“Teach Kids How to Think, Not What to Think” is Terrible Advice

"Teach Kids How to Think, Not What to Think" is Terrible Advice - The Classical Unschooler

I was having an online “conversation” a.k.a. argument with someone yesterday. Actually, let me rephrase that: I had asked for resources for teaching something specific and had instead been admonished by someone “not trying to be rude but just wanting to say” that I should teach my children how to think, not what to think.


I did my best to explain why I would pointedly not be doing so and left it at that and the argument ended. However, since that phrase and that ridiculous bit of advice is bandied about incessantly over the internet every single day, prattled out by homeschoolers, teachers, and other (usually) well-intentioned folks, I wanted to write about why I hate that phrase so very much and I wish it would die.

If wishes were curses, about 80% of the internet would be writhing in pain and flames on my living room floor. Sigh. One can hope.

So here are my reasons for why I think the argument to teach kids how to think and not what to think is terrible advice.

Children are not ready to think well until they have mastered the grammar of whatever it is they will be thinking about.

If you have read my book, The Classical Unschoooleryou probably know that I tend to value the classical system of learning as much as the unschooling side. In the classical system, logic (and what people usually mean when they refer to as “how to think”) is the natural progression of the grammar stage. In other words, it’s the second step after the child has developed a good grasp of the grammar of a subject.

This is essentially where public schools get it all wrong. With their supposed emphasis on “critical thinking,” that is, how to think and not what to think, they jump ahead to the logic stage before the children have had a chance to grasp anything in the grammar stage. I have seen a history curriculum start to teach history with a fictional story designed to evoke an emotion. The children are then asked to comment on how they felt through it. I’m sorry, but how is that history? And, by the way, how is appealing to their emotions and then asking them to have an opinion about a real, historical event teaching them to think critically?

I tend to agree with Don Bartletti (who wrote that above article about critical thinking – seriously, go read it) that most of what passes as critical thinking is just “uninformed opinion lacking intellectual valence.” And I am loathe to teach that kind of intellectual laziness to my children.

Logic and reason carried to its pure, objective end can justify almost anything.

The biggest lie out there is that only religion justifies murder and that if people would only turn to reason and logic, we would all live happily ever after in Science Land. It’s as if Critical Thinking is the beautiful Cinderella kept captive by her ugly stepsisters of religious war. All we need to do, say the princes of Science Land is to get that glass slipper and go rescue her. Thinkerella is our salvation.

The unfortunate fact is that Thinkerella has some skeletons of her own in her fireplace she should consider first: the Nazis, abortion and infanticide, and racism to name just a few.

Thinking does not exist in a vacuum.

Even with the purest logic, there is still an overarching morality (call it world view, if you will) you subscribe to and that will come through. And maybe that is my problem with this kind of advice all along. It shows that people haven’t really – excuse the redundancy – thought about it hard enough.

If the personal is political, I would argue that the personal is also universal. Even the most objective thinking does not exist in a vacuum. It requires a personal philosophy which is the lens through which you are seeing it. Now, it might be a purely materialistic / empirical lens, but there is a lens all the same. So, right there, you are teaching people not just how to think but also what to think, no matter how desperately you think you are avoiding doing so.

To clarify, let me add that I’m not, in any way, saying that we should not be teaching children how to think. In fact, that is the basis of all education after all – to teach someone to learn and think for themselves. My argument is simply with the idea that we can teach people how to think without teaching them what to think.

Then again, maybe I’m just splitting hairs. Either way, I’m glad I got you to think while telling you what to think.

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Author: Purva Brown

Writer / blogger at http://TheClassicalUnschooler.com – unapologetically blending two seeming opposites.

3 thoughts on ““Teach Kids How to Think, Not What to Think” is Terrible Advice”

  1. Except there have been religious arguments for abortion, infanticide, racism, murder, and any other evil you can name. I remember being told that we have racism because Ham looked at his naked father Noah and got cursed for it. If you never got that lesson, count yourself lucky. And I consider any ideological system, religious or otherwise, that puts the well-being of a fetus or “unborn baby” before the well-being of its mother to be morally bankrupt no matter what your excuse is for it. It’s not like a baby can live well without its mother; losing Mom is a primary trauma from which most individuals never fully recover even if we have wet nurses or formula and even if they seem pretty much functional in most areas of their lives. So we could go round and round about this all day. I do agree that indoctrination is an important part of a child’s education, though. Not being sarcastic at all.

    1. Well, at least we agree on something.
      But honestly, you’re making my case for me. By arguing that a baby cannot live on its own, the logical extension of your argument is that some old people can’t live without support either, so we should kill them. And how about people who are fatally wounded or are sick? Do we as a society then turn our back on them because they “cannot live well” without someone else caring for them?
      The post wasn’t about religion, though, or bad teaching. It wasn’t even about killing unborn babies. It was about how teaching what to think is inseparable from teaching how to think. Let’s stick to the point.

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