“At some point you have to consider the possibility that no one wants you to think critically – not your parents, not your government, not your church, not even your critical thinking teacher; it’s usually not in their best interests.”

Let me set this out as precisely as I can. I grew up as an evangelical, non-charismatic, dispensational, calvinist, conservative, American christian. Oddly, though, my parents also had some kind of hippie streak, so for the first few years of my childhood we were all voluntarily homeless, living in an abandoned school bus in the woods.

Poverty. Religion. That’s my background.

So, not surprisingly, when I first walked into a critical thinking classroom, I was faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. My teacher asked the class to write an argumentative paper about this or that, and whatever it was, the teacher’s position was obvious. So I then had to decide whether I would write what I actually believed or whatever would get me an easy A.

Now, many years later, I am that teacher; and while my religion and politics have undergone complicated changes, I still can’t help it. Based on my own experiences, I am deeply sensitized to the difficulty of this student, of any student, who sits before us and must choose between speaking with their own voice or imitating ours.

They negotiate an intricate decision. They choose whether they will write for us what they think we want to hear or what they actually want to say. Yet, even if they do the former, I think there is important critical thinking at play. They are still performing a complex analysis of audience and purpose. They ask, “What does this teacher (this reader) think and believe? How can I use that to my advantage to get the grade I want?” If a student does this, I don’t actually mind. The mystifying skill of carefully calculating this particular kind of concession will serve them well in their future.

But I still want them to go further, to do something beyond easy compromise. I want them to feel as if they are on the brink of whatever is mentally possible for them.

In my own classes, I have been trying to sneak around these sly student moves with one particular assignment – The Dialectic. It’s an essay that requires a student to write two sides of an argument so effectively, so intimately, that the reader cannot actually tell the writer’s position. The only way to do this convincingly, is for the writer to argue their own point and then momentarily arrest their own beliefs in order to pretend they believe the opposite. (In theater, I think they call this Method Acting)

What comes of it is always more interesting than a typically obedient essay. The common student responses at the end of this assignment are these:

I’ve changed my mind. I now think the opposite of what I used to. I was never aware of these other ideas or the flimsiness of my own.

I haven’t changed my mind, but I can now more effectively interrogate the other side.

I’m confused. I used to be so sure, but now I think the answers to these questions are more ambiguous.

Our students need to be able to disagree with us. But, just as importantly, they also need to learn how to disagree with themselves.


3 thoughts on “Ambiguous

  1. You’re singing my song!!! Reading your blog made me think of a zillion connections. One, Bill Z. reminds us constantly that an educated populace is usually automatically bad for whoever is in power. Two, it makes me think of what Patrick always says (and now I say it to my students, too): “I won’t tell you what to think, but I will tell you what to think about.” Three, I tell my students they’re not allowed to form an opinion until they’ve purposely read at least two divergent views about the matter. I could go on, but I have to go write a blog now. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the self-reflective nature of the assignment. The dilemma is that some of my ESL students have never been asked for their own opinion before. And others fear retribution for expressing their opinions. (I once asked a class which periodicals, newspapers, or magazines they regularly read. A couple of students refused saying that it was an invasion of privacy. After class they told me that if the government knew what they read, this could be used against them. It was not clear whose government was being referred to.) American students and European students have been raised with the idea of debate. You can take either side even if you don’t personally support that side. Such are the benefits of freedom of speech. (Yes, I know that it isn’t perfect.) Chinese students and those from the former Communist countries come with another set of rules. “Don’t open your mouth.” “Don’t take a stand.” “Don’t rock the boat.” Perhaps in Ben’s class, such students will learn to trust the academic environment at Foothill, but it will be a lot for them to overcome even if they plan to stay here. If they are living here with their families, their families might prevent these students from expressing opinions that would normally land them in prison back home.

    Liked by 1 person

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