Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 2: Setting the Tone from the First Day of Class

The first day of class, I enter the classroom and ask, "What's the difference between being certain and being closed-minded?" Long silence. Students give tentative answers. "What's the difference between having firm principles and being closed-minded?" Longer silence. More tentative answers. "What's the difference between principles and prejudices?" Another long silence. No answers.

"Several years ago, a student said that there was no difference. They're simply two different words for the same thing. What we hold are principles; what others hold are prejudices." Long pause. "I'd like you to argue both views -- that they are and aren't the same thing." Students warm to the challenge and make a case for both views.

"Is it morally wrong to question? Are there things that should never be questioned -- off-the-table, non-negotiable items that, in questioning them, some might come unglued as persons?" Pause. "Or should everything be questioned?" Very long silence. Various answers are given without resolving the issue.

"Are some people hard-wired to question because it's simply their nature? Not to question would make them depressed. Are there others who are hard-wired not to question and they'd come undone if they did. They should be protected from questioning for their own survival." Several contradictory opinions are offered. Again, the question is left unresolved.

"Is being taught to question and think critically a subtle form of brainwashing?" Students are taken aback. Very long silence. "First argue that it is, and then that it isn't." Students make a case for both sides of the question.

"Truth! How do we know when we have it?" Pause. "If we're sure we have it, does that mean we do?" Several answers are given as I tell students simply to answer without raising their hand. "If we're sure we're right, does that mean we are right, or what does it mean?" A brief discussion follows, with the question again unresolved, with no one sure where all this is heading.

"Is something moral if your society says it's moral? Or does your society say it's moral because it is moral?" Extremely long silence. A student replies that it's moral if your society says it is and then gives her reasons. "Now argue the converse." The class makes a spirited case for the opposite view. Students begin to grasp that you don't fully understand a position unless you also understand the opposing position.

"Now, how would you rebut what's just been said?" Students offer a good rebuttal. "How would the opposition respond to that?" Again, a counter-rebuttal is made. I push harder. "And how would that counter-rebuttal be answered?" A few attempts are made.

"Now, given the fact that you've made two good cases and rebuttals for both sides of the question, how would you know which side is right?" Dead silence. I wait one minute while leisurely pacing around the room, then sit down at an empty desk. Still no response. Students make another discovery during this time -- that critical thinking begins after you've made two good cases for both sides of a question.

"Let me ask a more interesting question now that you've solved that one. [Slight laughter] Is it possible that many of the things you've been taught in school or at home could be wrong? That your parents, teachers, and everyone you might look to for answers were misinformed?" A few students nod their assent.

"Would this matter as long as everyone thought it was true and was happy believing it?" Different answers are given, without my commenting on what is said, showing neither approval nor disapproval, but simply encouraging students to speak, conveying more by manner than word that they're free to say whatever they wish.

I rephrase the question to give students more time. "As long as everyone thought it was true and was happy and content believing it, would it be okay even if everything was false?" Students give more nuanced answers. "Make an argument for both sides of the question." Students make a good try for both sides of a difficult question.

"Let's broaden the question. What if everything we were taught as a culture were an illusion, but it seemed to be true because that's all we knew, and everyone was happy believing in it, but then you found out it was false. Would you tell everyone if you knew you wouldn't be believed, make enemies, and even be punished?" Students offer a wide variety of answers, with nothing resolved.

"A new question. We have two persons, each of whom is sure that he possesses the truth. One of them actually does, while the other one doesn't, although he thinks he does. If both think they're right, but only one of them is, what would be the difference between their two mental states?" I repeat the question to give students more time to think.

Long silence. A few tentative answers are given, and then someone says, "There would be no difference! They'd both have the identical state of mind. They'd both think they were right, even though only one of them was."

"Let's take these same two individuals, but now tell them that only one of them is right, and the other one wrong. How would they know which one was which without being told?" Students are unsure.

"What if they were told, and the person who was wrong was told he was wrong. Would he believe it?" One student says: "It would all depend on what it was. If they could prove it by showing him the facts, he probably would believe it." Many agree.

Another student says: "But what if there is no proof they could point to, but it just has to do with what he believes, something even he can't really prove one way or the other, but just feels about it so deeply that he knows he's right? In a case like that, I don't think he would accept it. He'd probably even think that the people who told him were wrong or even lying to him." Some students agree, while others aren't sure.

"Now for a larger question. Every culture has its own unique way of viewing the world, its own system of beliefs and values, the things it considers true and false, right and wrong, important and unimportant. Let's call this its 'reality.'" I pause to let the idea sink in.

"Now let's flesh this out a bit. Let's say we have four different cultures, four different worldviews or 'realities,' and that each of these 'realities' seems true to everyone within that culture, because that's all that everyone in that culture knows. No one in any of these cultures has ever left that culture or met anyone from another." Pause.

"Then, one of these cultures begins sending out ships to establish trading colonies and find fertile land around the entire Mediterranean because there isn't enough arable soil to sustain its ever-growing population. Over several generations, dozens of these colonies trade with the local populations and get to know them, their general outlook, beliefs, and values -- their 'realities.' These colonies send back word to their homeland about these cultures with their different beliefs and customs. Question: what might these colonists think about all these different peoples and their different views of the world?"

Students say reactions could be surprise and shock that these other cultures could differ so markedly from their own; disbelief that they could possibly believe in such "preposterous notions"; pity for them because they hadn't had the "good fortune" of being born in their culture. One student mentions that the people of these cultures would probably be thinking the same things about the colonists.

"What do you think would be some of the 'positives' of having to deal with this culture shock?" One student responds, "Well, life certainly wouldn't be boring. [General laughter] It would also be interesting in having to rethink all one's beliefs, which might keep one from becoming intolerant and closed-minded toward these other ideas."

"It could also be threatening," says another student, "because one would now have to rethink everything one had ever been taught, and it would take a strong person to do this, since most people would be terrified at having their world turned upside down like this."

Someone else says: "I think the colonists would be in denial and say that these people didn't know any better, were superstitious, brainwashed, or crazy. They might even want to change all these peoples' minds so that they wouldn't feel threatened."

Another student adds: "Well, it wouldn't have to be because they felt threatened, but because they sincerely wanted to help these people, enlighten them, because they felt they were wrong."

"But that's just it, isn't it?" interjects another student. "While saying they wanted to help these people, they might at the same time feel so threatened by them that they'd only be trying to convince themselves that they wanted to help them, whereas they'd really be wanting to silence their own doubts by convincing these people that they were wrong and that they should think like them!"

"I'd like to come at this from another direction," says another student. "We've been talking about every culture having its own unique way of viewing the world, its own set of beliefs and values, what it considers right and wrong, true and false. Well, I'd like to suggest that, despite all these different views of the world, all of these cultures are right!"

"But how's that possible?" asks an amazed student. "If you have several different ways of viewing the world, how could they all be right? I'm not saying that they don't all think they're right and all the others are wrong, but how could they all be objectively right?"

"But objective by whose standard," replies the previous student, "since there's no objective standard to judge by?"

"But if you have different cultures, and they all see the world differently, only one of them can be right!"

"Not at all! They'd all be right!"

"But how?"

"Because you're simply assuming there has to be an objective viewpoint, an objective way of viewing the world, and what I'm saying is that there doesn't! None of these cultures or anyone else, for that matter, could have an objective standard since they'd all see things from their own point of view."

"So nothing's objective? Every viewpoint's subjective, since no culture can see things objectively?"

"Exactly! Every culture naturally thinks its worldview is right, and all the others are wrong, at least to the degree that they differ from its own. The problem is -- what culture could judge what is and isn't right outside its own culture? None of them could, since they'd all be biased in their own favor by assuming that their own standard was objective."

"But how can we have any standards, if there's nothing objective?"

"We can, but only within our own culture, but as far as other cultures are concerned, we can't, and that's just my point! If we were to judge other cultures, those cultures would say that we were just being ethnocentric by imposing our own views on them and have no right to do so. How would we feel if they judged us by their standards and called their standards objective?"

At which point the bell rings for the end of class. I hold up our class text, The Greek Way, and say, "Welcome to the Greeks!"

Expanded excerpts from "On Teaching the Greeks" that appeared on PLATO, the website for the organization that promotes pre-college philosophy.