Minor Adjustments for Major Benefits: Using History to Teach Teens to Think

The high school years should include plenty of opportunities for teens to practice thinking critically. This doesn’t have to mean adding Thinking 101 as an elective, or even adding more books to those already in use. Instead, a simple adjustment can be made to the approach used to cover content in required courses such as history.

Students typically read a history text looking for facts they must memorize in order to pass tests. Instead, you can have them read in order to form (and defend) positions and opinions. This small adjustment to the way the subject is approached not only alters their thinking from passive to active, but actually makes it easier for them to remember what they’ve learned (and to pass the tests). As students read they should decide which side of an issue they would favor and why. They should determine the philosophies or worldviews behind trends, policies, and movements. They should recognize what has contributed to a problem, why a particular solution may have been offered or even acted upon, and what affect those “solutions” had on the future.

For example, instead of their just remembering that before implementing communism, the citizens of a certain country were divided over Marxism, they should identify the problem communism was intended to solve. Students could then dig into the view of man—the philosophy of life—that underscores the communist position. Do they agree with those ideas? Finally, they should look at the effect of communism on that country over time. How did the reality of communism affect the downtrodden whose plight the student might have sympathized with? Were the communist ideals realized? Did the people get the quality of life they thought communism promised? Why or why not? If not, was the philosophy wrong or just the method of its execution?

Historical studies should always include a look at the ideas which define a culture—its worldview. What do they believe about the supernatural? One God? Many gods? No god? What is the nature of man? Innately good, but marred by environment? Prone to doing wrong in spite of environment? What defines good and evil? And so on. (Refer to the Guides to History Plus‘ question guide and questions for analysis section.)

In my early days as a teacher, over thirty year ago, values clarification was the latest trend. Kids discussed what they would do in a situation according to their own ideas of right and wrong. These were frequently extreme situations—would you bring a man into an already full lifeboat sort of thing. It appeared to be a way to get kids talking and thinking. In fact, it was a sneaky way to spread a philosophy called situational ethics among our youth as part of an attack on the Judeo-Christian principles that held together the moral fabric of our society. A student might have been asked, “You say stealing is wrong. But what if your children were starving in a concentration camp. Would you feel justified in stealing food from the camp guards?” or “You consider lying a sin, but during World War II would you have approved of lying to Nazi officials about where a Jewish family was hiding?”

This was not an attempt to teach kids to lead a life of crime, but rather to drive home the message that situations should dictate our actions, not “outdated” moral absolutes. People who embraced a moral standard of right and wrong were meant to question their right to impose that standard on others. If they answered that they would probably steal from camp guards if their kids were starving, how could they be too judgmental about someone else’s stealing under different circumstances? “We’re all capable of (name a behavior), so how can you say it’s wrong?” And, so, children were lead to question our reasons for having moral absolutes—after all, there were so many situations that they might agree to be exceptions to those rules. Finally, when the questioning was over, kids were meant to agree that there should not be any moral absolutes. This philosophy filled newspapers and magazines right along with articles declaring “God is dead.” And so my children and yours—if you’re over fifty—live in a culture very different than the one that influenced us.

I’ve said all that to remind us that we need to teach our kids to look at history and current events from a Christian perspective. We can’t assume that they have absorbed biblical ideas about man’s nature or God’s character. In fact, we have to assume just the opposite—that they have been and are continuing to be influenced by a media opposed to a Christian world-view, even if that influence only comes from ideas shared by their friends. Attitudes they’ve absorbed without thought may now be part of the filter through which they examine history. Let them share the opinions they form as they study, explaining why they hold a specific position. Then, teach by example. If you disagree at any point, explain why. Allow them to change their thinking—or not. That is, consider it a discussion between adults, not a situation demanding a grade or an issue you are determined to force.

Certainly looking at conditions that lead to a problem and at the philosophies behind suggested solutions is something we should want our kids to practice as adults. And since teens study American history, civics, economics, and world history or world cultures as part of their high school requirements, it seems the perfect opportunity to help them develop that habit. After all, it doesn’t take much to turn the course from a bunch of information to wade through to an opportunity for real thinking.