Education Opinion

Schools Are a Place to Learn to Reason

By Deborah Meier — November 06, 2008 4 min read
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Editor’s note: Due to a busy travel schedule, Deborah Meier composed this entry before Tuesday’s presidential election.

Dear Diane,

I’m on the road and writing you before Election Day (even though this won’t be posted until after the big day). But I can’t wait until Wednesday to respond since I’ll be on my way to the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Annual Fall Forum in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. Some thoughts on my recent experiences...

Canvassing in Franklin County, Penn., is intriguing. Sitting eating lunch on Sunday with my Obama cap on, a lady came over and whispered to me that she was voting for Obama. Her husband, too, she added, nodding toward him. He was keeping a discreet distance. The three young people behind the counter included an outspokenly enthusiastic Obama supporter, but alas 34 days short of being 18; a young woman who is 18, she told us proudly, but has absolutely no interest in politics and is voting for no one. A young (black) man came around the corner to announce that he was voting for Obama. So, Obama won there, 1 to zero.

My friends here are amazing and are making sure they reach every Independent and Democrat, covering the polls, and keeping spirits up with food and chat. We have a small office in Greencastle (population a few thousand) with an Obama cut-out in front. Two local young women have come back from college to campaign and wanted to be sure to get a picture of Obama with them in it. The cut-out served perfectly.

A small, shabby house by the roadside with a huge McCain-Palin sign was intriguing. It was larger than the house itself.

So, on with your questions. Yes, human reason is fundamental. If we fail to use such reasoning power we fail to take advantage of one of our uniquely human characteristics. And schools ought to be the place where we learn to reason together, to find the languages that enable us to meet across diverse ground to reach new common ground together. Reason doesn’t exclude the existence of our equally powerful social and emotional character. But reason helps enormously when we want to make sense of ourselves and others. (Equally critical is a social setting in which we have to take others into account, and opportunities to exercise our imaginations in ways that broaden opportunities.) I wasn’t being “cute” the other day when I commented that my natural inability to memorize—my poor rote memory—has predisposed me to perhaps over-emphasize other aspects of learning that don’t rest on rote memory. Math became a passion for me once, and only once, I discovered that it rested on something else entirely—on a way of seeing the world, on patterns and relationships in a particular format. In short, I discovered that one could reason with math, not just memorize it!

To imagine that democracy can flourish in a society in which the large majority of people have been—intentionally?—misled about what it means to be an “educated” adult is embarrassing. The reasoning behind our sometimes irrational systems needs uncovering, layer by layer. It might not make us any happier with our system of governance, but it can help us understand how better to change or not change it. For example, no doubt the average student has learned that democracy means voting, and that the majority wins. It just so happens, as we remind ourselves every four years, that this is not the case in the system of governance that we call democracy. A good use of mathematics might be to imagine how this campaign might look if other forms of counting votes were applied. Ditto for the way we read polls. (It makes me appreciate some of the plusses of our absurd system.) What a wonderful opportunity such a curriculum would offer to uncover the nature of sampling, to see how different assumptions alter poll results. In short, to exercise the “what if” habit. What might elections look like if candidates knew that 90 percent of those listening to them were asking, “What’s the evidence for that?”

It so happens these are also the intellectual traits of a strong academy, and indeed the academic disciplines can be useful in deepening our democratic habits, and vice versa. But the critical feature of a good school, for me, is that it forces young people and their teachers, to practice, over and over again, the habits that make democracy conceivable. That (this to Diana S.) means selecting topics that have no yes/no, Google-able answer and pursuing them in ways that require us to listen to many views, to weigh evidence, to look for patterns, to conjecture, and to wonder why it matters. It limits what we can study respectfully, above all with respect for knowledge.

But how to get “the larger picture”?? That was always our dilemma. The traditional assumption is that first we teach, by rote, the larger narrative story of humanity, and then if and when they become scholars in post-graduate courses they can learn how to really think critically. I want to reverse this! But.....

Incidentally, there are two new books out questioning the capacity of the vast majority, to engage in that “critical” intellectual work. It’s at that point that you and I are solidly united, joined at the hip, as they say. But, I would argue, that no amount of chanting that “all children can learn” can undermine this centuries'-old belief in the bell curve of intelligence and the ineptness of the average human mind for “higher” forms of learning. If this were to be true, democracy would be not merely flawed, but in the end unredeemable.

Nothing in my experience—even canvassing here in south central Pennsylvania—has convinced me that what we are contending with is our human nature, our limited mental power. We’ve barely ever tried to use our public education system to develop the habits of a powerful adult citizenry.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.