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Terrance Heath Headshot

How to Think

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One of the teachers who influenced me the most was Mr. Harrison, my high school English teacher. He taught me that the purpose of education was not to teach me what to think, but how to think -- how to examine and question what I was told; to not merely "know" what I thought, but to understand why I thought or believed as I did; to be be able to support my own views with fact and reason, but willing to listen to another's arguments, question my own assumptions and discard them if they didn't stand up under scrutiny.

I haven't thought of Mr. Harrison for a while. But the recent uproar over President Obama's speech to school children, brought Mr. Harrison -- and something he said to us before we graduated -- back to mind.

The address will be streamed live on the White House's website, and the Department of Education has distributed lesson plans to help stimulate debate in the classroom. But many conservatives claim that Obama is attempting to "indoctrinate" the nation. Here's commentator Michelle Malkin writing on her website:

Schools have used students as little lobbyists on everything from illegal immigration to gay marriage to anti-war activism, and most recently, [c]ensus collection. Will Obama be able to resist issuing a call to youth arms to marshal help in passing his legislative agenda?

I don't know what Mr. Harrison thinks about the president or the speech the president plans to give to schoolchildren. But I can imagine him shaking his head with disbelief over the uproar that's been raised in response.

It is unbelievable that something as innocuously encouraging as the president encouraging children to stay in school, listen, and work hard.

Obama intends to "challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning," Duncan wrote. Obama will also call for a "shared responsibility" among students, parents and educators to maximize learning potential.

"The goal of the speech and the lesson plans is to challenge students to work hard in school, to not drop out and to meet short-term goals like behaving in class, doing their homework and goals that parents and teachers alike can agree are noble," Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, told FOXNews.com. "This isn't a policy speech. This is a speech designed to encourage kids to stay in school."

But in advance of the address, the Department of Education has offered educators "classroom activities" to coincide with Obama's message.

Students in grades pre-K-6, for example, are encouraged to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

Teachers are also given guidance to tell students to "build background knowledge about the president of the United States by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama."

Actually, it's unbelievable and at the same time frighteningly believable, as I think back on Mr. Harrison's words.

Mr. Harrison's teaching was not the learning-by-rote we'd grown used to over 12 years of schooling, nor was it "teaching to the test." It was Mr. Harrison, coaxing us out onto the ice, with no specific destination, no map to tell us how to get there, and no assurance that we would have anything remotely solid under our feet along the way. He ventured out, and then tossed us a rope.

Mr. Harrison and I couldn't have been much more different. He was a devout Christian, and I was a high school senior reading the gnostic gospels, thrilled to have discovered them in the midst of my Baptist upbringing, and flirting with a spiritual seeking that would lead me in a far different direction.

He was rather conservative politically. I was a gay teenager, coming out and becoming so outraged by the Supreme Court's Bowers v. Hardwick decision that I stopped standing for the pledge of allegiance. I couldn't manage to say the words "liberty and justice for all" without spitting them out. Not only did he not make me do so, but he smiled and nodded, seeming to understand when I explained why. (Another teacher, my math teacher, assumed my reasons for not standing, and declared "Well, you can't very well say there is no God, since so many people believe there is." I didn't bother telling her my reasons.)

When I wrote letters to the school board, and encouraged my classmates to do so as well, in opposition to an attempt to ban certain books in our school system, Mr. Harrison was encouraging. He was supportive, though he didn't personally approve of some of the books in question. (Others, in fact, were on his reading list.) Perhaps he thought the ideas in those books were not as dangerous as the attempt to suppress the books and the ideas they contained. Or perhaps he trusted the young minds he was charged with nurturing could handle those ideas.

Perhaps he felt confident that he'd taught us well enough to use our minds critically -- to examine and question what we read, what we were given, or what we were told -- that we could make up our own minds.

Critical thinking is purposeful and reflective judgment about what to believe or what to do in response to observations, experience, verbal or written expressions, or arguments. Critical thinking may involve determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true.

Perhaps he was confident that he'd instilled in us the intellectual courage to tolerate the inherent uncertainty of the process of critically examining not only what we read and what we were told, but the beliefs and assumptions we brought to the discussion.

Principle: To think independently and fairly, one must feel the need to face and fairly deal with unpopular ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints. The courage to do so arises when we see that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions or beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading.

Perhaps he was proud, even, that he equipped us as best he could and instilled in us enough perseverance to seek out truth for ourselves rather than wait to have it handed to us.

One day, towards the end of our senior year, as we were talking about post-graduation plans (everyone in my graduating class was headed for a college or university somewhere), Mr. Harrison talked about some of the classes behind ours.

"You people," he said to our class, with a hint of pride, "already have your own ideas. I can't mold you. But people coming after you," he said as a note dismay crept into his voice, "come to my class and they sit here and wait for me to tell them what to think."

During many class discussions, Mr. Harrison indulged and even encouraged my tendency to play "Devil's Advocate," questioning the popular interpretations or assumptions about a book or a piece of literature. Perhaps he just wanted someone to start the discussion. But perhaps he saw in my face and those of several of my classmates, a spark of recognition of -- and desire for -- the freedom he wasn't so much giving us as guiding us towards.

Mr. Harrison was less concerned with what we thought, whether we thought rightly or correctly, or whether we thought what we were "supposed to" think. He was concerned that we learn how to think. He was less concerned about where we ended up than that we knew how we were getting there and why we going there.

The parents fretting about the possible "indoctrination" of their children -- by hearing from a president who came from modest beginnings but was carried far by his intellect, the education available to it, and his good sense to take advantage of it -- are probably worried more about what their children think than that their children learn how to think.

Perhaps they fear that a return of that favorite toddler-to-kindergarten question, "Why?", coming from children who question their pat answers might underscore their own ignorance (already so vividly displayed).

Obama's scheduled "stay-in-school" speech to students on Tuesday.

Throw some superintendents and teachers into that category, too. They unfortunately are giving in to pressure from outraged parents and now saying the president's speech won't be shown to their students.

How absurd. And how disrespectful of the office of the President of the United States.

Ironically, their panic that the beliefs they've taught their children would be undermined by an encouraging speech from the president suggests that the shakiness of those beliefs; so unquestioned and untested that the sand they're built upon shifts at the announcement that the president might tell their children to stay in school.

Just before I graduated, Mr. Harrison paid me a very touching compliment. During the two years he taught me, we had gotten to know and like one another. I'd challenged him, and he'd challenged me, and developed a mutual respect. The father of two daughters, he said to me on the day I was leaving his class for the last time that, while he didn't have a son, if he did have one he would be very proud if he had a son like me.

I'm pretty sure he didn't mean he'd like to have a son who was exactly like me, but that he'd be very proud of a son who displayed the independence of thought, a passion for knowledge, a knack for questioning, and the ability to think critically that I'd learned from him, or that he spotted and nurtured in me.

What he saw, and what concerned him in the classes coming after us then, is in evidence all around us, and now has a seemingly unshakable hold on on at least one political party -- turning it into a party in which what one believes is more important than what one knows, where critical thought has been banished, "facts" are founded in belief, and knowledge -- that kind born of uncertainty and tested by questioning -- is the enemy.

That's more than just a problem for one political party, or the families pulling their children from school on Tuesday, but for the country as a whole. We can see all around us -- from the march to war in Iraq, to the crashing of our economy by people who ignored the warning signs that contradicted their free market fundamentalist beliefs, to the health care townhalls where reasoned discussion is abandoned in favor of fisticuffs and shouted slogans.

If I worked for the White House communication team, I'd have had the president just say the obvious: that the best way students can help their country is to stay in school and work hard, so that they may learn not what to think but how to think. With any luck, they might have a teacher like Mr. Harrison, just as I did.

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