We often tout that history, and indeed the liberal arts experience, teach critical thinking skills. We are often less clear what that phrase actually means. I’ve been trying to define critical thinking over the past few weeks and have decided that it has a few possible meanings.
- An ability to assemble and disassemble an argument
- An ability to solve a problem without explicit instructions
- A self-awareness that allows an individual to reflect on themselves and their society and to seek self-improvement
I think these are all definitions that history pedagogy addresses, but I want to talk about the third definition particularly.
I try to make the classroom a safe space for trying out ideas and sharing beliefs. My classroom should be a distillery of ideas (pun intended, I live in Kentucky) which should mean that we let go of misguided beliefs and refine the way we think about the world around us. Sometimes I see on students’ faces the blank surprise of realizing that they have been living in a world, a country, a community that harbors hatred or ignorance or naivety.
Our world today is not built particularly well for self-reflection and self-improvement. Our social media encourages creating images and brands of oneself that are perfected snapshots; our Instagram selves. We make gifs of political gaffes and use hashtags to put people into clear cut categories. My students bring these soundbite selves into the classroom and I find myself struggling to make them really address the painful questions of being self-aware because they fear the consequences of being wrong.
I fear that in a world that can instantly document every misstatement there will be no space for making mistakes. As Alfred tells a young Bruce Wayne, we fall down so that we can pick ourselves up. My students are incredibly hesitant to fall down. They are worried about their grades, the perception their fellow students have of them, their parents’ assessment of their success. And, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Students should encourage their peers to work harder and think deeper. There should be peer pressure on students to treat one another with dignity.
What happens more often, I think, is that students avoid tough subjects in order to avoid the censure of others. So, for example, I attempt to have discussions with my survey students about terminology; Indian vs. Native American vs. indigenous people or patriot vs. rebel vs. revolutionary. It is a quick and effective way to illuminate historiographical debates. Yet, my students are often incredibly hesitant to offer their thoughts on how and why terminology changes or which terminology is most appropriate.
I’ve tried to set my classroom up so that low stakes failure happens regularly because I believe that incomprehension provides important moments of discussion. When I taught the Salem witch hysteria a few weeks ago, my class goal was to show them that they could not understand the witchcraft trials through their modern conception of religion, science, and the supernatural. I started class by giving students a list of questions to answer with a partner; Why does a pen fall to the ground if dropped, translate the following phrase (insert Latin phrase here), and how do we know that there is a specter flying around the back of the classroom. It took about 30 seconds for the awkward laughter to start but I kept on managing class like it was the most normal question I could have asked. The point of the question and the lecture was to unsettle students from their assumption that because this was an American history class they could implicitly understand the motivations and beliefs of historical actors. How do we know that there weren’t witches? And, does it matter? The students all failed to answer the third question. No one could tell me how we knew that there was a specter in the classroom because none of them believed there was. And, from that failure, we dusted ourselves up and built up our understanding of a world that did believe in specters.
Is there space in higher education today to be wrong? To admit to that you have changed your mind? How can we make our classrooms places where our students can fall down, find new truths, and try on new realities? Are some student bodies better at this than others?