Recently, I attended a conference for composition and rhetoric instructors, anticipating helpful discussions about teaching strategies and current trends in the college classroom. Fortunately, I did get some of that; however, I was deeply disappointed by a particular session that called itself one thing and presented itself as something else entirely.
I do not wish to identify anyone by name or institution; the message can be separate from the messenger. I’ll call him Roger from College X. The workshop was advertised as “Teaching Critical Reasoning.” Because I often teach an Introduction to Critical Thinking course, I was expecting to hear about some relevant techniques I could apply with my own students. Not so. In fact, I spent the entire 45 minute session with my mouth agape, listening to the presenter explain to a roomful of his peers how the American Airlines flight 77 plane that crashed into the Pentagon was probably a missile, how the World Trade Center Towers seemed to fall in such a way that suggested there might have been explosives set at each level, how 9-11 and Pearl Harbor were similar in that they involved outside enemies attacking us on our soil but different insofar as Osama bin laden might have had some help from the United States.
There was no discussion, only his interpretation of what he kept calling “the facts” or “fact points.” When an audience member who seemed as baffled as I was asked, “What about the plane? What happened to the plane? And to the passengers?” Roger’s response was, “What plane? What bodies? Did you see any bodies? Did you see any engines?” Hmmmm. No one else posed a question. We just kept listening to the “facts.” I began to wonder if the audience members’ silence was due to utter shock and the conclusion that any attempt to refute Roger’s “facts” would be met with quick dismissal or due to their acceptance of his ideas. Both reasons are disturbing—the former group representative of voices quashed by a perceived authority and the latter group with just as narrow a vision as he. I suspect that the latter group was the larger of the two.
When the session was over, I wondered, “What was that for?” Did I have a greater understanding of critical reasoning? By definition, a critical thinker is one who practices “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on…assessing the authenticity, accuracy and or worth of knowledge claims and arguments…[it] requires objective analysis of any knowledge claim or belief to judge its validity” (Shoop). Moreover, such thinking pinpoints the logical relationships among ideas and the difference between fact and opinion. Given that definition, Roger’s “speech” was not remotely “Teaching Critical Reasoning.” Indeed, in the interest of combating false advertising, perhaps the workshop should have been titled, “The Art of Indoctrination.” After all, WordNet explains indoctrinating as the act of teaching someone “to accept doctrines uncritically” (“Indoctrinate”).
In other words, it is presenting information—however outlandish it might be—as “facts” with no opportunity to test validity with counterarguments. My husband, a pilot himself who has extensive knowledge of aircraft design and the laws of physics, was surprised that Roger would wonder where the bodies were after the attack on the Pentagon. When a plane moving at nearly the speed of sound hits a building or any immovable object, it is essentially pulverized along with everything in it. Those who were looking for airplane parts and body bag contents were seeking oddities not norms.
I attend several conferences every year, and typically, I learn lots of clever, innovative pedagogy. I learn because there is meaningful instruction occurring, the presenting of activities “for educating…that impart knowledge or skill”(“Instruction”). Sadly, at Roger’s session, I did not receive any new knowledge or skill for how to better teach my students to be critical thinkers. In actuality, if anything—and ironically—I learned by negation: how to teach critical reasoning by seeing how not to teach it.
In August, at my own college, I will be facilitating a roundtable discussion among faculty members from various disciplines on the difference between indoctrination and instruction. History, philosophy, psychology, and English professors will consider how we, in our classrooms, deliver material on past and current wars, existential and humanistic theories, matters of conscience and sexual drive, and critical thought post 9-11.
To prepare for this discussion, I distributed a survey to my last semester’s critical thinking students, asking them to explain where they think the line between indoctrination and instruction falls. One student’s comment speaks volumes: “The line from instruction to indoctrination is crossed when an instructor presents only one side of an issue as fact—and bullies and belittles students who attempt to provide or discuss an opposing or balancing view” (Baxter). I would hope that Roger is not an idea bully in his own classroom although I must say that I felt a bit beaten up after he was finished speaking.
I expect I might be subjected to a few ad hominems for this writing, like: “She’s just another right wing conservative Christian fundamentalist whacko.” It would not be the first time I was called that by a colleague. However, my position has nothing to do with my political or religious leanings. I would not want a professor spewing pro-Bush, anti-Kerry/Gore/Kennedy/Pelosi speeches and passing on one-sided views of our unfettered accomplishments in Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/China as “fact points” either. If the university and higher education is truly a “marketplace of ideas,” then a fair portion of all feasible, researchable theories should be “sold” there. Students can pick and choose the theories they will hold but only after careful “squeezing,” “chewing,” “sampling,” “taste testing,” and ultimate consumption. Another professor at the conference, upon hearing this analogy, agreed with having a wide, inclusive focus covering vast perspectives but then asked a disturbing question about why he should have to shroud his own left-wing perspective before his students: “What’s wrong with being a liberal anyway? It just means being open-minded. It means I care about the environment and want a woman to have the right to choose.” Again, such questions raise other questions about what our purpose is as educators—to convince our students that being a liberal is morally upright? Couldn’t I just as easily ask, “What’s wrong with being a conservative when it simply means caring about protecting our country from terrorists and protecting innocent babies?”
The bottom line is that the college classroom should not be more about the informer than about the information. We are charged as educators to teach facts, not opinions, and if facts are in dispute, then we must give our students the proper tools to investigate authenticity and urge them to explore several credible alternative facts. Could American Airlines flight 77 have been a missile? If I taught like Roger, then I could say yes, or I might call it a space ship or the world’s largest Frisbee or any other moving force I could claim as “fact” as long as it complemented my personal, monopolizing agenda. And the 64 passengers said to be aboard that flight, including sixth grade students on a field trip to a marine institute—what happened to their bodies? “Perhaps,” I could say to my students, “they were abducted by alien invaders.” But here’s a fact: that’s not critical thinking. It is intellectual dishonesty bordering on lunacy.
Baxter, John. “Indoctrination vs. Instruction.” Survey. 19 July 2006.
“Indoctrinate.” WordNet: A Lexical Database for the English Language. 20 July 2006. http://wordnet.princeton.edu/.
“Instruction.” Glossary of Terms. Northeastern Illinois University. 20 July 2006. www.neiu.edu.
Shoop, Jane. “Introduction to Information Resources.” 2003. Seattle Central Community College. 20 July 2006. www.seattlecentral.org/faculty/jshoop/glossary.html.
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