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There is a great deal of talk today about the role of education in brainwashing or grooming students to accept particular sets of beliefs. The question is whether or not schools that present alternative points of view about race, diversity, women and lifestyles are actually attempting to indoctrinate students or instead teaching them to think critically about different points of view. Considering whether or not those who would ban certain ideas while pushing others may in fact be the ones engaged in whitewashing the truth further muddies the water. Is it a good thing to let students hear about and discuss controversial topics or should we shield them from ideas and philosophies that may cause them to view the world without rose colored glasses?

Years ago I took a series of lessons on “critical thinking.” For four Saturdays in a row I sat through eight hour sessions describing what critical thinking is and how to show students methods for looking at the world, its philosophies, histories, and laws from different points of view so that they may understand how and why individuals, groups and organizations are affected by the totality and reality of the past, present and future. It was one of the most enlightening educational experiences of my life and I became convinced that our very future depends on the ability of each individual to carefully assess everything thing they see and hear.

I suppose that I had an aha moment during that training when we had to read six descriptions of “the shot heard round the world” that signaled the start of the American Revolution after gunfire was exchanged at Lexington and Concord. One of the accounts was from a colonist who was an eyewitness, another came from a British soldier who was also there. One came from a colonial journalist who heard about the incident and then wrote about it. Yet another came from a British soldier who had been captured and imprisoned but was not present when the event occurred. Even Winston Churchill wrote about the incident in an historical tract years later. The final entry was from an author who had done painstaking research using primary and secondary sources. 

The eye witness accounts were totally at odds with one another. It seemed as thought the reports were from two different events. The hearsay writings while concurrent with the revolution were more the stuff of propaganda that depended on who had relayed the story. Finally the history written years later by Churchill seemed slanted in favor of colonialism while the one written with the intent of presenting all of the differing points of view with great honesty felt the most authentic. Nonetheless I realized that we each have filters that sometimes distort our views of the world. To get a full picture we need to hear all of the voices. Only then do we begin to realize the complexity of the world around us. There are few easy answers about anything. 

One of the things I liked best about being on my high school debate team is the gathering of data to support both pro and con arguments on a particular topic. My own views meant nothing. What I was tasked with doing was to be able to convince the judge that my side of the argument was the most persuasive. I learned how to parse statements to find the imperfections in them. It made me realize that there is often more to a topic than my initially limited view of it. I learned how to use data and facts and rebuttals to seek truth. It was a life changing process for me. 

I grew up in a relatively isolated bubble that was safe and filled with love and opportunity. I would later learn about a darker side of life, and while it sometimes saddened me, I understood that I would better be able to serve my country by knowing the full truth rather than a childlike bit of propaganda. I remember thinking as a youngster that I had to sing Dixie and boo the Battle Hymn of the Republic because I lived in the south. Imagine my utter shock when I learned that my great grandfather had fought for the Union Army even though he was born in the south. Think of how the scales fell from my eyes when I learned more details about the Civil War in college and from books that I read. Suddenly I understood that horrific era armed with knowledge and the ability to ask important questions. I learned how to view slavery from the point of view of those who were in bandage and whose descendants were still struggling for equality and justice. Such revelations made me appreciate my education and respect those who had been willing to tell me truths. It did not make me adopt a certain point of view or even to feel guilty or hate my country. It led me to a reasoned and adult reality that allowed to me see what had been good and what had been bad about our history and what is now right and what is still wrong.  

Learning even the ugly parts of humankind does not indoctrinate. I enlightens. It is a freeing experience to hear differing accounts of life. Banning uncomfortable books or ideas is the worst possible idea for maintaining a thinking citizenry capable of defending freedom and democracy. Information and truth and transparency should be the tools for making our young strong, not shielding them and pretending that certain things do not and never did exist. Students are far more resilient than we think. They know a lie from a truth. Nothing excites them more than realizing that adults respect them enough to let them hear about the world from from any voices, not just some carefully doctored recitation of western civilization. 

The world is a big place with many cultures and ways of doing things. We would do well to teach our children about all of it and show them how to weigh the differing ideas in a careful and critical way. Otherwise we really are indoctrinating them and when they find out what we have done one day they will be disappointed and angry. We are a country of many ideas. We don’t need to emulate places like Russia or China or Iran where free thinking is quashed. Put the books and the AP courses and the diversity back in the schools. Our hope for the future depends on such freedom to learn and think.


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