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Teaching Students What to Think

September 13, 2017 by Max Beers

Teaching Students What to Think

By Bruce Rottman, Libertas Scholars Program Coordinator


I’ve often heard people say that teachers should “teach students how to think, not what to think.” 

That claim is neither possible nor virtuous. Instead, teachers need to think about how to teach students what to think.

Let’s assume I am investigating the KKK’s influence in the US in the 1920s, and, for simplicity’s sake, there are two perspectives. One is the KKK’s world view: all races are not created equal, some (or one) should rightfully dominate, and some random acts of violence are acceptable if the inferior race doesn’t accept this vision. The second: all races are endowed by God with rights, which requires us to treat all individuals with dignity and respect. 

To never inject “what to think” would imply that a teacher dispassionately present both of these views as acceptable. I see two problems with this approach:

1—I doubt that many teachers either explicitly or implicitly do this. I certainly would not.

2—Even if my teaching avoids any implicit or explicit judgments, I am then implicitly teaching students that all views are acceptable. And that is teaching them a way of thinking that is presumably preferable. I am teaching students what to think after all.

When people say critical thinking is teaching students only “how to think,” perhaps what they mean is that teachers shouldn’t “indoctrinate.” But what does that mean? Therein lies the rub.

Excellent teachers necessarily have passionate views about the world, and how to make it better. Their teaching will reflect their views. Instead of feigning neutral world views, perhaps teachers should do the following:

==Be honest about their world view.

==Be fair in hearing out alternative, competing world views in class, though “fair” doesn’t mean that the teacher says the alt-right neo-Nazi skinhead’s views are morally acceptable; it means, I will allow you to speak, and listen to your view and your defense of it.

==Think about how far one goes in “promoting” one’s world view. Does a master teacher promote specific policies? Candidates? I’m careful to not get too specific in my classroom, but more importantly, I’m exceptionally careful to introduce competing views, to be open minded about how I present them, and, of course, not to have the grades of students with opposing views suffer—which is harder than it sounds. It’s easy, and sometimes correct, to think, “This student isn’t getting my perspective on issue X; she deserves a ‘C.’” I might be right, or I might be letting my own prejudices cloud my evaluation of the student’s work.

We live in a time in which the world is changing rapidly (even that statement reflects my values), and changing in unsettling and even objectionable ways. Unless I am an amoral robot who cares little about the world or their students, my teaching will reflect my personal values. I’d much rather be open about that, stop saying that I only teach students “how to think,” and focus instead on teaching honestly, modeling and teaching students civility, and approaching all things with good humor.