The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How we can really make America great

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a social justice activist and six-time NBA champion.

America’s most dangerous enemy is not terrorism, war or immigration. The greatest threat to our country is ignorance.

A healthy democracy depends on knowledgeable discourse for survival, but our national conversation is incessantly muddied. Information is twisted, contorted and butchered — so much so that Americans struggle to reach informed decisions about which policies or politicians to support. In order to arm Americans with the ability to distinguish truth from distortion, we must implement critical thinking into our K-12 education system.

Sixty-two percent of American adults get their news from social media. During the 2016 election, malicious fake news stories were more popular and shared more often on Facebook than legitimate headlines. Facebook itself brags it has the power to influence voters. According to a former Facebook employee, “There’s an entire political team and a massive office in D.C. that tries to convince political advertisers that Facebook can convince users to vote one way or the other.”

To make matters worse, we have junk science advocates in Congress (such as the senator who threw a snowball while on the Senate floor in an effort to disprove climate change); sanitized history lessons in schools (a history textbook describes slaves as “workers” and the Atlantic slave trade as a part of “patterns of immigration”); and Fox News, where only 10 percent of statements are true, according to PunditFact. Then of course, there’s our woefully uninformed president who routinely cries “Fake news!” in response to reports that are proven true.

Instead of acknowledging the leaks inside our own ship, we wave enormous flags, launch impressive fireworks, march in star-spangled parades and brag about American exceptionalism. We do everything to celebrate ourselves, but we do little to actually feed our malnourished democracy what it needs to thrive: informed citizens. Informed citizens are made, not born, and to make them, a nationally mandated program that teaches critical thinking in our schools is the lasting solution that we need.

Critical thinking isn’t just for political purposes — it also has practical career and life applications. It is a skill listed by employers, so learning how to think critically in childhood will increase employability in adulthood. It also appears to improve problem-solving abilities. A study of 85,000 teenagers across 44 countries and regions showed that students from countries that encourage critical thinking were better at problem-solving.

Here’s what it would take to add critical thinking to an already embattled U.S. education system:

1. Change our teaching model.

Critical thinking should be taught the same way we teach a language: through constant practical use and repetition until students are fluent. Starting in middle school, every student should have a formal class that teaches how to identify logical fallacies that may come from the Internet, media, authority figures or even textbooks.

Other classes would then include practical applications of critical thinking, according to the subject. English classes would examine fictional characters’ logic in their motivations. Non-fiction essays would be studied to show flaws and strengths in logical persuasion. And history classes would analyze political speeches from current and historical leaders for signs of emotional manipulation.

Teachers need to emphasize how to think, not what to think. Students must learn to acknowledge that their opinions are formed from a plethora of influences: parents, religion, peers, friends, teachers, government and so forth. They must be taught to be aware of these influences and to evaluate both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion.

2. Change how we measure success.

Current systems of standardized testing are illusions of progress and accountability. They do not measure students’ intellectual capabilities so much as they measure their ability to take tests. According to one study, students in U.S. public schools typically take around 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade. Countries that out-perform American students on international exams typically only give three tests during that time.

We have to shape tests so they evaluate students’ abilities to practically apply what they have learned. This could be done through a combination of standardized tests and project-based evaluations, in which students demonstrate, through guided projects, what they learned.

Educating our children on how to deal with political and intellectual dishonesty — and on how to make decisions based on corroborated evidence — is a necessary form of self-defense. It protects children from social or political brainwashing and provides them with the intellectual means to form their own beliefs.

It is the responsibility of every American to form opinions based on gathering as much information as possible, evaluating that information for veracity and then using logic to form conclusions devoid of personal prejudices. That is the process that will make America great. If we want a stronger America, we need to educate our children so they are adequately equipped for the task of making it so.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.