"Oh, send him somewhere where they will teach him to think for himself!"
Mrs. Shelley answered: "Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people." Matthew Arnold, "Essays in Criticism."
The thinking controversy is, I am beginning to think, a good deal older than I thought. In fact, I never knew there was a controversy until I came across three things: the above quotation from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a recent New York Times special education supplement, and a report from the Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The Times survey reports a new emphasis in schools across America on the teaching of thinking. The National Assessment of Education Progress discloses that, even while reading scores are on the rise, there is a decline in the inferential reasoning ability of junior and senior high school students. Colleges are finding that their students have far more trouble with complex passages than did their counterparts in the early 1970s.
Some educators place the blame on television; others on poor teaching. Bernard H. McKenna, an official of the National Education Association, is quoted by The Times as blaming the back-to-basics approach to education:
"The emphasis has been on basic skills and passing tests," says McKenna, rather than on learning to apply skills.
Nearly--but not quite--all educators, though, agree that the solution lies in the deliberate teaching of logical thought processes.
The glaring exception is Leslie A. Hart, whose view is reported in the NASSP Bulletin: teaching children to think in logical fashion may hinder, rather than advance, their ability to learn. "A great many accounts show that scientific, inventive, and engineering solutions often come about in nonlogical fashion," says Hart, author of "How the Brain Works."
"Today it is easier to see that logical approaches seriously interfere with schools' effort to bring about learning. Having learned something in random style, such as how to drive a car, manage personal finances, or write an essay, we are likely to try to teach it in an order that we can claim is logical."
Hart urges that since different people solve problems in different ways, each brain building on its own experience, teachers should design educational settings that are "brain-compatible, not brain-antagonistic." Instead of emphasizing logical analysis of predigested facts, he believes students should be encouraged to examine as much information as they can muster, consider a wide variety of approaches and give their brains a chance to come up with a solution.
"If we don't try to 'run' the brain," Hart concludes, "this mighty instrument, more powerful than 100 large computers, will likely oblige us with excellent performance, making the best use of whatever experiences it has stored."
Teach a child to think for himself? Or, like Mrs. Shelley, teach him logic so he will "think like other people"? Leave that one to the experts. I offer only this: no child can be taught to think as well as he otherwise might if his homework consists primarily of filling in blanks on a ditto sheet. He may get all the answers right, simply by scanning the assigned reading, without ever having the material engage his brain.
The cheap, non-scientific, but logical alternative is to assign the passage and require the student to summarize it in his own words. Do that consistently, and he will not only learn to write a lot better; he will also learn to analyze, evaluate, sort out and synthesize information. That may not be thinking, but it is pretty close.