Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 8: Keeping In Touch with Your Inner Teenager

Seeing Your Course through Students' Eyes

Remember when you were young with your whole life before you; when everything was possible and nothing was certain; when you had no idea of where you were heading, but savored the bliss of getting there while a glorious enchantment sang through your soul? Keep in touch with these youthful feelings to see your course through students' eyes and teach it in ways that will interest them. How would you have liked your teachers to have taught their courses when you were still young? What questions would you have found interesting and wish they had asked? Then ask those questions of your students and see what happens.

The secret of holding students' attention in this media-drenched age is doing something radically different - like having good old-fashioned human discussions about issues that matter to seniors impatient for college. What will work for one class may not work for another, since the only predictable thing about class reactions is their unpredictability. Different classes require different approaches since every class has its own personality. The challenge is to teach each lesson differently so that each class responds. Teaching is improvisation before a live audience, a high-wire act with no safety net.

It's been said that an actor is a sculptor who carves in snow. So it is with teachers. Teaching is the art of evanescence, writing in water, with no performance ever the same, and if you're daring, burning your notes at the end of each year to keep yourself fresh for next year's students. Teach every year in a different way as you evolve as a person. Every year you're one year older, more deeply steeped in your subject by continual reading, and more insightful by what you've read. Reading the classics in your field is the fountain of youth that will keep you alive and your classes vibrant. As the body needs food, so the mind needs reading to grow and develop. Without it, you'll be running on empty.

Critical Thinking -- the Soul of a Course

Whatever course you're teaching, approach it in a critical way. Teach its controversies by presenting its theories as persuasively as possible. Monday be the liberal, Tuesday the conservative, Wednesday and Thursday somebody else. Or role-play different views in each class; then put each through the wringer with Socratic questions. The point is to keep students uncertain while competing viewpoints battle it out while students intervene whenever they like. One-view presentations put students to sleep, but rubbing two theories together lights a spark and creates a fire. Cognitive dissonance unsettles the mind as students search for an answer.

The format you use is unimportant. What is important is making the strongest case possible for every theory by becoming its advocate. Next, give the objections against that theory and then its rebuttal. Repeat this process for all the theories. After making a case both for and against, how will you know you've been fair? The answer's easy: students won't be sure which theory's right. Your role is only presenting the options; theirs is to sort things out for themselves.

Give students the big picture so they'll see each theory as only one answer to an overall question, which they won't understand until they first understand the other theories that also attempt to answer that question. More importantly, they'll know that their theory's right only after they've examined the others and can tell if their theory is right -- or it isn't! This is why open-mindedness is always in the students' best interest, for they'll never know which answer's right until they've first examined them all. And, most importantly, they'll realize that blind allegiance to a theory is never the way to an education, but its very subversion.

Critical Thinking Can Be Taught, but Not the Courage to Use it

While it's possible to teach critical thinking, it's impossible to teach the courage to use it, especially with respect to long-held ideas. The teaching of courage is beyond the practice of teachers, for in matters like this the only physician who can minister to them is themselves. What unfortunately happens is that some simply embrace the only theory they grew up with without ever bothering to question it, especially when everyone they know also grew up with that theory.

Even more intriguing is the likelihood that had they been born in a different time and place, they'd have believed in a different theory, so powerful is chance in all of our lives. Chance determines which theory takes hold of a person or tribe, and by some mysterious process becomes their "reality," rather than remaining simply a theory. Plato speaks of this in his Allegory of the Cave and how every culture imprisons its people in the cave of that culture, from which three ways of escaping may be open to us.

Teaching Against the Bias of a Text

Always teach against the bias of the text you've chosen or were assigned to teach. You owe it to your students to expose them to as many different viewpoints as possible in addition to the one enshrined in the text. In teaching the humanities, especially, present at least two or three alternative viewpoints, theories or answers to the question you're teaching. These other views will give students some idea of the problem's complexity when they realize perhaps for the first time in their lives that many answers exist about everything. This realization may be the beginning of students' real education and change them forever by having them discover the life of the mind.

This is why the liberal arts are so indispensable to students while they're still young and curious and open to change before the onset of that terrible illness -- the hardening of the attitudes. Teach them how the liberal arts "liberate" us from the tyranny of so-called "truths" by encouraging us to question in the spirit of Socrates and the "Unexamined Life"; how they can lift us out of our own time and place to see ourselves and our thinking as reflections of custom, habit, and perhaps even narrowness; and how they can give us a sense of higher aspiration and the courage to change.

Teaching Critical Reading

Teach students to peer beneath the surface of words in their text lest they fall victim to their power. Point out theories presented as facts as possible attempts to indoctrinate them. What are presented as "facts" may be only value judgments, opinions, theories, acts of faith, wishes, fears, prejudices, or bigotries that puff themselves up and strut about grandly as "truth." Teach them to be suspicious of words and never to take them at face value for they may be intended to poison them.

Teach them how a theory can be read into as well as out of a text. Remind them of that apocryphal story about Cardinal Richelieu, who was alleged to have boasted that on the basis of any six lines by the most honest of men he could find a reason for hanging him. Show them how they can be manipulated by the loaded language of question-begging adjectives that can predispose them to accept or reject an idea by referring to it positively or negatively with words like "patriotic" or "radical." Critically-trained students, on the other hand, are sensitive to word choice and wary about how words can infect them with bias.

Teaching Different Views of the Same Event

If you're using Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, be sure to assign and discuss outside reading by other historians or from conventional history texts for balance to insure a fair hearing of every viewpoint. This crossfire of opinion should be the driving spirit of your course as you juxtapose different views of the same event. This may confuse, mystify, and unsettle students by showing them the naivety of the phrase: "History teaches us that . . . ," when all that history teaches us is that it's a battleground of contested opinions. Using only one text or teaching only one view is consigning students to a never-never land of feel-good illusion, an intellectual ghetto of provincialism, or an ideological gulag of mind control, instead of exposing them to the raging firestorm of dissenting views that is the lifeblood of scholarship.

There is no better way of educating young minds than by exposing them to rival opinions of the same event - teaching the American Revolution from both the American and English viewpoints, the Mexican War through both American and Mexican eyes, and the American Civil War from both the Northern and Southern perspectives. Students will learn the meaning of national or regional bias of both sides and the necessity of immersing themselves in all sides of a question. History may be written by the victors, but it needn't be taught that way. A classroom isn't an indoctrination center, but an open forum where all points of view can be heard. Teach all the theories to the questions you're teaching, as well as their standard arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals, so that students know what to expect from their college professors.

Teaching Critical Thinking for Self-Preservation

Exposing students to all points of view will give them a visceral understanding of the critical mind that prepares them for college. Given the unlikelihood that students will be taught only one view in a college classroom, they can ask why rival theories aren't also presented to determine for themselves which view is right instead of taking their professor's word for it. If the theory is so compellingly true that no other viewpoints need be presented, why do scholars disagree with it? Students don't want a series of appeals to their professor's authority, but an impartial treatment of the issues in question.

Critical thinking is the result of long and continual training, so often repeated that it becomes conditioned reflex by constantly dealing with all sorts of theories. Making explicit groundless assumptions, exposing fallacious arguments, and distinguishing between statements that can and cannot be proven are among the skills students will possess from their first day in college.

As the Jewish historian Josephus said of the Roman legions' relentless training for war, "their drills were bloodless battles and their battles bloody drills." Training in critical thinking, however, is not taught students for the bellicose purpose of imposing their views on others, but to protect them from dogmatists who, presuming to impose their views on these students, will find their heads returned on a platter.