Teaching Students What to Think

Teaching Students What to Think

By Bruce Rottman, Libertas Scholars Program Coordinator

I’ve often heard people say that teachers should “teach students how to think, not what to think.”

That claim is neither possible nor virtuous. Instead, teachers need to think about how to teach students what to think.

Let’s assume I am investigating the KKK’s influence in the US in the 1920s, and, for simplicity’s sake, there are two perspectives. One is the KKK’s world view: all races are not created equal, some (or one) should rightfully dominate, and some random acts of violence are acceptable if the inferior race doesn’t accept this vision. The second: all races are endowed by God with rights, which requires us to treat all individuals with dignity and respect.

To never inject “what to think” would imply that a teacher dispassionately present both of these views as acceptable. I see two problems with this approach:

1—I doubt that many teachers either explicitly or implicitly do this. I certainly would not.

2—Even if my teaching avoids any implicit or explicit judgments, I am then implicitly teaching students that all views are acceptable. And that is teaching them a way of thinking that is presumably preferable. I am teaching students what to think after all.

When people say critical thinking is teaching students only “how to think,” perhaps what they mean is that teachers shouldn’t “indoctrinate.” But what does that mean? Therein lies the rub.

Excellent teachers necessarily have passionate views about the world, and how to make it better. Their teaching will reflect their views. Instead of feigning neutral world views, perhaps teachers should do the following:

==Be honest about their world view.

==Be fair in hearing out alternative, competing world views in class, though “fair” doesn’t mean that the teacher says the alt-right neo-Nazi skinhead’s views are morally acceptable; it means, I will allow you to speak, and listen to your view and your defense of it.

==Think about how far one goes in “promoting” one’s world view. Does a master teacher promote specific policies? Candidates? I’m careful to not get too specific in my classroom, but more importantly, I’m exceptionally careful to introduce competing views, to be open minded about how I present them, and, of course, not to have the grades of students with opposing views suffer—which is harder than it sounds. It’s easy, and sometimes correct, to think, “This student isn’t getting my perspective on issue X; she deserves a ‘C.’” I might be right, or I might be letting my own prejudices cloud my evaluation of the student’s work.

We live in a time in which the world is changing rapidly (even that statement reflects my values), and changing in unsettling and even objectionable ways. Unless I am an amoral robot who cares little about the world or their students, my teaching will reflect my personal values. I’d much rather be open about that, stop saying that I only teach students “how to think,” and focus instead on teaching honestly, modeling and teaching students civility, and approaching all things with good humor.

Providence Students Study Entrepreneurship in St. Louis

In  mid-July, six Libertas Scholars (sophomores Cameron Bleecker, Chloe Herdrich, Emma Gobbell, Alena Zeni, Erik Smith, and senior Evan Boger), along with Providence sophomores Hannah Garza, Madison Malone, and Chloe Norton–joined by Emma’s sister, Margaret, headed out in the wee morning hours in the Providence van to LAX, en route to an “Economics of Entrepreneurship” conference at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO.

Evan Boger, Madison Malone, Alena Zeni, Eric Smith, Cameron Bleecker, Chloe Herdrich, Margaret Gobbell, Chloe Norton, Emma Gobbell, and Hannah Garza

They spent 2 1/2 days learning about what makes entrepreneurs tick, how they help society, and how the free market system works. About 75 students listened to the four speakers, including two professors, one young entrepreneur, and Mr. Rottman.

Eric, Cameron, and Alena in the “Trading Game”

It’s all about the attitude….

The students had an amazing time; one student stated that “the lessons made sense and explained why the world can’t be perfect. I honestly wish the lectures were longer.” Another highlight: meeting “other young adults who share similar interests and ideas that I do…I made some friendships that I think will last for a long time.” “The speakers,” said another student, “taught us how to think well, take chances, and persist through tough situations.”

One highlight of the conference was hearing from Derek Magill, a multi-talented 23-year-old entrepreneur who told his story and encouraged students to not let their young age stop them from making themselves valuable to employers. He told students to try out many different options in life, and rather than focusing on money, to accumulate experiences instead. After hearing Magill, one Providence student commented that now she realized she “didn’t have to wait until I’m older to start a business.”

Students also competed in a Shark Tank activity (Evan Boger’s “ArmChair-preneur” team took second place with an innovative backpack idea), a scavenger hunt, tortilla tosses, and hands-free Oreo eating, just to show that learning about economics is fun as well as stimulating. They slept in cool dorm rooms, which was a respite from the 98 degree heat and humidity of the Midwest.

Since the students’ flights back to LAX departed eight hours after the conference ended, they had time to Uber to downtown St. Louis to check out the zany City Museum, where they explored an array of nooks and crannies and practiced their tunnel crawling skills in a discombobulated ten-story building with a junkyard ambiance (it has a bus peering off of the rooftop). According to Emma Gobbell, our visit there “was a completely different experience that was so awesome and fun I can’t even describe it.”

Hannah embarks on a muggy outside ride
Evan and Alena climb from one plane to…another plane
You’d think the Gateway Arch would be easy to find. Think again.

The FEE staff came up to Mr. Rottman more than once and told him how impressive the Providence students were. We think they’ll accept more of our students in 2018!

Economists Speak with Providence Students

Researched and Written by Sophomore Libertas Scholars

Earlier this month, Providence was honored to hear a presentation from Dr. James R. Harrigan. Dr. Harrigan is a senior research fellow at Strata, in Logan, UT, and is an accomplished columnist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, US News and World Report, and many other platforms, along with presenting at high schools all over the US.

Before hearing his presentation at Christ Presbyterian Church the Libertas Scholars were able to have an elegant lunch with Dr. Harrigan and his colleague Dr. Antony Davies at the Santa Barbara Club.