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Eric Maisel, Ph.D. Headshot

Do Schools Allow Thinking?

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It may seem absurd that a society should intentionally choose to poorly educate its children.

Yet there is a strong pull in our culture to do just that. The reason is a straightforward one. Most people do not want children to think. They want children to get good grades, obey, fit in, find a job, play sports, salute the flag, kneel in prayer -- but not think. Thinking is culturally portrayed as effete and funny but it is actually held as dangerous. Those who want to preserve their privileges, whether it's their drinking habits, their bank accounts or their fairy tales, do not want youth to ask difficult questions, dispute their authority or threaten them with exposure.

The self-interest of adults makes them secretly wish that all schools would crumble and vanish. This is why so little critical thinking is taught in schools. Educators agree at the level of lip service that teaching critical thinking skills is education's number one priority. Yet classroom observers report that in over 95 percent of the classrooms they visit, no critical thinking skills are being taught. This is understandable as an unspoken agreement has been reached by all involved -- parent, politician, school board member, school superintendent, principal, teacher -- that thinking is dangerous and should not be countenanced.

Therefore "learning" and not "thinking" is supported. Learning is safe. Nobody's feathers are ruffled if you provide your students with another plane geometry theorem or twenty new French vocabulary words. The system is set up to support exactly this sort of transaction. There is a school subject called plane geometry, there is plane geometry subject matter, there is a teacher who teaches plane geometry, there is a student who learns plane geometry and is tested in plane geometry, there are uses for plane geometry, as a pillar in a liberal education and a stepping stone to solid geometry, and it all makes perfect, seamless sense. Doesn't it?

No, it doesn't.

The tyranny of subject matter, with one subject following another from the cradle through and including graduate school, leaves little or no time for thinking. The big solution to this grave problem is to completely revamp how we educate our children, focusing on a "thinking" model rather than a "learning" model. As this big solution is certainly out of reach, a smaller, perhaps obtainable solution is the following one: that a portion of each school day, maybe as little as forty-five minutes, be turned over and devoted to thinking.

What would occur during this "thinking module?" Students would actually learn critical thinking skills. The device employed to help them learn these critical thinking skills would be "the big problem." Students would be presented with a "big problem" and asked to think about it. They would be assured right off the bat that not only were there probably no easy answers to the problem, the problem might not actually be solvable. When a student did try to solve the problem with a slogan-sized, too-easy answer, it would be the facilitator's job to say, "But what if?" -- helping the student and the whole class realize what a poor job slogan-sized answers did in addressing human-sized problems.

For example, if in an "In what circumstances would you turn a friend in to the police?" discussion, a student was to say "As a matter of principle, I never turn a friend in!", the facilitator might reply ever so mildly, "What if your friend were preparing to kill your other friends?"

If during the "How do you know if someone is crazy and should be put in an institution?" discussion a student offered up, "They're crazy if they look crazy!", the facilitator might respond, "So if an actor on stage were playing the part of a crazy person, you would lock him up?" Wouldn't such discussions help relieve student boredom and produce smarter citizens?

If we believe that reason is the primary sword that we employ in the defense of liberty, it would be wise if we added "more reason" to our current education system by lobbying for the introduction of these "thinking modules" at every educational level, from elementary school through graduate school. Since every educator pays at least lip service to the idea that critical thinking is an admirable educational goal, it should be possible to nudge at least some schools and some school districts in the direction of revising the school day to include, in addition to subject matter, some genuine thinking.

If you feel inclined to join in the fight to introduce thinking into our schools, stay tuned for my posts or contact me directly. It will take the heavy lifting of many ordinary people to make our schools a safe place for thought, given our culture-wide antipathy to thinking. But that heavy lifting is worth it, as freedom is truly served by helping our children spend at least a portion of their school days actually thinking.