Thoughts on Simplistic Thinking

Goby the Fish

I can think specifically of a few times when teachers worked to indoctrinate me.

The first time was in elementary school. Those were the days when anti-littering propaganda… well, littered school hallways and classrooms. And yes, I was one of those kids who, under the age of ten, was out in the streets lecturing people for littering, yelling out the car window from the backseat at passersby who dropped cigarette butts or napkins on the sidewalk, picking up pieces of trash and railing at the ilk of those ruining our world. I must have been adorable.

I was probably just as adorable as the children that Senator Feinstein recently encountered who asked, no, demanded, that she vote for the Green New Deal. You can watch the video here if you haven’t seen it. Feinstein has received a bit of a backlash for her response, but she is actually right. She shouldn’t allow children who understand very little of what they speak to bully her (yes, I used the word “bully”) into voting a particular way. When Feinstein claims we don’t have the money to pay for the Green New Deal, a young student yells out, “We have tons of money.” If only it were that simple! And any adult who actually thinks it is that simple is thinking like a child.

I cannot even believe we are having a national discussion over this Green New Deal. In the university business writing classes that I taught for many years, one assignment I always loved was for the students to choose a current problem and to propose a solution. The first semester I gave the assignment, I received essays exactly like the Green New Deal. Grand sweeping solutions! They were reminiscent of pageant contestants who propose world peace or an end to world hunger. People routinely mock these answers. Why? Because these statements are so simplistic and juvenile as to mean nothing.

I quickly had to change the assignment instructions. Any solution proposed had to exist in the realm of reality. The Green New Deal doesn’t exist in the realm of reality, even if it feels virtuous and cuddly.

Another assignment I gave students was designed to help them move from writing paragraphs to fully-fleshed out essays (yes, plenty of college students cannot write a readable paragraph). I would have them write a paragraph about how to decrease homelessness in Los Angeles (where I taught). Paragraphs would come back with a few standard suggestions: build more shelters, stock food banks, provide job training. Then we would talk about these ideas. Because quite frankly, a paragraph stating these three suggestions sure makes it sound easy to solve homelessness, doesn’t it? It is were only that simple!

But it isn’t. And since these were college students, I could not allow them to stop their thinking at such a shallow level of analysis. I would take students through each idea. Shelters, for example. Where would they be built? How would the land be obtained (donated? purchased?) that already had the correct zoning? Or obtain the necessary zoning? Or the approval of the neighbors? Money for the architects? The engineers? The supplies? The construction workers? The list goes on and on. 

These are not merely obstacles thrown up by the politically incorrect, racist, homophobic, misogynistic obstructionists in an attempt to halt the work of those who are compassionate and care about the downtrodden.

These are actually details that need to be resolved in the real world for even one shelter to be constructed. Plus there is the whole problem of convincing homeless people to stay at the shelter since so many homeless people are convinced that it is safer to be on the streets, or they don’t want to be hemmed in by walls or rules. So it wouldn’t make sense to go to all the trouble of building a shelter if homeless refuse to stay. These are necessary considerations.

To turn that single paragraph into an essay requires exploring a topic at a deeper level. The longer the essay, the deeper the exploration.

Inevitably, some students don’t want to think deeper, it actually is hard work to do so, and just add more ideas to turn their paragraphs into essays. They might add ideas such as provide addiction programs or make counseling available. This would allow them to write more words without investigating any of the ideas in any depth. These essays often looked like a laundry list of ideas. I did not give a low grade to these papers. I just didn’t accept them and gave them a chance to try again. Our goal was to think deeper, lower than generic, surface, easy ideas.

My business writing students, who were college juniors and seniors, defaulted to the same simplistic thinking. If the problem they chose to write about was that the college did not have enough student parking spaces, the solution would inevitably be to build four new parking garages. Honestly, a first grader could come up with that solution. And these were college students. It wasn’t acceptable. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of deeper thinking. They were just lazy. And too often weren’t challenged to think at a more sophisticated level.

When I received reports like this, again, I did not give them a poor grade. I simply returned them and gave them another chance to start over.

For anyone who might think this is a bit harsh, the reality is that four new parking garages do not just magically appear because some student suggests it. And for me to allow them to simply suggest it without thinking it through would be sending them out into the world  believing that was all that was required of them. Plus they would not have the practice at thinking below the surface, a skill this country needs desperately. 

Similar to the homelessness issue, it comes down to available land and money for construction. And obtaining either of these is extremely complicated. If someone in all earnestness wants to find money to build more parking garages, for example, he or she must think at a much deeper level. If he or she cannot, someone else will have to do the thinking for them. And where do you suppose our society places the higher value and is willing to pay ore money? To the shallow thinker or to the deep thinking problem solver?

Yet level of depth of the Green New Deal is exceedingly shallow. And people are actually taking it seriously. I am dumbfounded.

The middle and high school students who confronted Senator Feinstein could have come up with the ideas in the Green New Deal all by themselves in a couple of hours of brainstorming. Yet here we have a Congressperson, making six figures (of taxpayer money), who has been granted a platform that few have, and through a press conference that gave her an international voice, presenting a resolution that means nothing. I know, let’s refurbish every building in the country! I know, let’s build high speed rails all over the country! Do the people promoting this even know how hard California tried to build ONE line of high speed rail in the state? It’s this same simplistic, shallow thinking that led to billions of California taxpayer dollars as well as billions of federal tax money to be squandered on the high speed rail scheme that was dead on arrival. Any construction that to date has taken place is between Merced and Bakersfield, hardly populated areas demanding high speed rail, as anyone from California knows. And don’t even get me started on all of the eminent domain issues that would result from such a project as envisioned by the Green New Deal.

I absolutely expect a higher lever of thinking and a deeper understanding of issues from our elected officials in Washington. It may be wishful thinking, but it is an expectation I refuse to climb down from, despite the continued disappointment.

And the fact that adults – teacher, parents, “journalists” – are celebrating this as groundbreaking, aspirational, and ambitious and taking it to children as the salvation to our doomed world is really astonishing. Of course the kids love it – it speaks to them on their level.

As a kid, scolding and shaming people about litter no doubt resulted in not one single piece of litter being eliminated from the planet. I’m pretty confident of that. 

But here’s something I recently read about that is far more effective than childish scolding and shaming or proposing something so outlandish as to be impossible. A beach community came up with the idea of a huge fish sculpture that would serve as a trash can, asking beach goers to feed their plastic to Goby the Fish. Goby LOVES plastic. This didn’t just magically happen. They obtained permission to place it on the beach, secured an artist to design and construct it, contracted to have the plastic collected and disposed of properly. And beach plastic litter has decreased immensely. 

It retrospect, it may seem like a simple solution, but it was not accomplished with simplistic thinking. It was accomplished with a depth beyond pie-in-the-sky dreams and with a focus on reality. This is what we should be teaching and heralding.

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