An Open Letter to My Niece

An Open Letter to My Niece

It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.

Thomas Sowell

Congratulations to all of the 2023 high school graduates! For those of you who are entrepreneurs or going to work, thank you! You keep the engine of our country running.

For those of you who are beginning college, I would like to offer you a gift I wish that I had been given when I started college. I’m aware that few young people want to hear advice from their elders, but this is what I offer. As you move from the excitement of orientation into your classes, I hope you will consider these thoughts.

Do not think that your professors care about the truth. Do not think that because they say something that it is true. Professors care about tenure. They care about grants. Some of them care about teaching well. Few of them care whether their underlying assumptions, research, or pillars of their field are true. I say this after 24 years working in higher education as a professor; 30 years if you count my three graduate degrees.

I will tell you that I don’t believe most professors think of themselves as lying. They simply do not think deeply about their underlying assumptions, about the ideas that keep them safely inside the “club” of higher education, and the questions that are not being asked in their academic discipline. Anything that could upset the apple cart cannot be entertained. Everyone should care about what is true, though, and since the Catholic Church gave us the principle of evidence, the scientific method, and the university system, it is particularly incumbent upon Christians to use our God-given reason in all areas.

Let’s start with an uncontroversial example: direct instruction.[1]

There is no question that direct instruction (DI) is the most effective form of teaching most concepts in classrooms. There has been high-quality research conducted on DI since the 1950s. “High-quality research” meaning that which is both valid and reliable. DI is without contest in its research base and ability to teach students across ages, socioeconomic statuses, and other diversities. Fiona McMullen and Alison Madelaine have a comprehensive overview of the research and the resistance of it, but a simple online search will garner hundreds of valid research papers about DI’s efficacy. Less is spoken about its resistance by those in programs of teacher education and K-12 classrooms.

Teachers and teacher educators resist DI for some standard reasons:

The perception that it is only suitable for students with special needs;

The belief that it encourages students to be passive;

The perception that it is not creative for the teacher;

The belief that it makes teachers into technicians rather than professionals.

For more information, see: Bessellieu et al., 2001; Blakely, 2001; Demant & Yates, 2003; Fritzer and Herbst, 1999; Gersten et al., 1986; Lee et al., 2007; Lockery & Maggs, 1982, p. 263; Kim & Axelrod, 2005, p. 112; Proctor, 1989; Snider & Schumitsch, 2006; Tarver, 1998, p. 20; Vitale & Kaniuka, 2009 for a start

Teachers and teacher educators also claim that students dislike DI because it is repetitive, boring, and demoralizing. There is no evidence for this claim. In fact, the data we have shows that as students develop academically, which DI does better than any other teaching format, students’ perceptions of themselves as good students improves. Their indicators of self-esteem, confidence, and general attitudes toward learning improve across all student types. Student attention and behavior improves and excitement toward learning all improved according to the data.

Others in teacher education claim that DI is a form of indoctrination. They claim it reduces students’ ability to think for themselves. This claim is just nonsense. DI is effective precisely because it is a model in which students are gradually given more independent learning as they master the necessary skills and knowledge. Throwing them into discovery learning without already knowing anything is a recipe for chaotic thinking.

The elephant in the room of teacher education is that DI requires systematic, rigorous thinking on the part of the teacher. It is, therefore, more challenging in many ways intellectually for the leader than exploratory models. Constructivism[2] and discovery learning may seem more fun on the surface, but they have been discredited in every study that was valid and reliable. Anecdotal evidence is neither valid nor reliable.

This kind of intellectual dishonesty is not unique to teacher education. I have read extensively in many fields of study, and it is sadly quite common to have studies that purport to show cause when they really don’t even show correlation. It is even more common now to have publications that purport to be research that are really only forwarding an hypothesis. Thomas Sowell, clearly our most important public intellectual said, “Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but many other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.”

Joe Rogan hosted two former academics who blew the lid off of this scandal: Peter Boghossian & James Lindsay. It’s worth a listen.

Language Warning

You and your cohort are still young. You may still believe that grown-ups are basically honest and care about what’s true. You may be optimistic, like I was at your age, and always want to see the best in people. Or you may be like my husband’s generation, the notorious baby boomers, who believed that all grown-ups were evil war mongers bent on sending all young men to the grinder of war. “Never trust anyone over 30,” I believe was the mantra.

No matter what, though, I implore you to care what’s true. Each of you is likely to carry the library of Alexandria in your pocket. Use it. And when you have found a dozen writings from the web on the information you seek, find a dusty old library book on the same topic and see if they agree. If they don’t, make it your mission to discover where the truth is. Don’t try to have ideas reach consensus. Sometimes they can, but most of all we must find the truth. It is either raining, or it isn’t. Women are either happier now than before the feminist/sexual revolution, or we are not. Human beings were either all made in the image of God, or we are not. 

I am Catholic. I know that The Truth has a Name. He created the universe and made each of you in His image. While I am not writing this specifically to convince any of you to join the Catholic Church, you will find that once you begin seeking and finding truth, that it is tremendously problematic to go back to having your ears tickled with lies, and you will likely end up seeking the Truth. 

May Our Lord bless and keep each of you on your path through your academic careers and throughout your lives. I leave you with this final thought, one I cherish from Saint Thomas Aquinas, my husband’s patron:

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”



[1] (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration

[2] theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively taking in information

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Written by
Jennifer Borek