Guest Post: Rethinking Education

SCOPE is partnering with the Peace Education and Action Center and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to start a community dialogue in three important areas:  Rethinking Education, Restoring Justice and Respecting Environment.  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune will publish guest editorials on each of the three areas, which will be crossposted on the SCOPE blog.

On April 9th and 10th, the Peace Education and Action Center will host their second annual Teach Peace Conference with the same three focus areas.  We hope the dialogue that begins through these multiple channels  and the actions that result will bring about positive changes for our community.

The first installment is below.  We hope you will use the commenting space to continue a dialogue about how we can Rethink Education.

Educating in a democracy By Gordon E. "Mike" Michalson Jr., president of New College of Florida Published: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Consider this: For their entire lives, today's college students have known only the snide exchanges and shouting matches offered by cable TV news as the chief way in which Americans discuss pressing issues of public policy. Apparently having made the decision that demonizing the opponent is more entertaining (and profitable?) than careful analysis and patient dialogue, the producers of such programs have set the tone for much of what passes for debate in our nation today.

Lost from view are some core principles of a sound education: rational argument based on true premises; the appeal to evidence; openness to alternative viewpoints, including the possibility you might be wrong; and respect for those who may view things differently when matters are intrinsically complex.

The important dots to connect here are those between the goals of education and the health of our democracy. Although higher education perhaps has a special responsibility to promote critical thinking, the habits of mind and practice at stake here are relevant to all levels of education, beginning with preschooling. After all, the vitriolic exchanges we often see in the media or experience firsthand in our own communities are simply the grown-up version of hitting the other kid in the schoolyard. It is never too early to teach the lesson that the resort to bullying -- rhetorical as well as physical -- can never be reconciled with the proper aims of education.

Against this background, it is worth considering how critical thinking as a community undertaking helps prepare college students for constructive lives in our democracy. It is, after all, within group settings that college students typically hone the skills of critical thinking -- whether through discussing the causes of the French Revolution, comparing alternative readings of "Othello," testing hypotheses about the causes of red tide or debating ways to distribute student government funds.

Over time, multiple experiences in such settings drive home the lesson that, the more complex the stakes, the less likely there will be one "right" answer -- but even so, the world doesn't end, and those who disagree with you are not bad people.

Somewhat paradoxically, the spillover effects of this lesson might include not only an enhanced spirit of tolerance and common purpose, but also a greater sense of personal self-confidence despite the absence of consensus about the "right" answer. The lesson here is that ambiguity and complexity are not the enemies of self-esteem.

Unfortunately, too much of today's debate in the public arena occurs as though we need to have complete consensus -- the "right" answer -- about core values before we can work out the details of public policy. Ironically, this is the very thing Thomas Jefferson argued we don't need in order to pursue our democratic practices -- any more than students in my philosophy of religion classes need to agree about religious belief in order to have a successful class.

Sound education should help one live constructively with disagreement rather than always having to hammer complex issues into a single truth that only you and people just like you "own." This educational goal has rarely seemed so timely, or so important.

Read the guest editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune here.  See the original SCOPE blog posting here.