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Truth and Truth: Critical Thinking Alone Is Not Enough

March 5, 2014 by Admin

rottmanWritten by: Bruce Rottman
High School humanities and economics



All good schools teach critical thinking. They develop students who write clearly and persuasively, who pepper discussions and papers with genuine insights. 

I think there is something missing in this picture.

Did you know that at Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School, we think critical thinking alone is not enough? Yes, we teach students to think critically—but about what? Does Truth exist? Are there absolute standards for Beauty, for Excellence, for Goodness, or are there no real guidelines? 

Author Allan Bloom, in his classic The Closing of the American Mind, writes that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of:  almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” This relativism permeates our modern culture, including most high schools.  Not so at Providence.

Here, we do hold some truths to be self evident, and we never forget Who is the author of Truth. Teachers believe in objective Truth with a capital “T,” something we approach with an utter and amazing humility, gentleness, and, yes, open mindedness.

In my humanities or economics and government classes, as we discuss a topic, students often ask, “Is there a right answer?” Sometimes I say “Yes, but I don’t know what it is” (Perhaps the question is whether sentient life forms exist on other planets). Other times, I’m more confident:  I embrace a truth, but with a loose grip (my view of the efficacy and morality of capital punishment, for example). Most often, though, I hold on to a truth with a tight grip (Is Jesus Lord?). Truth is out there, and it’s my job, in humility, to search it out.

In that search, we teach students that truths typically have a both a factual and a moral or philosophical basis. For example, a minimum wage law is either a good or a bad idea because of its affects on the working poor, and/or the degree to which it infringes on peoples’ rights. You won’t find vacuous debates at Providence that conclude…without a conclusion, with some sort of listing of pros and cons. Teachers certainly don’t view the world from a lens of moral equivalence, drifting along with our students. Neither do we run away from the Western and American philosophical heritage of individual freedom. 

We teach students to think clearly about rights, showing them how the Founders defined rights. I’d like to think that rather than teaching students they have a vacuous “right to a living wage,” we prepare them to earn a living wage. Seniors carry their copy of the US constitution, and they can tell you about Article 1, Section 8’s role in defining a limited role for government. Freshmen might enjoy putting Columbus on trial, but they understand the role of his successors in bringing the very Western values to the New World that we are using to critique him.

Recently, a poll of British youth found that 85% of under 25 year olds “recognize no clearly defined moral guidelines,” according to historian Niall Ferguson. Ironically, 45% of these young people said England’s decline in religious faith made the UK a worse place. In a world in which people routinely reject the moorings of Western tradition without a deep understanding of those moorings, Providence students gather around the ideas of classic thinkers and acquaint ourselves with the institutions that have developed in the West that have, in fact, done amazing things for the “least of these”—with the most important of these institutions being secure property rights (which, of course, are human rights), and the rule of law.

A century ago, the Dutch politician/theologian Abraham Kuyper once said that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine.’” Our recognition of this Truth, and our unapologetic assent to other truths bequeathed to us, means that Providence is just a bit different from every government-funded school, and in fact, most other private schools. 

Education is too important to teach only “critical thinking.” I would shudder to send my own children off to college if they were taught to think about values instead of virtues, to equate rights with entitlements, or to view truth, goodness, and beauty in relativistic terms. I love teaching at Providence not only because of the beauty of Santa Barbara; I love it because we teachers embrace Beauty, along with its Author. It may be deeply countercultural, but it is an honor to be at a school which so clearly supports the Western and Christian foundations of our culture.