What Do You Think?

Nothing engenders more fear in students than this question: "What do you think?"

Whether the setting is a public university (like the one in which I now teach) or community or private college (in which I've also taught), the reaction is nearly always the same: widened eyes and slackened jaws.

The level of the students' skills or talents does not seem to vary their reaction. In fact, during the time I did creative writing workshops with elementary- and high-school kids – as part of the Teachers and Writers program in New York – I noticed, if anything, more apprehension among the so-called "gifted and talented" kids to whom I posed the question.

I do not mean, in any way, to denigrate my students or anyone else's. Rather, I am describing my experiences of more than a decade of teaching to discuss what I see as one of the underlying problems of education today.

In short, I think that education at all levels does nothing to help people become competent, confident individuals and members of communities, whatever those communities may be. Instead, it seems to further infantilize students as they undergo more schooling.

Of course, if those of us who teach are doing our jobs well, students look up to us and may want to seek us out for advice long after they have taken our classes. I enjoy such encounters with my former charges very much, if for no other reason that I like to feel I had a good influence on someone's life.

However, nearly every one of us encounters a situationu2014whether in our careers or personal livesu2014that calls for an answer or solution we've never before seen or heard. Or there may not be anyone who can guide us through those crises and conundrums. This is what happens, for example, to the teenager who realizes he's gay, the young woman who wants to be a neurosurgeon when her family wants her to be a nurse or to the engineer who encounters a problem that isn't described in one of the reference guides.

A person's ability to navigate such treacherous currents is entirely dependent on his or her ability to think independently and to trust what he or she thinks. Disturbingly, this is exactly what most schooling discourages.

I see the result of such an implicit pedagogical policy very clearly whenever I hear or read one of those so-called intellectuals who seemingly can do little more than quote whatever he or she has read. I also notice it whenever a public official obstinately continues with a course of action (or inaction) that has obviously failed.

In both examples, the same insidious force is operating: a person's distrust of his or her ability to think independently. Paradoxically, it's the common denominator of the bullheaded and the indecisive. An unwillingness to concede that one may be wrong isn't really so different, in origins and outcomes, from the inability to trust one's own facilities for discerning the truth.

Now, lest you think that I am one of those proponents of the so-called progressive pedagogies, I will dispel that notion. Most often, the bullheaded and the timid lack some sort of fundamental understanding some basic skill or body of knowledge. We see this, of course, when heads of state repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. But it also underlies the reflex to quote or refer to something when new words and conceptsu2014however unrefinedu2014are needed. This, I think, is usually what's going on when students feel their teacher is "talking at" them.

Those of us who teach at the university level hear our colleagues bemoaning students who seem to know nothing of what happened before 1995 or outside their neighborhoods. Those same students look at you askanceu2014just like their supposedly better-versed peersu2014when you ask them for their "take" on something. Well, no wonder they're afraid to venture an opinion: They know that they don't know. And they are constantly reminded of it. How can we expect anyone to develop confidenceu2014that is to say, to feel competentu2014in such circumstances?

Thus students need to gain a better grasp of the conventions of the language they speak and write, as well as the basic principles of other subjects. Having lived in a culture where my first language was not spoken, I know that you feel more confident about your ability to survive as you better understand the language. By "language," I'm not only referring to idioms such as English, French or Mandarin, but to the knowledge and ways of thought that are the common currencies of any culture.

Of course, one of the legacies of the 1960's and 1970's is the idea that emphasizing what we used to think of as "fundamentals" stifles creativity. Nothing, I believe, is further from the truth. I know this from my own life: Because someone taught me the conventions of the language I use (when I wasn't learning them myself), I have a means for using my creativity. And I was able to navigate life in another country because I learned the most basic things about that country's language.

Understanding the conventions of your language also teaches you how to break them, when necessary and appropriate. After all, how can anyone find the language for the drummer only he hears when he can't even describe the drummer everyone else hears?

On the other hand, I don't think that people become competent by mindless memorization and repetition of factoids, which is the way many people from so-called "traditional" backgrounds were instructed. Most of my students from Southern and Eastern Asia were schooled in such a way. They work very hard, but they stumble just as badly as their American born peers when asked what they think.

It seems to me that the best way to motivate students to learn the basics of any body of knowledge, or to master any fundamental skill, is through whatever motivates students. They may not want to learn how to construct better sentences and paragraphs because their teachers tell them they should. But they might when they want to ask the mayor of their city why the playground doesn't get fixed or to apply for a job. Or simply to express however they feel: After all, how can anyone understand what's on your mind if he or she doesn't understand what you're saying?

What I've described is how master teachers like John Taylor Gatto have taught for decades. They learn about what students want to do and allow them to learn that they can do it. Then they learn the skills they need in order to fulfill their goals and dreams.

And they're not afraid to tell you what they think.

December 20, 2005