainly hope that you are applying anti-Zinn texts for studen! ts. And kudos to the students who are asking for an opposing view to Zinn. America has throughout history made many attempts to right the wrongs. To say that Washington and Lincoln were not GREAT AMERICANS is not American. Today we’re seeing the Howard Zinn’s America I think I hear it being titled “Fundamentally Changing” America. Well, I for one am glad Washington as credited by this child in the article freed us from England. I am glad my family LEGALLY immigrated here in the early 1900′s to seek the American Dream. And how fortunate for those African American students who are here in America today. At least,for now, they can freely learn and critically think and respond. I’m not sure what “Fundamentally transforming America” might really mean and I fear it means a European version infiltrating our American Constitution. I think that is what Washington warned us against. I hope you critically read beyond Zinn too. Ask anyone who is in a country where a brutal dictator is overpowering the people what flag they are relieved to see coming over the hill to rescue them – it’s AMERICA, THE LAST BEST HOPE- read it volumes 1-3 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

    Mark Hettinger wrote:

    Really?
    “George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was…” Really? Is this statement a statement of fact or does it simply represent your bias about “the white man”? Please enlighten us all by providing a citation supporting your “facts.”

    If you have any questions as to the appropriateness of any post
    content, please review our Terms of Use, here:
    http://www.edutopia.org/terms-of-use

    Comment by betty ray — April 12, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  4. Economic advantages to being free from British control there may have been (at least, for some) but ONLY if the Revolution succeeded or put enough pressure on the British government to force some concessions; either option seemed highly unlikely at the outset. Joining the Revolution meant risking not only their lives and those of their families, but total loss of all their property.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  5. @Betty Ray I appreciate the explanation, even if it’s an unsatisfying one. Ro’s comment, while certainly strident, doesn’t strike me as so obviously offensive that it would warrant censorship. Mark Hettinger’s comment is not even close to meeting a test for objectionable. Remember that the reference to the “white man” that Hettinger quotes was made by Edutopia’s Elena Aguilar who in her piece decried “spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power”–a statement that in itself seems more likely to run afoul of your terms of use that Mr. Hettinger’s comment.

    Also, there were at least four comments that were taken down, not two. One of them was mine, and it was not objectionable no matter how broadly one interprets GLEF’s terms of use.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 12, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  6. Momof4-The problem with your reasoning is that Washington,Jefferson, and the other founding fathers would have MUCH reason for the revolution to succeed precisely because they were motivated by their own financial difficulties with the British. That’s why they worked so hard to raise and fund armies and appealed abroad for help from countries like France and Spain. They knew that they wouldn’t get any concessions from Britain and decided to wage a revolution anyway despite the risks because they didn’t want to get taxed by the British government any more, pure and simple. In fact, the revolution was run by rich white men: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, etc. These are facts you can’t deny. As for the text of the 1780 Gradual Abolition Law it is at http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/gradual.htm.
    For proof including statements made made Washington himself that he had no qualms about holding slaves, read Henry Wiencek’s “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America”.

    Mr. Pondiscio- I can tell you aren’t in touch with reality. You think that Washington was perfect and that he and the other founding fathers did no wrong. You declare that “America has throughout history made many attempts to write the wrongs”. I’d like to hear you say that to the millions of women, gays, Asians, blacks, and Latino immigrants who are continuing to suffer discrimination even today. As for your blatantly racist statement that “I am glad my family LEGALLY immigrated here in the early 1900′s to seek the American Dream”, it takes upwards of five years to get citizenship here if you go by the “legal” route. Oh, I forgot, you don’t have to immigrate so its easy for you to critisize those who do. You also might want to read the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act that Washington signed into law which protected slavery and prevented states from protecting slaves (http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/slaveact1793.htm.) pursuant to Article IV Section 2 of the very constitution that Washington helped vigorously to pass!
    From reading your comments, I believe that you are a racist and I challenge you to respond if you have the guts to take me on.

    Comment by Al — April 12, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  7. @AI The words you attribute to me were not written by me and they do not reflect my beliefs, thus I’ll pass on your kind invitation to “take you on.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 12, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  8. One children-age book I liked about George Washington is Rosalyn Schanzer’s ‘George vs. George: The American Revolution as seen from Both Sides’. As it turns out, George W and King George had a lot of common traits…

    http://www.rosalynschanzer.com/George_V_George.html

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — April 12, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  9. Oh Al. What would academia be today without identity politics and the ability to filter history through the prism of modern resentments.

    I had never heard of Zinn until my daughter’s 10th grade Honors English class assigned James W Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me as the required summer read.

    All the quality literature available and the teacher picks out bad history by a self proclaimed critical race theorist?

    Somehow in too many schools now we are willing to foster ignorance in order to create voting groups that can be relied on to feel rage.

    Comment by Student of History — April 12, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

  10. Anyone who denies that there was an economic aspect of and motivation for the Revolution isn’t showing much knowledge of history, let alone critical thinking. Remember “No taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party? I don’t ever recall hearing that the Founding Fathers were perfect, but they had a vision for which they were willing to risk everything. Not all were rich, either. The fact that some owned slaves merely made them part of their times, remembering that most people did not have slaves even when it was legal. After all, everyone is a product of their times. Of course, anyone who ignores the African end of the slave trade is either uninformed or deliberately blind. Also, slavery was practiced in the Arab/Muslim world and in Africa, well into the 20th century – and maybe today, unofficially. BTW, my forbears not only never practiced slavery but were on the Underground Railroad end of it.

    The victim mentality is destructive. Unlike the situation in many countries, anyone in this country is free to leave. A prolonged sojourn elsewhere might change some opinions.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

  11. I agree Momof4, but let me get back to the original point of the Edutopia piece. The writer was annoyed — boiling was her word — over her son’s kindergarten teacher for not teaching George Washington from multiple (and presumably contemporary) perspectives on race, slavery and economics. The question that I’m interested in that no one has taken up is how much of this should we reasonably expect to come up in kindergarten.

    I taught 5th grade, but from the perspective of the prior knowledge I’d like to see children acquire at such a young age, I’d like them to understand the concepts of countries, colonies, some geography (understanding the 13 colonies relative to the present map of the U.S.), perhaps something about the concept of self-government and democracy, etc. It’s hard to look at any historical concepts from multiple perspectives without a firm grasp of the concepts in the first place, no?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 12, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  12. Well put: I second that. It’s impossible to think critically without having some background to think about and it takes years to develop that.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

  13. Right, M04. I’m loathe to throw around charges of indoctrination, but that’s my concern. Critical thinking ought (one imagines) imply some volition on the part of the learner. Without background knowledge, you’re not asking students to apply critical thinking skills, you’re directly teaching the multiple perspectives. So I wonder if Aguilar’s ideal –ask students to think critically and consider multiple perspectives — is even possible at age six.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 12, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

  14. [...] critical of Aguilar’s post were deleted without explanation, writes Robert Pondiscio. Edutopia responded by printing two comments censored for racism, neither [...]

    Pingback by First slaveowner « Joanne Jacobs — April 12, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  15. I agree with both of you. It’s as if we should teach from the get go that there are no fixed ideals and everything is subject to interpretation.

    It seems like in K and the early grades we should be introducing people and events through something like So You Want to be President or Jean Fritz’s wonderful series of books.

    Without facts and knowledge the poor student ends up believing all oral statements are just someone’s opinion. Instead they need to start learning somethings are demonstrably true and why they are.

    We may be becoming a country where only those with access to a parent’s knowledge will be well grounded in history, economics, science, or math.

    What a loss.

    Comment by Student of History — April 12, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  16. Ah, yes–the “white people suck” version of history. I teach an AP review course for kids who’ve had teachers that would win Ms. Aguilar’s seal of approval–but aren’t anywhere near ready to pass the AP test because, alas, the AP test doesn’t think that white people suck.

    Ms. Aguilar isn’t up to speed on what actual historians think, apparently, because by any standard and any metric, Washington was considered not just a “good president”, but a great one. You can argue about whether or not he was a decent human being or what his motives were for fighting the Revolution and bring your own idiotic biases to the debate. But as to his Presidency, there is little doubt of his greatness.

    Comment by Mitch — April 12, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

  17. For those who really want to know more about George Washington and other players in the American Revolution I recommend the book “Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution,” by David A. Clary. It’s an opportunity to see him as a human being. It brings you into the hearts and minds of the people who lived in the Revolution. It’s an amazing book and an excellent opportunity to really understand how hard and precarious the revolution really was.

    Unfortunately few today are educated about how the fight against British tryranny in the colonies (No Taxation with out Representation, etc.) led to some of the earliest public efforts to end slavery in colonial America. For example, Sons of Liberty leaders James Otis and Nathanial Appleton wrote and spoke about ending slavery as part of their overall petition for liberty in the colonies. This led to a very had push to make slavery illegal in Massachusetts in 1765 – 10 years before the American Revolution. Protests against the British and for “liberty” made some southerners very nervous and evidence shows that it gave hope to slaves who became aware of the liberty movement in Boston.

    Another book, this one for children and adults, is Open the Door to Liberty: A Biography of Toussaint L’ Ouverture,” which shows how Toussaint was inspired by America’s Revolution to fight for Haiti’s freedom.

    Comment by Gina — April 13, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  18. What is a “school improvement coach”? Is this a public-school position? a consultant?

    Comment by momof4 — April 14, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  19. [...] line in the grocery store.  Time for me to admit I was wrong:  we’re clearly doing a disservice to kindergarteners by not presenting multiple perspectives on the “father of our [...]

    Pingback by George Washington, Deadbeat « The Core Knowledge Blog — April 19, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  20. I’d like them to understand the concepts of countries, colonies, some geography

    Comment by hookah — August 10, 2010 @ 8:14 am

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