Teaching Thinking: Moral and Political Considerations

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  • TeachingThinking

    am going to reflect here on why it is intellectually,morally, and politically im-portant to teach college stu-dents thinking, in addition to providing them withknowledge and developingtheir capacity for sound rea-soning. I distinguish thinkingfrom calculative and instru-

    mental reasoningfrom deduc-tion, by which we relate principlesto particulars that come underthose principles, and from induc-











    om, I


    B y E l i z a b e t h K a m a r c k M i n n i c h

    Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich is Core Profes-sor at The Union Institute & UniversitysGraduate School for Interdisciplinary Artsand Sciences. Her publications includeTransforming Knowledge (Temple Universi-ty Press, 1990).

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    Moral and Political Considerations


  • tion, by which we abstract from particulars to create general-izations that subsume them.

    I also differentiate it from rational deliberation, in whichpeople following the same basic rules of reasoning try to reachagreement by eliminating unsound arguments. Thinking differsfrom all these uses of cognitive capacities that follow pre-scribed rules and conventions which, if used well with otherswho have assented (or been submitted) to the same rules and/orconventions, can coercively prove a conclusion to be correct.

    Thinking is neither coerced nor coercive. It is explorato-ry, suggestive; it does not prove anything, or finally arriveanywhere. Thus, to say people are thoughtful or thought pro-voking suggests that they are open-minded, reflective, chal-lengingthat they are more likely to question than to assert,inclined to listen to many sides, capable ofmaking sensitive distinctions that holddifferences in play rather than dividing inorder to exclude, and desirous of persuad-ing others rather than reducing them to si-lence by refuting them.

    I am interested in a students thinkingwhen I ask, having just heard a comment Iam tempted to dismiss as irrelevant, evenjust wrong, How did you get there? Wewere here; you went there. Can you re-trace your thinking for us? Some of themore interesting insights I have heard inclasses have emerged from such retrac-ings, and sometimes they take us off thetrack we were on in fascinating ways. Wehave then, as Heidegger put it, laid downsome fresh paths through the woodspaths that may not go anywhere, butwhich do something nevertheless. Think-ing, that is, has effects, not products (or,when it leads to knowledge, it may pause,but it does not stop: the questioning al-ways begins again).

    Here is my premise about the relation-ship of thinking to morality: The activityof thinking prefigures, prepares for, andlets us practice the freedom of mind werequire to exercise discerning judgment while living amongpeople who differ from us. Thinking, reflecting, questioning,ponderingturning things around in our minds, exploring dif-fering perspectives, considering differing contextsdissolvesconcepts and conventions. This effect of thinking, which isfrustrating to those who seek absolutes, holds us open and ableto engage with others in quests for knowledge, while alsoand for the same reasonsenabling moral ways of being inour complexly plural, relational public world. Thinking, thatis, persistently undoes certainties, thereby opening us to whatis unique about individuals, contexts, and situations.

    Maxine Greene writes eloquently of teaching that engagesstudents in thinking together. She sees the classroom as apreparation for political life among differing equals:

    Even in the small, the local places in which teaching is done,educators may begin creating the kinds of situations where, atthe very least, students will begin telling the stories of what

    they are seeking, what they know and might not yet know, ex-changing stories with others grounded in other landscapes, atonce bringing something into being that is in-between. It is atmoments like these that persons begin to recognize each otherand, in the experience of recognition, feel the need to take re-sponsibility for each other.

    I take thinking not to be a source of any moral code or set of ethical principles but a propaedeutic, a preparation for dis-cernment and indeterminate judgment. We want students toemerge as more thoughtful people who will continue to seekmeaningful lives. I dont think this is hard to assent to. It iswhy we speak of education, as distinct from training, as learn-ing not only that something is so, but why and how, to what

    effect, and with what significance. In thisspirit, John Dewey concludes Democracyand Education with this: Interest inlearning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest.

    Teaching ThinkingThe subject matter of a course in

    which thinking is the primary (though notthe only) topic provides an occasion forits practice. Texts of whatever sort arenot, in such courses, purveyors of materi-al to be mastered, but examples of some-one elses thinking with which to con-verse. We do not teach Platonic Doctrine(which Plato says he never wrote); wepractice thinking with him and his charac-ters. We do not learn Freuds Theory; weare puzzled and reflect with him as hetries to figure out what he is hearing (ornot) and what that suggests simultaneous-ly about a unique individual and the hu-man psyche. We join Patricia Williams inputting the law back into its political, his-torical, and personal contexts, consultingoutrage and hope as well as reason tocomprehend its realities. As HannahArendt once wrote to her philosophy pro-

    fessor Karl Jaspers, Communication as a form and a way ofthinking stands in contrast not only to advocatorial but alsoto purely logical thinking.

    Here is an example of teaching thinking from one of my ownclasses. When I use Platos Republic as an occasion for thinkingpractice, I start by observing that Socrates and his friends, agi-tated by what they have encountered in the teeming port ofAthenswith its heady and confusing mixture of tongues andnationalities, of festivals and businessesturn to the old man,Cephalus, to ask their questions. Then I ask the students, Towhom would you take a question raised for you by an encounterwith people(s) whose differences suddenly make you unsure ofyour own, hitherto unquestioned, values? Would you take it toan old person? A religious authority? A political leader? Yourmother or father? A scientist? A friend? A professor (and if so,in what field)? A seasoned traveler? An astrologer?

    And then, Why? What kind of help would you be lookingfor? Why not the kinds you did not seek? And so on. Of course,

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    The activity

    of thinking


    prepares for, and

    lets us practice

    the freedom of mind

    we require to

    exercise discerning

    judgment while

    living among

    people who

    differ from us.

  • we are also thereby asking ourselves why we might take ourquestion to Plato or to other thinkers from different traditions.

    I confess that I often do not get through what I set out to cov-er in a course. It is my conviction that students who leave class-es practiced in thinking along with texts, teachers, and a diversesampling of other students are better off than those who leavewith more content in mind. I go for awakening interest andinforming capacities over stocking minds in a world in whichstorehouses are ever more accessible. I do not want to preparestudents primarily to become experts in a field. I want them touse their intellectual discipline to reflect on their own and oth-ers lives, their times and situations, the issues that call for ourattention. Independent, open minds that regard knowledge andskills as resources to be used for responsible purposes, ratherthan possessions to be exploited for per-sonal gain and power, remain all too rare.

    I know many teachers who engagetheir students in questioning rather thanpropounding doctrine to be memorized.But some worry that, if overdone, thisstrategy leaves students without guidance,and with no knowledge by which to steertheir lives. Others worry that it might pro-duce people who, like Socrates foes (thesophists), take any position that servestheir purposes, whether right or wrong,true or false.

    Such anxieties may reflect the assump-tion (or reasoned position) that right andwrong, like true and false, must be abso-luteor at least clear, firm, and capableof giving us criteria by which to selectamong varying perspectives, schools ofthought, traditions, or opinions. I am notadvocating teaching an equal acceptanceof all opinions. I am advocating practicingthinking that can hold knowledge open,rather than locking it in as unquestionable.

    When we read the works that continueto change lives, we encounter people whorisked thinking afresh and then tried to tellus how that was and where it led, in a waythat invites us into the process so that we may keep it going,renewed. I believe that we must accept that invitation, becauseyou cannot understand an answer if you havent asked thequestion for yourself. I also believe that answers do not remaininteresting, or become meaningful, if we do not discuss themwith other people; part of this, though, is that we must keepdoing so as we acteven if the conversations are carried on in our own heads.

    Arendt, writing to Jaspers years after her flight to the Unit-ed States as Hitler was coming into power, said, I may havethought or done some things in those years [of separation] thatwill put you off, but there is hardly anything Ive done that Ididnt do without thinking how I would tell you about it or jus-tify it to you. She is not referring to what he taught her, al-though certainly she had that in mind, but rather


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