Never Close the Book top
by Ken Trainor
The Landmark, Oct. 15th, 1998, pp. 11 & 13
After almost four decades, Brant Abrahamson still doesn't have his course in critical thinking exactly the way he wants it. And that's exactly the way he wants it.
For one thing, it's not entirely his course. It has been evolving within the fertile incubator of the Riverside-Brookfield High School Social Studies Department since Abrahamson started teaching there way back in 1961. He brought his political science background to bear and worked with Fred Smith and Jan Goldberg. "It's still evolving," Abrahamson says. "It will never be a closed book." The bearded, pony-tailed Brookfield resident retired from teaching in 1993, and started his own business (with Smith) called Teachers' Press through which he has been trying to make the course available to as many social studies teacher as possible across the country.
When we found him on his back deck, he was in the middle of a mailing to 7.500 social studies chairpersons, trying to entice them to use the packet of materials they have developed. The package is divided into three components: Thinking logically, Prejudice in group relations, and Thinking about religion. According to his brochure, "The approach is empathic, nonsectarian and stresses critical thinking. Psychological methods of persuasion are studied." Each unit contains lesson plans, student activities, readings, essay topics, evaluation activities and bibliographies. The materials are published in Tucson and distributed out of California. They receive royalties, but Abrahamson says he'll never get rich off this. Which is fine. It keeps him busy and helps him keep alive his life's work. The point of the course, which is still taught at R-B as an elective (it was originally required), Abrahamson says, is for students "to modify their lives in a positive way." He started his course teaching 13 common logical fallacies: overgeneralization, false cause and effect, crowd appeal, self- evident truths, guilt by association, thin-entering wedge, getting personal, "you're another," wise men, black/white reasoning, false analogy, arguing in circles and facts and figures. Not everyone uses logical fallacies consciously, he told his students, but those who do are guilty of a form of lying, and they discussed the ways in which "deceitful practices associated with salesmanship, advertising and other elements of corporate and political life are likely to degrade society" as well as having "a corrosive effect on individuals."
The course, he recalls, encouraged students to apply the lessons learned to their own lives instead of "leaving them at the door of the classroom." To that end, he started mailing out feedback forms to students five years after they took the class to gauge how much effect it had had. Of the 10 percent who return the form annually, he says, most remember a few core lessons and seem to have "merged the material into their lives."
As the student population in the '60s expanded at R-B, so did the course expand, incorporating interdisciplinary elements from philosophy and psychology (for the prejudice unit). The goal was to produce critical thinkers so that students could use that skill to solve problems and make the important decisions that faced them.
Decisions like selecting partners, starting families and how relationships endure. When his first wife "liberated herself in the 60's," Abrahamson could relate his own personal experience to the struggles his students often faced with their own parents.
Textbooks, he found, just didn't work very well, and Abrahamson is pretty cynical about them anyway. They tend to be written to sell to administrators and school board members, he says, not to stimulate students. Even the materials he provides to other educators, he adds, should be adapted and modified. Abrahamson had planned to teach until he was 70, but "the state in its generosity" made him "an honorary 62-year-old) at the age of 58 with its "5/5" retirement incentive package. Since he was at the top of the seniority list after 32 years, he found that with his pension he "could earn more working at McDonald's than continuing to teach." But he didn't work at McD's. Abrahamson and Smith had started Teachers' Press back in 1986, so it was already established, and retirement permitted him to devote more time to it.
These days, Abrahamson spends about $2,000 a year mailing out some 10,000 sales pitches. From that he usually lands 2100 to 2000 customers. He doesn't mind if his customers reproduce his materials because he isn't focusing on the profit angle. he and his second wife live modestly ("I recycle everything"), and Abrahamson plans to keep doing this until the year 2006 (when he finally does turn 70). His biggest sale thus far was to the United States Government, which wanted his "Prejudice in group relations" unit for use in the Panama Canal Zone. "Were they ever taken out of the boxes?" Abrahamson shrugs. "Who knows?"
Though he tends to stay on the Information two-Lane Blacktop, he does have a website for his business, and it generates about 2,000 hits a year. Teachers have used his materials everywhere from the University of Wisconsin in Madison to Scotland. His latest addition is a booklet called Thinking About the "Mysterious" which uses critical thinking to examine all the pseudo-science that exists in the world today. he and Smith were hoping to teach a course at the College of DuPage on applying C. T. (as he calls it) to the Paranormal, but not enough people signed up. They hope to offer it again in the near future.
C.T. isn't Abrahamson's only academic pursuit, however. He's also interested in the field of "Global Studies," specifically "world history outside of U.S. and Europe," which tends to get short shrift, he maintains. When he isn't tinkering with the course, Abrahamson loves traveling with his family (he raised two children and added three more with his second marriage). A map on the kitchen wall is spider-webbed with black marker, showing all the camping trips they've taken around the country. In addition, he has traveled to China with his daughter and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son. Though his course will never be finished, this farmboy from Olds, Iowa admits there are limitations to everything, even critical thinking. "If you think everything's a logical fallacy," he notes, "you're too cynical."
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