Preparing Students for Citizenship

Critical thinking is necessary for a free society where anyone is allowed to think up their own ideas and share them with the masses. Ideally, the best ideas will be the ones that catch on and we progress higher and higher in society. The way things usually go is different from the ideal. Different ideas come up that are opposed to one another. They all have their strengths, and they all make sense from a certain point of view. If any of these are going to be put into practice where they can actually potentially benefit people, they will have to be scrutinized to find out what the true strengths and weaknesses are for each of them. It’s also rare that an idea will be put into practice exactly as it was originally conceived, so it’s also important to look at what parts of an idea are the best so they can be preserved, even if the idea as a whole is flawed and not sustainable in its entirety.

Social studies is probably the common education discipline with the most room to teach critical thinking skills in the real world, up there with English. Math and science are more memorization and application of concepts confined to the discipline, but history and literature both deal more with people and the human experience. In an English class you might learn something like how to analyze someone’s character or spot an unreliable narrator, which are useful skills to transfer into real life. History can teach us patterns of individual and group behavior, looking at what varies between cultures and what remains more or less consistent. What we learn about our ancestors can inform what we learn about our contemporaries.

High school students are at an important time in their lives. They’re close to being recognized as full adults with the ability to participate in how our institutions are governed. To prepare them for this responsibility, educators need to teach them how these institutions work and how the students should prepare themselves for involvement in our government processes. This should be taught to the classic standard of teaching them how to think, not what to think. When a student enters a high school classroom, they probably already have their own opinions on some things, largely inspired by their family and upbringing, and previous classes they’ve had. It’s important to be aware that at this point the students are probably not blank slates, and probably already care and feel strongly about some issues. There are likely other things that haven’t crossed their minds yet which they will be introduced to sooner or later and have to think about as well. It will certainly benefit them to know how to evaluate an issue instead of latching onto the first position they hear and being too uncomfortable with an intellectual challenge to look beyond it.

Students can get good practice in at evaluating information in history and social studies classes. A lot of the issues hotly contested in the past have cooled with time and changes in context disconnecting them from certain issues. Current events can be used for instructive purposes, but some of them are better left to conversations with friends and family outside of the classroom, like an application of skills gained talking about the context surrounding World War I used to talk about the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War. When students are better able to look at a situation or idea objectively and disconnect themselves from it to the best of their ability, it will make it easier for them to make informed decisions on what they believe to be the best course of action for our country.