On Teaching Apr09

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On Teaching

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MY RESPONSE to a recent comment on Facebook by someone named Mike, who had this to say about the recent increase in tuition costs at the University of Virginia: “They have to raise costs to provide a paycheck to all the liberals hired to make our kids hate America!”

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Mike, I teach at the University of Virginia. I’m deeply proud to do so. My undergraduate students and my adult, personal enrichment students are some of the brightest, engaged, eager-to-learn people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Many of my friends teach at the University, as do numerous people with whom I’m acquainted. I am also an alumnus of UVA, having earned my Master’s Degree in Anthropology, and having had the privilege of studying with some of the very best scholars in that field.

I’m not aware of anyone who teaches at UVA — and that certainly includes myself— who could be characterized in the ugly fashion that you’ve so ignorantly done here.

What we do teach at UVA— whether it’s in engineering, business, law, medicine, media studies, anthropology, the sciences or the arts— aside from a series of powerful skillsets which serve to make the world a better place and literally save lives, is a little something called critical thinking (and critical doesn’t mean negative, look it up). We encourage our students to think objectively and creatively. We help them see the relationships that exist on the continuum between data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We inspire them to question and to explore the assumptions about the world that they have inherited. We teach them to value facts— and to participate in reasoned, open, thoughtful debate about those facts. We aim to graduate citizen leaders who can, in any number and variety of fields and endeavors, lead by their examples, inspiring others to think for themselves and to govern themselves.

What we do not teach at the University of Virginia is blind, unquestioning obedience to power and authority. We teach our students to question authority— and to listen when it answers. We do not teach our students to suspend their critical thinking skills in order to serve the agenda of any specific ideology of power (whether government, corporate, religious or otherwise). We are not producing widgets in a factory. We are encouraging free people to think for themselves, and giving them the skills to do so. UVA’s founder Thomas Jefferson put it best in 1820: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

So in a very real sense then, in a Jeffersonian sense, we teach courage. We teach free people to have the courage of mind to think for themselves, to develop that “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” to have the confidence in their own ideas, to become citizen leaders who will protect human liberty and stand in opposition to any force that would profit off of the suppression of that liberty. That was precisely Thomas Jefferson’s vision for this University, and as such, it has a unique and historic mission. As designed by Jefferson, the University of Virginia was to be the insurance policy for the American Revolution: where successive generations could come and learn the principles of the Western Enlightenment, the “useful sciences” as he called it. It’s where students could embrace a way of thinking that had inspired humanity to finally abandon the Middle Ages; to leave monarchies and theocracies behind in the dustbin of history; to unshackle the mind from a world that had for far too long clung to fear, irrationality, and superstition.

Mike, I don’t take personal offense at your comment, so much as it makes me roll my eyes and laugh. The bumper sticker flak you’ve tossed into an otherwise interesting comment thread strikes me as symptomatic of a witless groupthink that vilifies education in general. It’s a political talking point that condemns schools, teachers and critical thinking as being “anti-American” if ever they should inspire anyone to stray from your own political agenda or religious dogma. Frankly, the way of thinking that inspires your condemnation, which appears absent of reason, has more to do with a way of thinking we see in groups like the Taliban than it does with the principles that inspired the American Revolution.

I do not teach my students to hate America, nor do I teach them to love America. That is not my job. I am not in the nationalism or indoctrination business. I teach them to appreciate learning and critical thinking. I encourage my students to embrace the intellectual abilities and creative talents they each have to make this world a better place, and to make a place in that world for themselves.

A fellow University of Virginia graduate, Woodrow Wilson, in one of his most Jefferson-inspired moments, had this to say to students in higher education in America: “You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget this errand.”

— Coy Barefoot

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