With a new administration comes renewed hope of meaningful education reform. Among the most needed reforms is one that ought to be obvious but is seldom addressed—helping students achieve intellectual maturity by developing in them the habits of mind proven effective in meeting life’s challenges. The most basic of those habits are the following:
Controlling emotion. The tendency to respond emotionally to problems and issues is natural, but it can lead to hasty and often mistaken conclusions. Controlling this tendency is especially difficult today because our culture has elevated feeling over thinking. Mature thinkers exercise restraint and examine problems and issues carefully before judging.
Gathering information and separating facts from opinions. A fact is something that truly exists, is so, or has happened. An opinion is a judgment that may or may not be in conformity with the facts. Because facts and opinions are often intertwined, it is important to gather information from a variety of sources, representing a variety of viewpoints, and then separate the facts and opinions.
Verifying facts and evaluating opinions. Verifying facts means determining whether what is presented as factual is really factual. (Internet rumors, for example, are presented as facts but are often false.) Evaluating opinions means determining how reasonable they are in light of the facts. An opinion may be partly reasonable and partly unreasonable. Evaluating is complicated by the fact that we seldom approach a problem or issue with complete objectivity and fairness. Often our desire for one viewpoint to be right prevents us from examining alternatives. Mature thinkers resist that desire.
Reflecting on our evaluation and forming a judgment. To be appropriate, the judgment will reflect the viewpoint or combination of viewpoints that offers the most reasonable solution to the problem or resolution of the issue.
To be developed and maintained, these four habits must be practiced frequently. Thus, they cannot be a here-or-there, now-and-then educational pursuit. They must be exercised regularly in every classroom at every level of education from kindergarten through graduate school. It is our nation’s misfortune that instead of focusing on them, American education has focused almost exclusively on remembering information.
For over a century the educational pattern has been teachers stuff students’ minds with information, and students regurgitate as much of it as they can on exams.
The pattern was originally driven by the notion that most students are irredeemably dull-witted, so teaching them how to think is an exercise in futility. But over the last half-century—a time of unparalleled egoism—more and more educators have been persuaded that their job is not to stuff students’ minds with facts but instead to propagandize students with their personal beliefs and agendas.
This change from developing young minds to indoctrinating them is, in part, responsible for the pathetic academic performance of American students compared to students of other industrialized nations. It is also responsible for the nonsense so vividly on display since the 2016 presidential race was decided.
Students walked out of class on over eighty college campuses, in many high schools, and even some elementary schools. They picked up signs and banners denouncing president-elect Trump, demanding that the election results be overturned, and proclaiming inane formulas such as “no cuts, no fees, no borders.” (An ironic fact: innumerable on-campus interviews before the election revealed that many students were hopelessly ignorant of the candidates and their views and didn’t intend to vote.) Moreover, faculty, in many cases, voiced their support and encouragement of the walkouts from classes and the protest marches.
A particularly revealing example of the shallowness of the thinking of professors as well as their students occurred at the University of Virginia. Shortly after the election the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan, sent an email to the campus community that included these words:
Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.
One might expect that the university’s professors would applaud that appeal for emotional control and thoughtfulness. There was a time when that would have been the response on any college campus, particularly a distinguished one.
Instead, however, a number of professors wrote a response chastising Sullivan for quoting Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves and held what they considered racist beliefs. No matter that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a brilliant thinker, a great president, and the founder of the very institution that pays the professor’s salaries. He was fallible and therefore, in their benighted opinion, he was therefore unworthy of citation.
Their letter went on to urge starting “a conversation . . . regarding ways to be more inclusive.” The professors then garnered the signatures of their colleagues and students—469 in all—and posted it.
In her reply President Sullivan pointed out that “Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time.” She went on to point out that it was Jefferson who penned the immortal words “all men are created equal’’ that though “inherently contradictory in an era of slavery . . . became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.”
The fact that Sullivan had to explain these elementary historical facts to educators at her prestigious university is profoundly sad but indicative of the magnitude of America’s educational challenge.
Not only must we change the focus of education from stuffing minds to developing the habits of mind that constitute intellectual maturity. We must also ensure that the men and women we entrust with cultivating those habits possess them themselves.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved