116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A lifelong friend we’ll call “Ralph” told me his father always asked, upon Ralph’s return from school, “Did they teach you what to believe, or did they teach you how to think?”
The Harvard Business Review published “Why China Can’t Innovate” and concluded, “The problem … is not … the Chinese people … but the political world in which their schools … need to operate, which is very much bounded.”
Americans’ innovative, entrepreneurial, economic, artistic and intellectual comparative success is largely driven by the educators who have taught us “how to think.”
As you may have noticed, for the past six years America has been sliding from the “shining city on a hill” down toward the pit of authoritarian dictatorship with the uncontrolled speed of a kid on a plastic sledding saucer in winter.
A democracy can no more stand without supporting institutions than a beach home can stand without pilings. Democracies need their respected and protected “columns of democracy” — professional, independent, journalists; wise, impartial, non-partisan judges; electoral procedures that encourage ever-increasing numbers of voters — and dedicated public school educators teaching students “how to think.”
President Thomas Jefferson wished “most to be remembered” as “Father of the University of Virginia,” not president. Iowa’s early 12,000 schools made it number one. When I was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, tuition-free education fueled its position as, today, the world’s fifth greatest economy.
Educators’ freedom is as essential to our economy as to our democracy and our “pursuit of happiness.”
Chinese journalists explained to me the freedoms they have — so long as they don’t use the wrong words.
Fortunately, the Iowa Commissar of Acceptable K-12 Vocabulary does not understand education.
Some years ago, I was asked to speak to Iowa’s National Issues Forum high school students at the Herbert Hoover Library. I shared a basic general semantics tool: “What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?” (Asking yourself and others, “What facts brought you to the verbal generalizations you just used?” and, “What were your sources supporting that conclusion? Why do you believe them reliable?”) The technique was successfully used by a couple Metro High School teachers after that talk, became the subject of a doctoral dissertation and a published book.
Teachers should ask their school board’s lawyer about HF 802’s restrictions. But as I read it, teachers are free to present, or better have students find, historic facts about African Americans’ lives during the last 400 years; answer students’ questions; ask students, “How do you know?” and let them draw their own conclusions and generalizations. In other words, teaching them “how to think” and evaluate research. Like Chinese journalists, Iowa’s teachers still have their freedom to teach — just so long as they don’t use the Commissar’s forbidden words and phrases.
Ralph’s dad understood education. So do Iowa’s teachers. It’s just a little more challenging to teach, or do journalism, within an authoritarian dictatorship.
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, is the author of Columns of Democracy and What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? firstname.lastname@example.org