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Meanwhile, What I Told MacArthur

By - November 10, 2005

From time to time I get emails from the MacArthur Foundation, the folks behind the genius grants. I have no idea why, but I’m not going to question them – it’s sort of nice to be asked your opinion by such a reputable place.

The last one I got asked for my input on “an issue coming over the horizon in the intermediate term where a modest investment by the MacArthur Foundation might make a substantial difference in the future…. the object of this exploration is to identify opportunities for philanthropy currently at the margin or edge…even if the optimal path of action is not certain…. focusing on those challenges where an early investment of philanthropic resources could be instrumental in mitigating negative effects or magnifying benefits for society in the future.”

Here’s what I came up with. If you all have modifications, input, criticisms, why, I’ll pass them right along. (They asked for up to six pages, which terrified me, hence the throat clearing in the first graf….)

While I’d love to write pages on the subject, in all honesty I fear my current work schedule would only insure that I failed to respond in anything like a timely matter.

And in any case, there is one simple idea that I bring up over and over again, as the core to what I believe can affect positive change in our culture, and seems severely overlooked. That it relates to my area of expertise is certainly no coincidence.

The idea is this: we suffer – in the US, certainly, and I imagine abroad as well – from a significant lack of what I might call 21st century literacy. By this I do not mean technological literacy, though that is certainly part of it. Instead, what I find seems to be missing, and in fact, is in serious retreat at least in our public schools, is what we often call “critical thinking” – the ability to look at all the available facts and, based on reason and a sense of fairness, determine a best course of action.

Our schools are instead focused on a testing regime which requires that students focus not on solving problems or determining best courses of action, but rather regurgitating answers. But as many wiser than I have noted through the course of history, the most creative act a human can engage in is not repeating an answer, it is forming a good question.

In an age where the knowledge of mankind is increasingly at our fingertips through the services of Internet search, we must teach our children critical thinking. One can never have all the answers, but if prepared, one can always ask the right question, and from that creative act, learn to find his or her own answer.

Instead, we have leaders that believe that questions have one answer, and they already know what it is. Their mission, then, is to evangelize that answer. That, to me, is a dangerous course. Reversing it by teaching our children to learn, rather than to answer, seems to me to be a noble cause.

I then later added:

Developing a framework in our schools for  “search literacy” – how to use and think about using a search engine – might be just the kind of thing you could do with a modest investment….

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6 thoughts on “Meanwhile, What I Told MacArthur

  1. Zach Coelius says:

    Well said. But you should add to that next time the sad lack of encouraging entrepreneurship in schools. Schools are still designed to create complacent, instruction followers. Great for the factory works of the twentieth century, not so good for the entrepreneurs we need for the 21st.

    Nice to see you again at ad:tech.

  2. ms says:

    “Our schools are instead focused on a testing regime…”

    I think I see a little political bias leaking through here. The reason for the testing isn’t some *luddite leadership*, it is a reaction to the failure to provide children with basic skills. When the testing was initiated many children had no hope of developing the important skills of critical thinking because they didn’t have the prerequisite skills.

    Now there is certainly room for debate as to what should be taught (and tested) but please don’t skew the argument to make it sound as though the testing programs are the means to an evil end.

  3. Search in schools is something I’ve been thinking about recently as well. The idea that words can be used to find things is somewhat of a leap from the usual stories and small essays. It’s not clear at what stage searching large collections of text would fit into the reading curriculum.

    The issue of commercialism is also going to have to be addressed at a fairly young age. The same people who push products at kids on TV have moved to the web, and probably most kids’ first search experiences are going to be for Barbies and the like. It’s going to be a struggle to get kids to think beyond their commercially programmed expectations.

    …can affect positive change in our culture…

    And that’s “effect” Jon. No more GI Joes until you get it right.

  4. {{ what I find seems to be missing, and in fact, is in serious retreat at least in our public schools, is what we often call “critical thinking” …but rather regurgitating answers.

    Social Darwinism may be at play here
    consider the types of JOBS available to the average person, and the Office-Power-Politics
    that permeate the Business World

    If you DARE to question an instruction – you had better be VERY humble and tactful and Crytal Clear in Articulating in a fast paced environment.
    (will there be EGO repercusions?)
    (are you Questioning Authority?)
    The bottom line it worth it. Is it easier to just do the task as it is told and allow the “Leaders” to put themselves in “Blames Way” when something goes wrong

    The Creme’ de la Creme’ of thinkers probably want the relatively few Leader-Status-Power Positions that are available in a work society.

    The mass are followers to survive. – AKA pay your rent/mortgage / feed your hungry mouths – if you don’t like it there are tens of desperate people ready to take your “former” job.

    Also, the needs of a tax conscience society to invest in short-term, measurable goals.
    And the need for objective measurements in very large, diverse education systems have a tenacious impact

    {{{ Their mission, then, is to evangelize that answer

    Consider the Soundbite Press World we live in,
    Social Darwinism may demand that responses
    are “STRIPPED” of ANY “taken out of context”- ambiquous – contemplative answers.

    Taking the LSATS are for a few – not for the average person listening to soundbite oriented mass media misrepresentations of some ones’ explanations – which in a digital society – may haunt you for the rest of your life –
    Right of Wrong…

    “..he said WHAT!?”

  5. Dean C. Rowan says:

    Your identification of the problem is accurate, but it’s framed euphemistically from my standpoint. By “21st century literacy” and “critical thinking,” I think at least part of what you mean is, however drab this sounds, “how to use a library.” Will such language win a grant? That remains to be seen, I suppose. Will “an early investment of philanthropic resources…be instrumental in mitigating negative effects or magnifying benefits for society in the future”? We are by now far beyond the early stages. Point to Carnegie, and you might be justified answering in the affirmative. In any case, seeking facts, reasoned and fair arguments, and courses of action, not to mention works embodying enthusiasm, speculation, inspiration, and so forth, entails using a library, of which the Web is a species.

  6. Joe says:


    I am not sure how the money would be best spent to address it, but I think you posted about a better issue that could have a profound effect on society:

    “Google is Watching You