Commentary

3-Minute Civics: Critical thinking and the pursuit of truth

March 11, 2022 5:40 am
Stop sign on a school bus

“If teachers are told that they must teach history with anything other than the truth as their goal, then it simply isn’t a history course anymore.” (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

When I was very young I committed a crime. I was at a store with my family and there was a display of a football game and I really wanted this particular football player figurine. So, I took it. My parents discovered that I had it when we were driving from the store, and I’ll bet you can guess what they did next. They took me back to the store and I had to give the toy back and apologize to the manager (I think it was the manager – I was pretty young). I do remember croaking out my apology and feeling bad about what I had done.  

My parents took the action that they did because they felt it was important that they help me understand, even at a young age, the difference between right and wrong. They were helping me to learn that stealing is wrong and to know that there are consequences that come from our actions. Although the moment I faced the store manager to apologize was hard, I think that my parents knew that it was necessary. The bad act had to be acknowledged and confronted so that I could understand how to do better going forward. In fact, I never stole anything again.

My parents were wise, caring parents, but I don’t think their act of bringing me back to the store was unique. I’ll bet most parents would do the same thing. Isn’t it pretty universally agreed that we should teach our children to be honest and face up to mistakes?

So, why are we seeing so many laws or proposed laws nationwide that want to stop young people from confronting accurate but unpleasant historical facts? Some states, such as West Virginia and Florida, are trying to create laws prohibiting that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” There is a proposed bill in our own state Legislature (House Bill 1255) that wants to ensure that students are not taught any “negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States” without worldwide context.

As a history and civics teacher, I know that there is much to celebrate about our history. Even so, we must also acknowledge mistakes and wrongful acts and policies of our past. We must do this because first and foremost, it is the truth. If teachers are told that they must teach history with anything other than the truth as their goal, then it simply isn’t a history course anymore. It is propaganda for whichever powerful interest is setting the agenda. This is what happens in dictatorships, not free societies.  

“But what of the discomfort and anguish?” a hypothetical legislator from Florida asks.

As my story above illustrates, sometimes discomfort is a part of learning. Some students experience distress learning algebra. Should we just tell them that mathematically wrong answers are correct so they don’t feel bad? If a student is uncomfortable with discussing parts of human anatomy in a biology class, should we remove that content from the curriculum? Of course not, and it should be no different for history. If a student feels something when learning unpleasant historical facts, it is a good thing. It means that the student has understood and connected with the information on a personal level. That’s an education home run.  

“But shouldn’t parents get to decide what their student is exposed to?” replies a fictional legislator from West Virginia this time.

Parents should be the primary guide for their children as they develop their worldview, and they are. Although it may seem like young people spend a lot of time in school, that time is only about 20 percent of the total time that they spend out of school. In addition, if a teacher has a student for only a semester or even a year out of their total school time, well, you can see that this is a pretty small slice of a student’s time and attention. Also, let’s not forget that a typical history class will likely mostly contain facts that all parents agree with. The potentially discomforting facts for some would likely be only a small part of the course.

So, teachers get only a small piece of a student’s time and attention, and even then they work under the constraints of state standards and the school board’s approved curriculum. Beyond that, the day-to-day decisions about lessons and content should be left to the teachers because they are professionals who have been trained and licensed to make those decisions. Dentists and doctors operate within the constraints of the standard of care, but then we leave the decision about where the tooth should be drilled or where the incision should be made to them.  

“But what’s wrong with requiring worldwide context for the negative facts?” asks the legislator from New Hampshire.

When appropriate, relevant context should be given for facts whether positive or negative. Worldwide context is often not going to be relevant in a Civics or U.S. History class. So, if there is pressure (and putting the teacher’s license on the line is certainly pressure) to give worldwide context any time that a negative fact is taught it will at best bog down the class, but at worst, due to the threat, it will cause teachers to avoid negative content. It would also mean that we are not trusting the student to come to their own conclusion about the content, but rather framing the content to try to direct the student to a conclusion.  

Even at a young age, when I was confronted not with what my ancestors had done but with what I had personally done wrong, I was not so fragile that I couldn’t handle the important lesson that my parents taught me by bringing me back to the store that day. Having worked with young people for over two decades, I know that they too can handle the truth. I also know that it is crucial that they have the opportunity to learn how to process and evaluate content whether it’s neutral, positive, or negative. 

Let the students see the facts for themselves and then they can decide what they think and how they feel. In the end, this is about helping them develop critical thinking, not the other “critical” thing you’ve likely been hearing about.  

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