The Power of Critical Thinking

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Now that so many lessons from teachers are streaming into homes parents are eavesdropping and becoming agitated at times by what they are hearing, particularly when it comes to Social Studies classes. I have witnessed a few adults asserting that some teachers are indoctrinating their children rather than simply teaching the facts. The question becomes what the most appropriate way of presenting history and politics and other subject matter should be. Are some of the methods being used a means of introducing critical thinking or do they indeed represent a kind of indoctrination of our young?

Many years ago I spent Saturdays attending lectures on how to teach students to think critically. The idea behind the movement was to provide students with the tools for looking at information from differing points of view before drawing conclusions based solely on emotions or allegiances. For example we considered accounts of what happened on the village green in Lexington where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. As part of the discussion we read primary and secondary accounts from both the British and Patriot points of view. We were asked to consider what biases may have entered into each account and then compare and contrast what we had read. 

It became immediately apparent that each summation of that historic event was affected by both the political views of the writers and whether are not they had been actual participants in the melee. As expected I discovered that we each see a particular event through somewhat prejudiced eyes. Critical thinkers attempt to unravel all of the emotional aspects of history and get to the bare bones of what seems to have actually happened. In the case of Lexington Green it appeared that tensions were already high with lots of rumors and a bit of drink at the tavern fueling suspicions and anger. To this day nobody is totally certain who fired the first shot but once it rang out everyone took action believing that each side was acting in self defense. Both the British sympathizers and the revolutionaries used the shootings as a reason for taking action. 

The first hand accounts of the “shot heard round the world” were the most radical regardless of whether they came from loyalists or revolutionaries. Later historical tracts made more of an attempt to tone down the rhetoric and appear to be stating only facts but most of them still contained leanings toward one side over the other. Parsing the information and the rhetoric was an interesting task that demonstrated the need to be wary of accepting ideas as truth without research. 

Most social studies teachers today have been well grounded in critical thinking skills and they intentionally instruct their students with multiple sources that often contain divergent ideas and philosophies. Their purpose is not to indoctrinate but to teach students to be circumspect in accepting something as absolute truth without considering the motives and leanings of the authors. They also focus on simply presenting historical and political philosophies as means of understanding how beliefs influence how people behave. The idea is to help students to open their own minds to the process of asking questions and exploring the reasons behind the ways people and cultures believe and behave. 

I attended an International Conference on Critical Thinking sponsored by M.I.T. one summer and I heard from speakers from around the globe and from virtually every kind of organization. I became more and more certain that isolation and blind loyalty to any person or group is not only dangerous but detrimental to the vibrancy of human interactions. Critical thinking saves corporations and governments. Even our Founding Fathers understood that our nation would grow and evolve. Many who allowed slavery to be part of our country’s beginnings believed that it would be outlawed given time. They created mechanisms for creating change when situations demanded them and rules for making certain that those changes were well thought out. They warned us that following political cults was dangerous to the health of our country which is why George Washington was so insistent about stepping down from the presidency as quickly as possible. They were great thinkers who gazed into the future while shying away from radical ideas that they believed would nonetheless ultimately come to pass.

We should not condemn teachers who open students’ eyes to a way of critically assessing any historical event, idea or decision. It is essential to democracy that we proceed with honesty and attempts to justly and fairly provide the ideals of the Declaration of Independence to all regardless of race, religion, sexual identity or philosophical views. Our Constitution was designed to protect every single one of us and to change when any of us are left out of that calculation. It takes critical thinking and open discussion to reach rational conclusions for the good of all. Many of our younger citizens are better at that than those of us who are older who only memorized facts in the classes of old. We should be happy that we are helping our young to really think rather than simply react. 

I would urge parents to go ahead and listen to their children’s lessons and then engage in additional research and honest discussions as a family. There is never anything wrong with learning more about the world around us and seeking answers to the many questions we have. Open your mind and find the long thread of history and discovery that has led us to this moment in time. It is not indoctrination. It is a precious gift that unravels the mysteries of our human natures. 


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