My eldest daughter recently found herself on the wrong side of offense when she was tasked to read a historical document on eugenics aloud in a high school history class. The document contained offensive words and a group of students wanted to shoot the messenger for voicing them.
I’m saddened by the teacher’s unwillingness to draw such an incident to a discussion on critical thinking. How I would have loved for her to ask, “Says who?” like Julie Bogart in Raising Critical Thinkers urges all readers to do. If she had, the students could have identified the voice of the author long dead and not the history student tasked to quote that voice.
Asking “Says who?” would have moved the lesson away from “What side are you on?” to “What insights do we gain by what these authors wrote?” as Julie urges good thinkers to ask.
In preparation for our conversation on this month’s podcast I wrote to Julie about the incident. I told her I was concerned about the prevailing thinking that sees reading as loyalty to that thing, and conversely as avoiding reading as healthy protest. We choose to read only voices that share our ideology (and internet algorithms make sure we are not only fed more of the same but pushed further toward bias).
Julie responded with her typical openness to what can be learnt.
For my daughter, she said, there was an invitation to courage to allow for the feelings that motivated the reaction of her peers and also compassion for her own desire to be differentiated from what she read.
“The trouble with critical thinking,” Julie wrote to me “is that it takes time and courage.”
We need to teach all children a bigger and better idea of what reading is and isn’t.
Julie suggests we think of reading more like listening, then picking sides.
Reading as listening means I’m curious and open to what is being said, I have a healthy skepticism but I’m not hiding in my corner afraid the speaker might have something to say that makes me uncomfortable.
It also requires that I am tolerant, not only of the ideas of others but, Julie points out, of my own responses, even when my ignorance makes me feel uncomfortable.
The critical reader is encouraged to ask good questions of the text but also of herself.
“What blocks my ability to give a fair hearing to all sorts of data about the topic?” It’s what I want from a good listener too and the kind of good listening we need to be skilled to do.
When we can level a playing field for struggling readers, by not making the skill of decoding the main point of our teaching, we have only arrived at the starting point of educating good readers. Our next move is the slow, deliberate work of teaching students to find meaning in what they read, ask good questions of what and how it is said and of how it lands with them and why.
“Critical thinkers”, Julie says, even “have the courage to change their minds.”