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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Education, Critical Thinking and Racial Hatred

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 15th 2008

 Most Americans are now aware of the heated controversy over a political cartoon that appeared on the cover of New Yorker Magazine that appeared this week (April 14, 2008). My concern about the issue raised by New Yorker Magazine is not about politics or whether or not the magazine was correct in placing the cartoon on the front cover but on the question of thinking deeply, also known as "reading between the lines," or thinking abstractly or Critical Thinking.

On the fact of it this political cartoon portrays presidential condidate Barak Obama and his wife as flaming Islamic radicals dedicated to the destruction of the United States. On the surface the cartoon appears to be a piece of anti black and Islamic hatred designed to appeal to the lowest levels of prejudice based on race and religion in the U.S.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns came out strongly against New Yorker Magazine and its cartoon. The remarks from both camps were condeming of both the article and magazine as being distastful and inappropriate.

This episode has given me pause to think about the way we think. The reason for this pause is that I am not sure who is thinking superficially: 1. Politicians, 2. Readers, 3. The American Public, 4. The candidates, Obama and Mcain, 5. The American Public?

According to Jeaqn Piaget, the great Swiss philosopher and learning theorist, we go through four stages of thinking from birth through adulthood. Each level of thinking is based on genetics and learning and represents developing "schemas" about our environment. These "schemas" are kinds of concepts about our environment that become the foundation stones upon which more complex types of learning are based as we grow up.
We gain these schemas as we interact with the environment.
Without going through each of the stages of Piaget, which can be found elsewhere on this site or in a fundamental psychology textbook, I will simply state that the highest level of thinking, according to Piaget, is called Formal Operations. At this level, an individual is able to think in the most abstract and creative ways possible. Those who achieve this sophisticated level of thinking does not always think on the highest level possible. In fact, we move back and forth from the basic level to the most sophisticated depending upon the type of situation we are in and what we are called upon to do.

The Operational Stage of Development is achieved from about the age of 11 or 12. From then onward, people can think logically, sequentially, form generaliztions and concepts, "read between the lines," imagine possibilites never thought of before and engage in qualitative modes of thinking. In other words, at this level of thinking, people should be able to evaluate, think intensively and, based on the observed evidence, form a judgment. This also describes what I am referring to as "Critical Thinking."

Let me add, at this point, that the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., believed and stated that the purpose of education is to learn to think critically.

Are our school systems teaching American students to think critically? Do our children go through the four stages of development as theorized by Jean Piaget? Supposing that average American children are normal, they should be going through the four stages and should be able to achieve the Operational stage of thought. Education should be able to supplement and enhance their ability to think of these abstract levels.

Keeping this information in mind, let us look at the observable evidence that the American people should be able to use to form judgments about New Yorker Magazine.

New Yorker Magazine has a long history of being extremely liberal, even "left wing," and intellectual. It has a long history of using cartoons, both on its cover and inside, in ways to attack racial hatred, dictatorship and unfairness. These cartoons are referred to as "satire." In other words, they are sarcastic portrays of people and issues that are harmful to people. Therefore, the cartoon on the cover of New Yorker Magazine is a piece of satire designed to do two things: 1. Attack racial and religious hatred and, 2. Attract your attention so that you will open the magazine to read the article to which the cartoon is attached.

My concern is not about the appropriateness of the way the magazine decided to portray hatred on its cover but the presumption of many that the American people are not able to "read between the lines," think abstractly or use good judgment based on knowledge, information and reading the article. It is true that people need to read and not only rely on the media for it's information. The importance of reading is based on the need to gather information without being influenced by the tendency of the media to distort things. In that way, each person can make their own judgments.

I do not believe that either politicians nor the two candidates are stupid in anyway. What worries me is that the politicians and candidates are underestimating the intelligence of Americans by presuming that they (we) are not able to think critically. Are they correct? Are we incapable of "reading between the lines?"

Many years ago the same magazine published a satirical cartoon, inside its covers, that bitterly criticized racial hatred. It was a brilliant cartoon. However, it went unnoticed because it was hidden in the back pages. I do not have a copy of this satire but I can describe it:

Cartoon Description:

A poverty stricken white family is sitting on the front porch of their house, guzzling beer, looking dissheveled, unshaven, slovenly, fat and hateful. All of them are clearly drunk.
An expensive luxury car drives up and stops at the curb next to the house. Out of the car come this black American family, looking trim, dressed in handsome suits and proper dresses and portraying the best of American values of hard work and achievement.
The one drunk leans over to the other drunk and states, "There goes the neighborhood."!!!!!!!!

What do you think about this issue? Can we Americans think and use good judgement? Are we capable of "reading between the lines?" If you believe that we cannot think, then, what is missing in our education system?

Your comments are welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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