Students today grow up in such a distracted and meaningless world that, unless schools give them some idea of where we have come from as a cultural tradition, schools themselves run the risk of becoming part of that meaninglessness. Not that students need necessarily accept that tradition, but they should at least know what it is, understand its ideals and values, its foundations and wellsprings that for over 25 centuries have shaped and nourished the Western mind.
It is always unwise to accept or reject what we don’t understand – to accept the old because it is old, or blindly reject it for the same reason. The past could very well have been a stifling dungeon of ignorant darkness, or a vast treasure-house of radiant wisdom, or even, perhaps, a little of both, but students will never know unless they can inquire themselves. It was this concern about modern meaninglessness that caused me to create a senior English humanities course that would give public high-school seniors an overall sense of cultural context within which they could better understand the world of today.
The course introduced 17-year-olds to what the past has to offer, beginning with the Greeks and what they had to say about human existence and how they found the strength to endure it; about the beauty of struggle and the limits of the possible; about transforming suffering into timeless art and philosophical meaning; about the difference between truth and bigotry masquerading as truth; about the glorious achievements of our common humanity and its marvelously empowering collective delusions; and being civilized without smartphones and laptops.
In essence, this humanities course showed students what it means to be human in a world that seeks to dehumanize them and how to preserve their humanity. It tried to teach them the Big Picture in a way that would help them not only to understand the Western tradition, but also to recognize in that tradition something of inestimable value in living their lives with honor and dignity. It endeavored to show them a way of telling truth from falsehood, right from wrong, the valuable from the cheap and the tawdry, and enabling them to see meaning in a world that might otherwise strike them as having little meaning at all.
Four Perspectives Explored
It has been said that the best education for life consists of three books or ways of viewing the world – the Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare, not for the answers they give, but for the questions they raise. To know these three books is to have plumbed the soul of the West.
After spending nine weeks on the Greeks, the course then addressed the Bible as Literature, discussed in a previous series of articles. From September to December, the Greeks and the Bible as Literature became the prelude to a six-month survey of British literature, so that, by the end of the school year, these high-school graduates had a general understanding of the British literary tradition and the twin foundations of Western culture.
The Greek and Judeo-Christian worldviews, about which no college-prep senior can afford to be uninformed, provided the motivational DNA and backstory, the historical and cultural framework within which much of what followed for the next two thousand years could be explained. Once one has grasped the essence of these two outlooks on life, one understands the psychology, the yearnings, and especially the demons of the modern world.
The third “book” was Shakespeare, also discussed in a series of articles. There is a fourth “book,” however, and that is Modernism as embodied in 20th-century British literature, important not because it is true or false, but because it is part of the air we breathe, and students must learn what it is to understand both our times and themselves. Juxtaposing these four different worldviews brought into sharp relief their seemingly contradictory natures, yet, strangely today, they all co-exist and, at times, paradoxically, within the same individual.
After spending January on literary modernism, we then turned to British literature, working backwards from the Victorians to the Anglo-Saxons. In April, students also submitted a 10-page research paper that argued a course-related thesis of their own choosing. Three to five arguments and the same number of counterarguments and rebuttals were required, with embedded citations from secondary literature for both sides of the argument. This introduction to scholarly method prepared students for college. Hamlet was read in May.
The Greeks and Critical Thinking
The unit on the Greeks and Critical Thinking lasted the first nine weeks of the course. Edith Hamilton’s celebrated study of Classical Greece, The Greek Way, provided the whetstone on which students honed their critical-thinking skills as they explored scores of questions that arose from this brilliant text. Students were taught how to think, not what to think, as they were free to say whatever they wished as long as they supported it.
The course placed enormous emphasis on the critical discussion of ideas. There was an initial three-minute set-up lecture that prefaced each discussion, whereupon students were invited to react in a number of ways: 1.) Individual students responded to an open-ended question, giving their answers and reasons as to why they thought their answer was right, while the class quietly listened; 2.) Students collectively made a case supporting a theory, then argued the converse; 3.) The teacher made a case for both sides of a question, while students listened and chose which side they preferred, and the reasons why; 4.) The teacher made a case for both sides of a question by using a number of fallacies, which students then identified by their technical names; 5.) The teacher asked a series of questions that explored both the pro and con sides of an issue or question; 6.) Students themselves explored an issue with minimal teacher guidance, always the best method. What started as a leisurely exchange would then often give rise to opposing viewpoints.
The choice of discussion format was unimportant, depending largely on the question or the mood of the class. It often happened that a number of different formats were used in a discussion, which often took on a life of its own, with the teacher simply letting things happen. What was important was whatever best served to advance the discussion at any particular time.
Technical Introduction to Critical Thinking
Students received technical training in the higher-order thinking skills of fallacy detection, statement classification, and different ways of refuting arguments. They explored the nature of evidence, distinguished fact from opinion, and tested the validity of assumptions to determine the soundness of an argument’s reasoning.
It was during these sessions that students realized for the first time the fallacies they had unknowingly been committing for years: appeals to authority, antiquity, fear, the ad hominem, the fallacy of origins, and various types of circular reasoning. Chastened by this discovery, they began to understand that fallacies cannot, strictly speaking, prove that an idea is false, but only that the reasons which supposedly support it may be faulty. The idea itself may still be true, despite the faulty reasons employed. There may be other valid reasons that could support the idea, but until those reasons were found, there would be no sound basis for holding it.
Students also realized that many of their friends’ ideas were also supported by nothing but fallacies. Moreover, the fact that many people similarly held their ideas without any support whatever fascinated students, who were intrigued that lack of evidence for their ideas and beliefs didn’t seem to bother them or undermine their confidence in those ideas or even themselves – even when this was pointed out to them. That reason plays such a small part in people’s lives prompted them to examine their own beliefs all the more closely.
Extensive Practice in Critical Thinking
This nine-week introduction to critical thinking also included homework assignments that enabled students to determine what can and cannot be proven; differentiate between facts, value judgments, explanatory and metaphysical hypotheses; determine the truth claims of these four types of statements; and test claims that purport to state truths beyond the realm of empirical verifiability — in short, whether a statement is claiming more than it can actually prove.
This prolonged immersion in closely-reasoned analysis of arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals was a new experience for students, who now understood critical thinking’s real-life applicability. They systematically worked their way through other assignments that reinforced the technical theory learned in class. Critical listening and reading, as well as intellectual caution in drawing conclusions were continually emphasized. In short, the course was teaching students to do precisely what the Greeks had done — to think for themselves.
These kinds of exercises paralleled the analytical training that characterized the Greek philosophical schools, which began to question the soundness of each other’s arguments. I told them of the legendary Greek philosopher, Carneades, who caused a sensation in Rome for his dialectical skill in making two seemingly irrefutable arguments, one for and the other against the importance of justice, whereupon he found himself banished from the city.
This immense contribution of the Greeks to civilization in analyzing and cataloguing these laws of logical reasoning and their revolutionary implications for transforming the thinking of the ancient world impressed students profoundly, as it did the Roman aristocracy, which sent its sons to Greece for legal, rhetorical, and philosophical training.
Two Major Insights
One insight, in particular, struck students’ attention — that they couldn’t fully understand any argument until they first understood all the opposing arguments. This realization had a considerable impact on them when they applied it to their personal beliefs. Only when they had understood all the arguments against their convictions and felt the power of those arguments did they fully understand what those convictions entailed. Until that happened, they didn’t really understand their convictions at all, or, expressed differently, unless they suffered for their convictions, they weren’t really theirs.
However, there was also a second insight that caught the attention of some. As students experienced a growing facility in making an argument that could justify virtually anything, they began to feel troubled. We then discussed the ethical implications of developing one’s mind to such an extent degree that one would have to be careful about what one defended. Lawyers and advertisers confront this problem every day of their professional lives.
The mind is a tool and needs to be guided by conscience. One can use intellect for many things, but one must always avoid going over to the dark side to defend a case, cause, or product which one feels is morally wrong. One has to live with one’s conscience, not someone else’s. Be a thinker, but, amidst all your thinking, be still a moral person.