As a teacher of History, I spent a considerable part of my time in the classroom helping students to develop critical thinking skills which explored evidence to come to reasoned and sustainable conclusions, or to recognise when there was insufficient evidence to come to a definitive conclusion.
Having been taught in a traditional, linear historical narrative method, I was determined to offer my students something a little more intellectually challenging and practical when applied to their everyday life. When I started teaching, that meant becoming engaged with the School History Project (SHP) – a research-based teaching project that looked at the underlying skills of historical research rather than exclusively focussing on the narrative tale of successive kings and queens. The SHP was more interested in why Henry VIII had six wives, rather than the ability to recount them in order together with the method of their despatch!
I always sought schools teaching this approach and felt that I was giving my students some foundations which would be of practical value in their future lives rather than simply a fascinating and colourful series of historical tableaux.
It is therefore so distressing to see that recent events have shown that the ability to evaluate argument and evidence seems to count for very little in the contemporary world. The events leading to the election of Donald Trump in the US are the latest manifestation of a trend in which emotions, to pardon the pun, trump evidence. The process did not start with him but in the cynical manipulations of the political elite in many countries who, because of their control of, or relationships with the owners of the media, forsake evidence based argument for the ability to control the narrative – to ensure that your political position is the only one which receives the oxygen of publicity.
The technique is not new, it could be from the handbook of Joseph Goebbels Nazi propaganda ministry. The worrying element is that it now so fully deployed, not in the service of totalitarian states, but in alleged democracies. The ability to mobilise the electorate to support such profoundly flawed and ill-defined policy positions as “Brexit” and “Make America Great Again” is truly a rape of the concept of democracy.
What price having the ability to think systematically to arrive at an evidence supported position when the rest of the world is operating on emotion and ignorance of detail?
David Tollerton takes up the story…
I’m sure this is a topic we will return to in the future!