Teaching Thinking: Moral and Political Considerations

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<ul><li><p>TeachingThinking</p><p>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-</p><p>mental reasoningfrom deduc-tion, by which we relate principlesto particulars that come underthose principles, and from induc-</p><p>Illu</p><p>stra</p><p>tion</p><p> by </p><p>Far</p><p>ida </p><p>Zam</p><p>an/I</p><p>mag</p><p>es.c</p><p>om, I</p><p>nc.</p><p>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</p><p>Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich is Core Profes-sor at The Union Institute &amp; UniversitysGraduate School for Interdisciplinary Artsand Sciences. Her publications includeTransforming Knowledge (Temple Universi-ty Press, 1990).</p><p>Change September/October 2003 19</p><p>Moral and Political Considerations</p><p>i</p></li><li><p>tion, by which we abstract from particulars to create general-izations that subsume them. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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). </p><p>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.</p><p>Maxine Greene writes eloquently of teaching that engagesstudents in thinking together. She sees the classroom as apreparation for political life among differing equals:</p><p>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</p><p>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. </p><p>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</p><p>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. </p><p>Teaching ThinkingThe subject matter of a course in</p><p>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-</p><p>fessor Karl Jaspers, Communication as a form and a way ofthinking stands in contrast not only to advocatorial but alsoto purely logical thinking.</p><p>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?</p><p>And then, Why? What kind of help would you be lookingfor? Why not the kinds you did not seek? And so on. Of course,</p><p>20 Change September/October 2003</p><p>The activity</p><p>of thinking </p><p>prefigures, </p><p>prepares for, and </p><p>lets us practice</p><p>the freedom of mind</p><p>we require to </p><p>exercise discerning</p><p>judgment while </p><p>living among </p><p>people who </p><p>differ from us. </p></li><li><p>we are also thereby asking ourselves why we might take ourquestion to Plato or to other thinkers from different traditions. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 to his poweras a conversational partner. This suggests a relation betweenknowledge, thinking, and conscience, in which consciencerefers not only to rules and principles but also to internal con-</p><p>versation with admired others (including those we meetthrough books) of whom we wish to remain worthy friends. </p><p>Explaining and justifying her own thinking and choices as if Jaspers were still with her had been helpful to Arendt inmaking decisions neither he nor other scholars could have an-ticipated in their pressing specificities. He had taught her phi-losophizing, beyond Philosophy. </p><p>This, then, is how I (and others) think about teaching: notsolely or even primarily as conveying knowledge along withthe ability to reason critically about it, but as practicing think-ing with respected others (living or dead, present or absent) inconversations. Such conversations continue long afterward toprovide good company when, in our complex lives, we need tothink through what we should do and who and how we should</p><p>be. There are clearly both moral and politi-cal values in play when we think together,practicing rather than preaching equalityand freedom, respect, and independence. </p><p>But, in school, is not our primary obli-gation to conserve and pass on knowledge,with its various criteria for truth, sound-ness, validity, as distinct from mereopinion, however thoughtfully discussed? </p><p>KnowledgeI take knowledge to comprise coherent</p><p>sets of answers (or responses; knowledgecan be tentative, an offering for further con-sideration rather than a full stop) to ques-tions posed over time within culturallyspecified and legitimated sub-communitiesof people who share specialized languagesand logics. The responses to such sharedquestions can then be recognized by othersas appropriate, adequate, satisfying (or not). </p><p>We teach knowledge, as we teach lan-guage and socialize our children, to con-serve our world by preparing newcomers to join and continually revitalize it. In this sense, knowledge is, as Arendt put it,world-building. She writes that the questfor truths leaves behind a growing trea-</p><p>sure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by everycivilization as part and parcel of its world. </p><p>A cultures knowledge is public, shared and shareableamong those allowed, willing, and able to enter the communityof knowers. It is also more broadly public in that it is widelyaccepted outside of a community of knowers as legitimate. Forexample, there is a community of scientists whose knowledgeis validated by its professional norms. It is easy to assume thatin relation to such knowledge, a students individual opinionsshould be secondary. Those opinions are to become better in-formed, better reasoned; a student is supposed to learn to makea case for his or her opinions and to renounce them if such acase cannot be made. </p><p>This is not wrong: of course there are more and less in-formed, responsible opinions. And of course, even well-reasoned and informed opinions should not be confused with knowledge. But individuals and citizens also needinformed opinions, including opinions about knowledge. </p><p>Change September/October 2003 21</p></li><li><p>Knowledge gives us something we share that mattersenough to have opinions about; opinions give us differing per-spectives about the meanings as distinct from truth claims ofknowledge. This is why, as teachers, we try both to conveyknowledge and to encourage students to develop worthy opin-ions about itto think about it, without submitting to it. In thiswe are recognizing that what is taken to be truth within a dis-course of knowledge should not trump but remain in genera-tive tension with our human plurality, our differences, ourmultiple perspectives, and our responsibilities. </p><p>Concern for knowledge and moral considerations can cometogether without conflict and without being conflated. Theyare, instead, complementary. Experts have knowledge; mem-bers of the public who are affected by knowledge have andshould have differing opinions concerningits meaning, its significance, its moral re-lation to our worlds. The physicist hasknowledge about nuclear bombs that non-scientists do not; citizens have opinionsabout the creation, the stockpiling, thepossible uses of such bombs. Both are im-portant. Neither should be confused withor silence the other, and, if we care aboutthe world that is in our collective keeping,both need to be cultivated as we practicethinking in our classes. </p><p>Such wanderings, as Heideggerdescribed this kind of free speculation,also keep a known world, a set of rules, adisciplined field, a conventional order, adecision-making process from becomingclosed to fresh insights and therefore frompetrifying. This is why thinking with ourstudents is our primary (though not exclu-sive) purpose and why it is in our self-interest as well as theirs. We want them,and ourselves, to comprehend the knowl-edge for which they come to us, not tomove inside it and shut the door, emerg-ing only to apply what is already knownlike cookie cutters. </p><p>Evaluation But how are we to evaluate progress in such thinking, par-</p><p>ticularly when pressed to do so in terms of measurable out-comes? How can we measure increased freedom of mind,capacious interests, open mindedness, playfulness, inclusive-ness? If knowledge can to some extent be tested for because it is something students can have or fail to h...</p></li></ul>


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