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10/21/08 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) The overheated rhetoric of this presidential campaign have reminded commentator, writer, and former teacher and legislator Bill Mares of how important it is to teach students to think for themselves.  

(MARES) As the political campaign nears the end, with its flood of claims and counter-claims, and the undecided are left to sort it all out, I'm reminded of one of the joys of teaching high school history.  It was watching kids learn to do their own kind of sorting out, as their minds matured.  I didn't have a lot to do with it.  That's the way we all develop: to go from concrete to abstract thinking in those mid-teen years.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed telling them that my small contribution to their learning would be to turn them all into "intellectuals."

When they looked at me suspicously, I said all this means is that you will be at home with ideas.  The key to being an intellectual, I said, is learning how to think critically.

I was raised to believe ideas are important, that what you do with your mind is at least as important as what you do.

I was also taught that maturity does not bring certitude but the ability to live with ambiguity and complexity.  While many questions might be clear, most answers are murky.  Not for nothing does my license plate read THINK!

Thinking is hard work, I promised the students.  It means being curious about, and tolerant of, others' ideas.  It requires patience to follow or develop arguments.  It means acknowledging, probably privately, that we can be wrong.

In a nation with a streak of anti-intellectualism going back to frontier populism and religious fundamentalism, it's well to remember that ideas are not tablets of stone, carved once and forever by some divine hand.

I enjoyed teaching reflective thinking.  Not only did I get to watch mental flowers bloom, I got to do a little fertilizing.  Students came to us high school teachers believing in the steadfast absolutes of good and bad, fair and unfair.  We tried to show them some shades of gray.  In debates we pushed them to see the other side.  Through the years, I was so conscious of the power of suggestion in a teacher's opinion that I bit my tongue until it scarred over.  We taught about the tricks of dishonest argument, such as attacks on the person and not the idea, or guilt by association, stereotyping and sloganeering.

In European History, we set up mock trials, one to try Columbus for crimes against humanity and the other a re-enactment of the Versailles Treaty charging Germany with total responsibility for World War I.

In Art Appreciation, we followed a four-stage process that first described what an object looked like, then what it was made of, then what the artist might have had in mind, and only then did the kids have a chance to say if they liked it or not - and tell why.

Finally, we tried to discuss a quotation each day.  My favorite aphorism of wisdom and ambiguity was from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary."

It's a quote worth revisiting in the twilight of the current political season.
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