The whole piece in the Washington Post is worth the few minutes it will take to read it … but processing and discussing the author’s message might be difficult for those who weren’t taught critical thinking skills in school.
Indeed, that’s the central point that Kenneth Bernstein makes in the piece, namely that we’re educating students to know a bunch of facts rather than to think in a serious way about the topic at hand; that students are adopting this way of thinking about their education more generally because they lack the tools to do otherwise; and that, from the outset, a great many students lack the basic goods — like libraries, reasonable student-teacher ratios, and the like — required for a successful liberal education.
This is a serious look at the realities behind our current [failing] educational model from the perspective of an award-winning high school teacher, now retired, who worked within the strictures imposed on him by governmental policies. His warning to college professors is one that I’m sure many of colleagues will agree is coming too late; we already know — and complain about — the lack of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in our students.
I’ve just spent the weekend at a teaching and learning conference with a few hundred of my political science colleagues, the vast majority of whom teach at very small schools, satellite campuses of big schools, or community colleges — very different from the Big Ten campus on which I teach. These professors are well aware of the challenges outlined in Bernstein’s piece and are trying to find new ways to teach students social science research methods or political theory.
In my session on teaching political theory, a great paper from Francis Moran focused on engaging students through new media like mash-ups and YouTube video projects. My own paper — on using Tumblr blogs in place of traditional essays in an ancient political theory course — begins from the notion that students aren’t doing well with the argumentative essays I’ve assigned for the past decade and aren’t really benefitting from my continued insistence on that form.
But we need to do more than simply change assignments around in order to take into account the fact that our students are less and less able to write a successful argumentative essay. What we need to do instead is to use these new assignments to engage students, as Moran and I are suggesting, but we also need to continue to demand the sort of reading and critical thinking skills that we have always demanded from our students. Recognizing that they aren’t getting these tools in middle school or high school doesn’t mean that we can’t find innovate ways to teach them even at the advanced age of nineteen or twenty.
One way to do this is to model these skills for them in our classrooms, providing them with examples of successful writing; fostering discussions that encourage them to think critically rather than to memorize the right answer; working with them to deeply examine their own beliefs and opinions on the subject at hand; allowing them to take chances on wrong ideas or possible dead ends; and letting them pursue ideas as far as they can run with them.
It’s here that a subject like political theory has a great deal to contribute to the study of political science at the undergraduate — and even the graduate level — because all of these ways of teaching and learning are the central features of any political theory course. In other words, it’s almost impossible to study political theory without honing critical thinking skills … even though theory professors must work a lot harder today to first imbue those skills in students who come in without them.
But, of course, we should also fully heed the call of Bernstein in his piece. Rather than grousing about the poor performance of our students, we ought to be lending our voices to the debate about education in this country lest we find the debate already over by the time we realize we could lend support to the side of it that will, in the long run, produce the kind of student about whom we won’t complain.