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Critical Thinking—What the Mainstream Classroom
Can Learn from the ESL Classroom
by Steve Schackne
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Frustration and discontent are the hallmark of western industrial nations as I write this in December, 2011. Financial and political crises abound; world leaders seem incapable of addressing or solving the severe problems facing us. A sense of cynicism sets in as we are constantly confronted with the unreal and the illogical, which seem to permeate all levels of public policy and discourse.

Here in the United States, where I am now based, the government's attention is currently focused on tax policy; that is, whether to increase taxes on those making over $250,000 in order to raise tax revenues and help offset a budget deficit. The issue is presented as a political/moral discussion —should we raise taxes on a group of people who can basically afford to pay those taxes? If so, how much should we raise those taxes? And to what extent should we cut spending to further help reduce the deficit, and would that spending cut harm poorer individuals who benefit from Federal programs that might be cut? It is simply reduced to an argument on fairness and numbers. But because it hasn't been fully thought out, the assumptions implicit in the current discussion may be false.

"The rich" already pay at the highest marginal rate in the U.S. and, even with generous tax loopholes, they contribute the highest percentage of revenue to the Federal coffers, so there is a moral argument there. But, the aggregate wealth in the United States lies in the middle class, not the rich, so logically tax policy must be focused on them, not the rich. Furthermore, Arthur Laffer, the economist, has done years of research on the issue of taxation, which has led to the "Laffer Curve," a phenomenon which posits that as tax rates go up, people sometimes react by shielding or forgoing their income, behavior which leads to the reduction, not increase, of tax revenue. If we look at this added data, then the argument shifts from "is it fair to increase taxes on the rich?" to "will increasing taxes on the rich increase tax revenue?" Critical thinking has changed the whole dynamic of the debate.

These conundrums crop up with increasing frequency: a scandal at an American university where eyewitnesses to a felony report to college administrators instead of law enforcement officers, no tolerance laws in primary/middle schools where teenagers are suspended for carrying an aspirin to school and pre-teens are disciplined because they hugged on the playground.

Several states have been considering a regulation that would forbid images on LED signs fronting public highways, but would allow text. A strong argument could be made that while an (non-provocative) image creates a flash impression, text needs to be decoded and would demand more of a driver's attention, thereby making text on a sign more of a public danger.

All of the examples I have cited have one factor in common—they involve inflexible set choices without examining underlying consequences which might lead to better alternative choices; they all exemplify a superficial, uncritical approach to a problem.

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