Why Should I Care What You Think?
A minor manifesto
When I came to the lunch table, my colleagues were engaged, as they often are, in an intriguing conversation about teaching. The topic du jour was the promise and peril of Chat GPT. For some of us, particularly those of us on the STEM side of the table, the emphasis really is on the former: Chat GPT is to writing what calculators are to math: a useful shortcut that allows students to focus on the calculations that really matter. Humanities teachers tend to be more worried, fearing that Chat GPT and other kinds of Artificial Intelligence will short-circuit calculation altogether, effectively allowing students to avoid reading, writing, and thinking. I think most of us agree that for the moment—pending inevitable ongoing refinements of AI technology, which, as we’ve seen from recent news reports, still has some kinks to work out—the situation is not that dire: students still need to sort, evaluate, and form judgments about what they’re told, and such programs have limits on how well they can do such things. In a way, this latest challenge is simply an iteration of the familiar imperative of an information age, in which the proliferation of data is a given and the creative and successful application of it are the hallmarks of modern intelligence.
At one point in the discussion, one of my talented and committed young colleagues from another department, mindful of his audience, told me that the goal of our labors should be to help students think like a historian. He unwittingly touched a nerve. Historians often say this, which has long engendered impatience on my part, and why I impulsively responded, “Why the hell (actually, my language was a little less temperate than that) would a kid want to think like a historian?”
Although I didn’t explain, I think he understood my point: that this is about the last thing a kid would want to do. (Think like the general manager of a sports franchise? Absolutely! Like a venture capitalist? Sounds cool. Like a scuba diving instructor? Very possibly. But a historian? Nah.) In any event, even if such a kid did want to become a historian, the profession itself is evaporating amid the decline of liberal arts and secure faculty positions in academe with which to pursue it. Even here in high school, interest in the subject has been ebbing; I find myself envying English teachers who have a four-year state requirement that protects their enrollments. Which is one reason why I keep ginning up interdisciplinary elective ideas.
Still operating on autopilot, I followed my rhetorical question about why a student would want to think like a historian with another one about what we really should be asking our students to consider: “Why should I care what you think?” This was a final thought I tossed out as lunch was ending and we had to scatter to our classes. But our conversation, and the way it concluded, stuck with me in the days that followed.
One reason why is that “Why should I care what you think?” is really a series of questions:
What do you think?
Why do you think what you do?
How might someone think differently than you?
How can you convince me to change my mind?
These are not queries artificial intelligence can easily answer. There may come a day—alarmingly soon—when it can, but freedom and power will nevertheless rest with those who can generate independent judgments of situations that are fluid and subjective, as a great many situations are. One’s ability to do this kind of work is at the heart of what we mean by critical thinking, a goal most educators share and pursue in a variety of ways.
I should add working with students in a classroom is a different proposition than jousting with colleagues at a lunch table, and that a baldly posed question of “Why should I care what you think?” is as likely to backfire as produce useful answers. Students can be daunted by the prospect of hard thinking, and intimidation is more likely to lead a kid to shut down than open up. Which is where the frequently invoked imperative of “differentiation” comes into the equation, though more often than not it’s a matter of a query posed in discussion or a comment on a final draft than an elaborately engineered set of steps of the kind educational consultants are fond of propounding.
There remains, a different, more intractable, challenge: the significant number of students who would be inclined to respond to my question by replying, “I don’t think you should care what I think.” And the reason for that is that they don’t care to think at all. Such students will often do what they have to, which amounts to figuring out what they believe you want and delivering it passably with minimal effort—a kind of intelligence at which some students excel. One that will allow them to get on with what they regard as their real life on a basketball court, in a car, or in front of a video game. For such people, thinking is a form of exertion of a kind that seems unnecessary and pointless at worst, at least in a school setting.
Under such circumstances, the challenge of effective teaching is a matter of framing our endeavors in such a way—and this is a matter of engineering—that they can imagine how what you’re asking them to do might lead them to someday close a sale, get a job, be admired by their peers, or some such thing at the edge of their imaginations—which you might then extend slightly to get them to consider things they otherwise would not. You can do this with the right kind of problem to solve, a perspective you ask them to adopt, or a deceptively simple essay question you ask them to answer. There’s an element of creativity here, but also an implicitly posed provocation: Hey! Those things you want? They’re going to require you to consider things you haven’t really thought about, and to do more than you’re currently doing in just trying to get through the school day. In short, you need to think harder. But they’ll only hear this from a teacher if that teacher can answer his own question: why should they care what you think? Particularly since you’re not the head of a VC firm, the GM for a franchise, or a scuba diving instructor in the Florida Keys (they’re hard to recruit as high school teachers).
One answer is to say that all three of these people have to weigh costs and benefits, figure out how to talk to people, and act on incomplete information, which is what successful people in all walks of life do. And that you can give them practice doing this, in admittedly roundabout ways. Tell me: what the hell is going on in this strange kingdom of England in 1534? (Should we be trying to replace Henry VIII as CEO? Um, exactly how do you get rid of a person in power?) What are we going to do to stop this Phyllis Schlafly woman from wrecking the Equal Rights Amendment (and why are people listening to her in the first place)? How are you going to convince your Tory father that this insurrectionist Yankee from Connecticut will actually be a good husband regardless of how this Revolution ends? (What’s a husband? Why would someone want to be one—then or now?) Coming up with compelling, open-ended questions whose answers open windows is what authentic student-centered education looks like.
These examples happen to involve using the past as a map to understand where we are in the present, which is the way I typically do such stuff, because, at a formative period of my life, looking at the world through the lens of time became fascinating. Go figure. There are plenty of other ways to frame an inquiry; it’s a good idea to get practice learning more than one.
My colleague was right in an important sense: I do want my students to think like a historian. I also—even more—want them thinking like a non-historian. Because, in one way or another, it’s a nice way of making a living. You might even get paid.
Great minds think differently