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Mindsets That Sabotage Our Education: (1) Belief Guarding


Plato's Academy, Pompeii Mosaic -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Plato's Academy, Pompeii Mosaic -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

I am entering my 7th year as a high school teacher. By now, I have observed consistent patterns as to which students learn and grow the most, and which don't. This has led me to form opinions about the most common obstacles to getting a true education. These obstacles don't only apply to students, however. They are mindsets that keep many people from learning. Sadly, these mindsets are fairly widespread, often invisible, and in some cases defended. Whatever your age, job, level of education, or beliefs, having one of these mindsets will effectively sabotage your own ability to grow, learn, and mature.

In each post of this series I will describe one of four mindsets and explain why it's harmful. Then I will offer some suggestions for how to change and grow.

"Teach me information. Don't challenge my beliefs."

Some people think that the job of a teacher or professor is merely to communicate and explain information. But that is not true. It is also the job of an instructor to teach students the best way to think about that information (i.e. how it should be interpreted and why). This necessarily involves challenging students' current thinking on the given subject. Even in the rare case that a student's current thinking is already correct, it still needs to be challenged so the student can see why it is correct.

This can create conflict if a student is of the mindset that their teachers or professors should never question certain beliefs that they hold dear. These beliefs are usually moral, religious, or philosophical in nature. But it is not just religious people who have these beliefs, or this mindset. Progressive atheists can be of this mindset just as much as conservative Christians. And it is equally damaging to one's growth in both cases.

Here are a couple of examples from my own experience.

I teach at a religious school with families from a variety of Christian backgrounds. Every year a couple of students (or parents) will ask me why they have to study a science book that says the Earth (or universe) is billions of years old. I always explain that it's important for students to learn about mainstream scientific theories, and why most scientists accept them, whether the student or family personally agrees with those theories or not. I also explain how Christians have historically differed on the best interpretation of Genesis chapter 1, and that education is not about reinforcing previously held assumptions, while sheltering students from opposing ones. Rather, it is about helping students understand and think critically about a variety of views, and then reach an informed conclusion. My explanation can create puzzled looks, however, in those who have the mindset that education should never challenge their beliefs.

A second example comes from my undergrad years as a philosophy major. One of my classmates -- who was a self-described atheistic Buddhist -- went on a diatribe in class one day about how Western philosophy was completely wrong about everything and studying it was a waste of time, essentially insulting our philosophy professor (also an atheist) to his face. My classmate wanted the information about Western philosophy (i.e. which philosopher said what, and when), but without letting any of it challenge his current thinking. His beliefs were off-limits. He was just paying to get information.

The mindset that teachers should only give you information on a given subject, but never challenge your thinking and assumptions about that subject is harmful and wrong. Growing and learning in a specific area of knowledge necessarily requires critically examining your own beliefs and assumptions in that area. Resisting that process will only prevent you from learning.

How To Change

If you struggle with this mindset (and we all probably do to some extent), here are some practical suggestions for how to change your thinking and grow:

Practice humility. Admit the possibility that some of your assumptions and beliefs could be wrong, especially if you've never examined them critically. Don't close yourself off from correction. Even if your beliefs happen to be true, it is healthy and helpful to still allow them to be questioned and challenged sincerely; because it is only through honest questioning that you come to see why they are true in the first place.

Don't be too defensive. Understand that it is part of a teacher's job to challenge some of your assumptions, not pat you on the back for having them. Don't take an honest challenge from a teacher or professor as an "attack" on your beliefs. Give them the benefit of the doubt, even if you think they don't deserve it.

Develop a love for truth. If some of your assumptions are mistaken, then you don't want them anyway. Right? If your assumptions are correct, on the other hand, then they can withstand some honest challenges. Learn to cultivate a desire and love for truth. When you love something, you will not be afraid of it. Realize there is nothing to fear from the truth -- it is always good for you, even if it is uncomfortable.

Read both sides. Subject yourself to intelligent arguments on both sides of an issue. Make a habit of reading things that challenge your assumptions, as well as intelligent defenses of your own beliefs. This will give you a more balanced perspective and make you aware of things you haven't considered before. It will also help in developing humility.

Learn logic. Thinking responsibly takes effort and skill. Learning logic is one of the best ways to develop that skill. It will make you more aware of your own (and others') assumptions, and will give you the tools to evaluate beliefs responsibly.

Logic was originally taught in most public schools in America, but was quickly dispensed with in the early 1900s to make room for curriculum that prepared students to enter an industrialized work force, where they only needed to know how to follow instructions and complete rote tasks. So, most of us got cheated out of learning logic, but there are still easy ways to study it. I offer an affordable online Logic course (shameless plug). Other sites, like Coursera, offer online courses too. Or you can always learn logic the old-fashioned way and get a book.

In my next post in this series, I will discuss the mindset of partisanship and distrust.

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