August 25, 2022
At a recent Sutherland Institute Congressional Series event, Rep. Burgess Owens discussed the need to improve education for students:
The most important product we have in our country today is the product of our kids. That they can grow up feeling confident; be visionaries … enough confidence in the way they think that they can accept other ideas, and maybe not agree. But because they have so much confidence in the way they think, they are willing to be around people who think differently.
He concluded that “we are developing a generation of children who cannot think anywhere past their last emotion. … We cannot allow that to continue to happen.”
What Owens’ comments point to, among other things, is a lack of critical thinking skills in younger generations. Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate and form a judgment on an issue without undue influence of personal feelings and opinions. The ability to reason – even temporarily – at arm’s length from your emotions is an important element of citizenship. A society constantly driven by its emotions is a society that can be emotionally manipulated by demagoguery and deceived by sophistry.
Of course, human reason can also be fooled, and that is why cultivating a capacity for both emotional understanding and critical thinking apart from feelings is essential: Each one complements the other, while one without the other creates a blind spot.
The capacity for critical thinking can come from various sources. Formal education, when done well, is an obvious one. Rigorous education in American civics and history, in particular, can challenge us in ways that push our ability to think critically while allowing emotion its proper place in our decision-making.
More broadly, active participation in civic institutions (including formal education) offers us an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. As Sutherland Institute president Rick Larsen wrote:
A recommitment to our most important institutions — including family, faith and education; a renewed focus on electing representatives based on their understanding of freedom and our form of government; and a reprioritization of expanded and sequential study of civics and history – [is] the only way to equip future generations with the critical thinking skills needed for citizenship.
But how does participation in civic institutions other than education help us develop critical thinking skills? As I recently wrote, “Active participation in strong institutions often facilitates social experiences with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It also exposes people to institutional standards that instill personal ethical norms that help shape our views and values.” The personal challenge of exposure to those with differing backgrounds and to ethical norms challenges us in similar ways to civics and history education. As we are exposed to different ways of doing and thinking about things and approach them with intellectual humility and seriousness, we learn how to think critically.
As our children are challenged and learn critical thinking, they will take several steps closer to fulfilling their potential as the “most important product” we have. They will be able to live together – despite differences – with confidence in themselves, acceptance of others, and peace among all. That is what we all should want for our kids, and it is up to us to give it to them.
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To help voters in the respective USBE districts become better acquainted with the candidates seeking to serve in these important roles, a series of debates will be conducted live, primarily via YouTube, beginning next week.
Headlee will draw from his leadership experience in the private sector to enhance Sutherland’s work supporting free enterprise and the institutions of civil society.