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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: The Battle for Young Minds

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Battle for Young Minds

Public schools in the United States for many years have become a battleground for the competing agendas in the culture war. Unfortunately these agendas often come at the expense of the students. Whether it is teaching sex education vs. abstinence only, evolution vs. creationism, prayer, the pledge of allegiance, or certain books in the school library, all of these battles influence the world views of the students who are only beginning to form opinions of their own. The opportunity to indoctrinate the minds of the young is irresistible to certain interest groups from both the Left and the Right. As important as all of these issues are, there is one underlying issue that affects them all: the student’s ability to reason.

It seems that school boards, administrators, and teachers are more concerned with teaching students what to think rather than how to think. The missing ingredient from most school curriculums is the study of critical thinking and basics of inductive and deductive reasoning. I would argue that critical thinking is the most important subject that is not being taught in public schools. How many students know the basics of logical argumentation? For that matter how many adults do? By the time a student is ready for high school, he or she should be able to recognize logical fallacies such as: slippery slope, either/or fallacy, appeal to authority, appeal to emotion, red herrings, circular arguments, among many others.

Schools everywhere should also be required to present alternative views in the various social sciences and anywhere else there is controversy. How can students reason if they are only taught one side of an issue? As someone who is a strong defender of separation of church and state, I believe that sensitive religious topics can be discussed if dealt with in an objective manner.

Currently, there is an issue of whether the Declaration of Independence is a violation against this principle because of the phrase “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator…”. When dealing with religion in public schools, what is important is the context. Reading the Declaration of Independence can be done in such a way that does not promote one religious belief over another. This document is a factual document that was written for the colonies to dissolve their ties with Great Brittan.

Censoring historical documents and events does nothing to promote learning; it in fact hampers the student’s understanding of history. As it is, there is already too much censorship in the history class. Teachers present students with history that has been sanitized of any wrong-doing by anyone. The debates of the past are ignored so that only a positive view of history can be learned. Discussing these issues and controversies requires critical thinking and would greatly increase interest in history by the students. History is interesting; I didn’t know that when I was in school. The students should know about the Crusades, the Pilgrims, the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, the Vatican’s influence in Europe, the Spanish missionary’s influence in the New World and how religion has influenced Western Culture for better and worse.

Schools should also teach the basic history and tenants of each of the major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and pagan beliefs objectively, not promoting or defaming any of them. The problem of church/state separation occurs when teachers and faculty promote religion, not by merely discussing it objectively. Teaching students about historical events such as the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock is very different from leading students in prayer or channeling other supernatural beings.

Religion’s influence on cultures is but one example, but students who can use critical thinking can apply that knowledge to all other subject matter. Unfortunately, teaching students how to reason appears not to be what politicians, clergy, teachers and administrators, or even parents want. Those who have a stake in the minds of the young would rather have students learn their biases and worldviews. Students who can reason for themselves might be seen as a threat to the status quo. Political parties fear students will grow up into voters and reject their platforms. Clergy might fear that students may challenge their dogmas. Teachers and administrators would have to deal with students who ask provocative, challenging questions that they do not want to answer. Parents may fear that their children may reject certain traditions and values. Empowering students could be a very dangerous indeed! The only way their logical arguments could be answered would be with an equally logical argument.

This is what I mean by Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds, challenging ourselves to question the conventional wisdom. Students who can use logic can question the well-prepared, vetted, politically corrected answers that inevitably find their way into the school’s curriculum. Until then, we will have to deal with the dumbing down of our society through illogical political ads, spin and biased media coverage, brought to you by the guardians of those who know "what’s best for us."


Anonymous Susan said...

I agree. Studens aren't being taught to think. In fact, a teacher's favorite students seem to be those who sit quietly in class taking notes, answer when spoken to, & never, never question what the teacher is saying.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am currently writing an essay on the current school curriculum within Barbados and what I am advocating is critical thinking needs to be on the syllabus. Stop teaching the children what to think but show them how to think. the society would be a better place. What I believe they are trying to create are automons. To think outside the box is considered unconventional.

10:44 AM  
Blogger PL said...

Nice article stephen, even though your second last paragrah is a bit of an appeal to fear - your competitor being the "status quo". I agree that critical thinking should be taught in our schools but of course many practical considerations are often in the way.
1. Whether we like it or not, teachers are human. They will always be human, and they are eventually always going to run afowl of someone's opinions due to their humanity. Teachers themselves were not taught critical thinking at schools, so the main adjustment to a critical thinking curriculum really has to be done by them.
2. Measurability of performance is still the main way by which we judge matriculation by merit. How is the ability to think critically measured? How can we build this into a testing procedure? It is difficult.

Otherwise, the idea has a lot of merit and I believe it would greatly improve social discourse for one.

9:16 PM  

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