09/17/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Making the Humanities Relevant

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Adolescents are a skeptical lot. Anything and everything is fair game to them, and woe betide what is found wanting. Criticism comes easily to these professional critics who are taking the world's measure and finding themselves.

Yet, high schools waste this irreverence by failing to harness and turn it to educational use. By failing to tap into this natural resource, they forgo their most precious asset - the intellectual restlessness of youth itself.

By barring this critical spirit from the classroom, high schools teach that questioning is wrong and should play no part in one's education. If one wants it, one must get it on one's own -- such is the lesson schools convey.

This is regrettable, for what could transform the classroom by encouraging students to think for themselves becomes one of life's many what-might-have-beens.

Teenagers are inherently curious and want to hear all sides of a question; they welcome the clash, drama, and excitement of opposing viewpoints, and yet schools deny them precisely what would rivet their interest.

By being locked into state-mandated curricula, schools cause students to lose interest in learning and dismiss education as irrelevant to life.

A school's first priority should be to teach students to think for themselves. Everything else is an educational frill! If the purpose of education isn't ultimately about training the young to think critically and instilling in them the courage to do so, what then is its purpose? One would do better to leave school and educate oneself!

Why learn to read, if one isn't also taught to judge the worth of what one is reading? Life is short, and art is long! Seneca had it right when he said that we learn not for school, but for life!

Teaching entails the responsibility of presenting all sides of a question. The point is not to make converts, but critical thinkers. A teacher must not take a stand, but simply argue, or better, have students argue, every position convincingly.

Teaching only one point of view isn't teaching, but indoctrination. A teacher's questions should stretch students' minds to discover the complexity and magnitude of issues, illuminating them from several perspectives.

These questions may be specific or open-ended; they may elaborate or imply; they may prompt introspection or conjecture; they may affirm or deny; they may probe and dissect -- but they must never resolve!

A teacher owes it to students to confound them, to have them feel the power of every position, to keep them in doubt as to which one is right. With some, the teacher plays the liberal; with others, the conservative; with all, the devil's advocate.

Not only "Philosophy begins in wonder," as Plato suggested, but teaching as well. Wonder, not certainty, opens the mind. Certainty only closes it. A teacher's role is to make students uncertain.

Teaching stimulates not only thinking, but also feeling. It introduces students to a question's emotional landscape. It explores, through empathy, how it feels to hold a particular viewpoint -- the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding a view to discover the extent to which feelings may determine belief and to be on guard against this.

Teaching seeks not to judge or condemn, but solely to understand.

Teaching, like parenting, is an act of faith. One never knows what the future may bring. Yet one hopes to have opened young minds, to instill students with the confidence to use their own judgment to think with courage and rational calm, and to suggest that education, like philosophy, not only begins in wonder, but ends there, too.

Students grow up today in such a fragmented and aimless world that, unless schools provide them with some sense of where the modern world comes from as a tradition, schools themselves become part of the problem of meaninglessness.

Not that students should accept or reject that tradition, but they should at least understand what it is and its wellsprings, which for over 25 centuries have shaped and nourished the Western mind.

It is always unwise to accept or reject what one does not understand -- especially to accept the past simply because it is the past, or to reject it for the same reason. The past could very well have been a dungeon of bigoted darkness, or a vast treasure trove of radiant wisdom, or even, perhaps, a little of both, but students will never know if they just blindly accept or reject it, but only if they look for themselves.

The concern about meaninglessness in the modern world prompted me to create a senior English humanities course that would give students an overall sense of cultural context within which they could better understand the world of today.

It has been said that the best education consists of three books or visions of life -- the Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare, not for the answers they give, but rather for the questions they raise.

There is also a fourth, Modernism. Not that it, like the others, is necessarily true or false, but that it exists as a significant presence and a powerful force, and students must be informed about its claims.

The course introduced students to these four ways of looking at life, as well as a survey of British Literature, so that, by June, they had an understanding not only of the British literary tradition, but also of the twin foundations of Western culture -- the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian worldviews, about which college-bound seniors must be informed to be culturally literate.

Everything was designed to help students understand the Big Picture that might give them some sense of coherence about how to tell truth from falsehood, right from wrong, the valuable from the cheap and the tawdry in ways that would help them make sense of a world that might otherwise seem to have no meaning at all.

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