A decent education teaches you to think.
In my life, that statement has been as self-evident as the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.
After all, an effective education is not just the transfer of information from book to brain but includes the tools necessary to transform that knowledge into wisdom.
Even math – the bane of my high school existence – has as its ultimate goal the understanding of how things work: your checkbook, Beethoven, the International Space Station, the algorithms that run your favorite social media platform.
You learn Spanish to speak it and, therefore, understand something different than you already know. You learn to write to make your thoughts understood by others.
And you read books and articles that don’t naturally interest you under the guidance of teachers who know more than you to expand your ability to evaluate ideas.
If education does not upset you, if it does not challenge you, if it does not confuse you, if it does not occasionally offend you, then it is not education. It is indoctrination.
A lot of attention has been focused these last few days on the suggestion made by a Texas school curriculum official that teachers who assign a book on the Holocaust must be careful to assign an “opposing view.” That official is either wise or a bigot.
Learning about the darkest period in modern Jewish (and other) history should not be a matter of reading “a book.” The systematic murder of millions of Jews did not have a simple cause or a history that can be covered in 250 pages.
Perhaps the administrator understood that the intersection of corroded human hearts, economic stress, a legacy of religious contempt and a wildly popular leader whose rhetoric was all grievance and greed could not be covered by reading the diary of a young girl who lost her youth and then her life to the hurricane of history.
Or maybe the administrator thinks there is merit in the notion that the Holocaust, like the moon landing and the COVID-19 vaccine, is a fiction. Perhaps she does not necessarily believe it, but she thinks it’s a valid point of view.
What is the difference between exposing students to controversy – like how a country dedicated to the principle that all people are created equal could validate enslavement – and insisting that any point of view is valid, especially if a vocal adult insists on equal time?
Well, that’s why good teaching is so desperately important.
Teachers are not charged with warehousing children and young adults while the parents go to work or the gym until, around the dinner table, the kids can be informed about what’s what.
They are entrusted with the sacred responsibility to develop critical thinking skills in their students so that they can tell the difference between fact and opinion, between thoughtfulness that stands up to inquiry and drivel that flees from it.
That’s why teaching controversial ideas is so important – not because they are controversial but because they are ideas.
Students can only learn such skills through exposure to a diversity of perspectives. Yet, this can – indeed, must – be done in a way that doesn’t suggest moral equivalency between views where none exists.
For example, there are not any legitimate opposing views about the historical fact of the Holocaust. Similarly, it is a fact that the U.S. Civil War was fought over slavery, so teaching students about “Lost Cause” viewpoints must explain the purpose of such mythology.
The life of the mind should be considered a human right. And the guardians of that right are the people who have learned how to learn, not just to shout.
The old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” overlooks the rest of the adage, which I made up.
“Those who can, learn from those who teach. And those who can neither do nor teach ought not to pretend to either.”
It’s not as pithy, but it’s more accurate.
I had a great education in a wonderful public school system, and yet much of what I learned is wrong. I only know what is wrong because good teachers and devoted students never took anything for granted.
Dinosaurs were not giant reptiles. Girls do not need to bake brownies while boys build tables. “I Have a Little Dreidel” is not the equivalent of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”
And civil rights legislation does not eliminate systemic racism.
It should not be the goal of education to offend or diminish a student, ever. But it should always be the goal of education to develop the skills to evaluate ideas, popular or not, that transform knowledge into wisdom.
We should never be afraid of that truth, and we should never be afraid to call out those who are.