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Lowell Greathouse: 'What does it mean when we fail to understand the fullness of our history or the complexity of our world?'

I'm disturbed by seeing recent stories about the political battles taking place in our schools. Attempts to narrow educational inquiry by opposing the inclusion of different racial and cultural perspectives in the classroom and attacking the use of Critical Race Theory as a tool for understanding our world more fully are discouraging.

The problem is this: Narrowness in thought and perspective is the first step in developing a closed mind.

I understand this from personal experience. In 1975, I was attending one of our country's finer institutions of higher education. I disagreed, however, with the educational methodology being used in the school's Political Science Honors Program, so refused to participate, even though I was one of the top students in the program. I was joined by my roommate, who was also a top student. Because we felt strongly about the approach being used, we invited the college's political science department to our house to discuss educational theory.

At that event, the most outspoken professor in the department said: "Professors are like master cobblers. We know how to make shoes, and it is up to us to show our students how to do that, so they can become master cobblers as well."

Clearly, he saw education as an enterprise in which there were master teachers, who held the necessary knowledge of their trade, and students, who were to be depositories for this knowledge. It was a one-way understanding of education that didn't invite a diversity of perspective or experience into the conversation.  

I responded that night saying, "What happens if students don't just want to make shoes?"

I believed (then and now) that education is a dynamic, contextual, interactive process, based on a community of teachers/learners participating together, who represent different voices, experiences, and perspectives and who need to explore voices outside their experience, as they seek to gain greater knowledge and understanding.

My question reflected something I learned years earlier from one of my favorite teachers, Jim Barlow, who taught high school in the Beaverton School District for over 40 years. Mr. Barlow's approach to education is detailed in a book he and Anil Naik wrote entitled "Unfettered: A Philosophy of Education."

In it, they say, "Young people are learning a mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information to reach an answer or conclusion. They are learning a means to a way of seeing. … If a student develops the skill of critical thinking, they become more enthusiastic about the world because new situations and facts don't intimidate them. They are less afraid of the unknown and more curious to engage in it knowing they have a means to try and understand the unknown. … Schools can teach the skills involved in thinking critically and see that it is practiced."

In short, education is more than learning what to believe. It is about learning how to think.

Mr. Barlow was a master at helping students become critical thinkers in a complex world. We need more, not less, critical thinkers today.

For example, as Oregonians, shouldn't we learn both about what was involved for 19th-century Americans to travel along the Oregon Trail, as well as about what happened to Native peoples who had their lives and livelihoods destroyed as a result of this migration or about what happened to Black individuals who were banned from settling in Oregon because of exclusionary laws?

Why wouldn't our learning of Oregon history include the experiences and perspectives of those who were victims of the Indian schools, as well as the stories of new migrants to this region?

Learning should encompass the complexity and diversity of our stories for it to be full and complete. By not hearing from multiple perspectives, we receive a partial education, making it difficult to live in and navigate a diverse world.

Many of today's educational debates center around not just understanding our past, but also learning how to apply critical thinking to our current reality. What does it mean when we fail to understand the fullness of our history or the complexity of our world? It means we settle for simply making "shoes" in a world that demands much more from us.

A lot is at stake in the current debates about our schools. Are we committed to teaching our children how to become critical thinkers, or will we settle for something less?

Lowell Greathouse is a retired United Methodist minister who served local churches in Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Portland. He lives in Forest Grove.

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