Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Teaching Students How to Think [Not What to Think] – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Teaching Students How to Think [Not What to Think]

Posted on February 4, 2012 By

Question: Dr. Ellen, how do you feel about ivy league schools and other highly recognized public institutions? Do you think that these schools concentrate on telling the student what to think instead of how to think? Is it even worth it to go to a fancy college where you might spend $40,000-$50,000 a year?


Dr. Ellen Responds

These are excellent questions.

Certainly there is an opportunity for more expansive dialogue at institutions like Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Berkeley, or here at William & Mary, primarily because these institutions can attract top academics in their fields. Of course they have to have the funding to do so which is a pressing matter in higher education today, but these schools have endowments that allow them to do pretty much what they want to do including giving free-rides to students.

It is important to understand, however, that all schools, even the ivy leagues, have departments and faculty members that excel along with some that don’t. A school’s standing can therefore be highly variable within particular departments that are of special interest a prospective student.

In other words, choosing MIT over VCU’s Department of Music may not be the best choice for a student interested in pursuing a concentration in the arts and music education or performance.

Another thing to consider is that some guides to educational planning suggest that a growing number of students consider combined or accelerated degree programs a very attractive way to earn their bachelor’s and advanced degrees in a shorter period of time –or– to earn dual bachelor’s degrees that will help them better prepare for a variety of academic and professional fields.

For the record, I do not recommend accelerated degree programs where getting the degree as soon as possible is of paramount concern. Students at all levels of the academy should seize the opportunity to immerse themselves in the content of their studies in order to allow expansive time to dialogue about and weigh the hard questions inherent to their chosen major.

Frankly, it takes time to explore one’s thoughts and also to give due consideration to the thoughts of others; thoughts and ideas that a student may or may not agree with in the final analysis.

Otherwise students open themselves to much more easily accepting the dogma of their professors instead. It seems much easier to learn what to think, particularly if students think those are exactly the things they need to know in order to graduate.

But some ideas are more provocative and insightful than others. Still other ideas, upon closer scrutiny, the student might find to be part of a radicalized paradigm that they really do not wish to subscribe to. Yet in the accelerated rush of things these are realizations that they rarely have the time to challenge.

In other words, not all ideas are equal.

A thoughtful student must necessarily sift through many conceptual dilemmas and weigh them against their own thoughts, and against the ideas of theorists they may already have come to appreciate. Such a process entails open-ended and elevated dialogue, among collegiate peers as well as with professors, and it always involves research above and beyond the coursework that a major field of study may require of you.

Otherwise the student is just another cog in the academy wheel, a mere sponge absorbing someone else’s thoughts with little or no weight given to what he or she himself thinks.

Actually, I think that is how many undergraduate and academy students see themselves. Their time at the university is spent, by and large, parroting back what the professors give them in classroom lectures and in tests. After all, they don’t want to risk getting a bad grade now do they.

In today’s highly politicized university environment large ‘group think’ pressures prevail, such that there is a very real likelihood for students to become indoctrinated in a campus-wide left-progressive ideology of one kind or another.

This kind of indoctrination, which clearly exists, may or may not be something that is compatible with a student’s familial upbringing or even their religion in some cases. And if not, they must always feel free to assess their options and act accordingly. Unfortunately, students rarely enter the campus environment knowing to beware of such things.

But indoctrination is not what we really expect, is it?

An academic faculty is there to guide students through the learning process, not to high jack their thinking or to propagandize them in any way.

This happens more often than you think.

The progressive ideology is a communist ideology that encompasses a number of sub-movements, namely: women’s rights, civil rights, animal rights, environmentalism, as well as LGBT, global warming, anti-capitalism and other social justice movements. Their tenets sound good but they are singularly designed to undermine entrenched American values in favor of theirs.

Progressivism promotes an activist government, high taxation to support social justice programs, and it encourages regulation and State control versus unfettered capitalism and individual freedom.

The marxist goal is to destroy the State in order to remake it in its own likeness. Four decades ago the journalist Alice Widener labeled communists and marxists “teachers of destruction.” (See pgs 17-57 of SHADOW WORLD by Robert Chandler for an eye-opening discussion of the “Cultural Revolution” that is in process as we speaka massive cadre of university professors with radical agendas are . This revolution, of course, is nothing more than a massive socialist transformation of the United States.

Chandler estimates that there are “25,000 to  30,000 radical (and tenured) professors ensconced on American campuses who have turned their classrooms into political re-education camps.

WOW! And here you thought the academy was going to be a respite from the cold cruel world! A place for leisure thought.

Books and most other publications from the academy always speak of the progressive era as a ‘bygone’ era in American history but it is not.

Parents also need to understand this, and they need to have a very clear understanding of the ideological environment that is embracing (or may well embrace) their college-age children. After all, they are paying the bills and they have values and strong ideas of their own that have been long-honed from their own successful pursuits in life.

Young people easily fall prey to such feel-good ideologies and when they do, it eventually taints everything they went to the academy to learn in the first place.

In The Professors: the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by David Horowitz documents a reoccurring scenario that now characterizes almost any campus in America.

There is more.

I found early on in my own academic career that some ideas attracted me while others woefully and completely dismayed me. What startled me most was that some of the more dismaying of those ideas were shared by a broad spectrum of the academy.

Many times it felt like I was alone on a tiny raft in turbulent seas.

I read those dismaying thoughts as all students must, but at the same time I dog-eared the pages of more interesting thinkers whose ideas stirred me far more deeply. My interest in graduate school was in the mental health field and in the study of the family in particular.

And the ideas that stirred me weren’t the theories of Sigmund Freud or even a tiny sliver of the massive Freudian-based literature that lies at the core of traditional psychiatry and psychology.

I found the conceptual paradigms rooted in Freudian theory to be hugely wanting. As a result I was constantly wading knee-deep into conceptual dilemmas that I needed to know about but wanted no part of. Most compatriots of mine in graduate school caved but I went looking for my own answers instead.

Are you tough enough to do that? If so, then the politics of the academy may present an interesting challenge for you, too. I can tell you that it hardened me considerably.

The thing you have to understand about the academy is that academic freedom is an illusion. It was an illusion in the 70’s when I was a graduate grunge and it is even more so now. Professorial freedom to propagandize exists but a student’s freedom to query and challenge establishment thinking is muted at best. At worst it does not exist without serious retribution, even among faculty members that do not share the mainstream views of their colleagues.

It used to keep me awake nights, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. But I persevered and carved out a place for myself at long last, and even my faculty advisor eventually found himself nodding in approval to my non-freudian assertions.

I tell you this because I want you to know that the academy can be a profoundly challenging place for those that do not adhere to mainstream thinking.

Having thick skin is critical it seems, particularly for students with psychiatry and psychology majors.

Surely we can get passed the idea that ‘teaching’ is purely about the ‘dissemination of information.’ This is not what good teaching is all about, which is something that students realize when they finally encounter a truly inspiring educator.

If their teachers all along have been mature and inquisitive, curious, expansive, introspective, who had lives steeped in inspiring dialogue with others – well, then, the young learner is off to an excellent start.

Otherwise…probably not.