In this month’s lead article, Danielle McLaughlin zeroes in on a handful of children’s stories to illustrate the importance of teaching young minds to grapple with the messiness of critical thinking. Her passionate belief that children – and those who teach them – need to be exposed to all sides of an issue, even if that means withholding judgment, reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from William Sloane Coffin: “The worst thing we can do with a dilemma is to resolve it prematurely because we haven’t the courage to live with uncertainty.”
Uncertainty is an unintended, but inevitable, by-product of critical thinking. Sometimes critically exploring all sides of a question yields a clear answer. More often, it results in a need to weigh, analyze, and evaluate – exactly the skills we claim to value in what we often see referred to as “uncertain times”. And yet, how many of us are really comfortable with the uncertainty that results when our best critical thinking can’t deliver a clear answer?
The courage Coffin refers to seems to be in short supply these days, and yet it may be one of the most important qualities we can cultivate in our young people. There are so many things we just don’t know – something it’s hard to keep in mind when Google is at our fingertips – things like how to balance majority and minority rights in a complex, heterogeneous culture, or how to behave as responsible consumers when the economic and environmental priorities clash, or – as McLaughlin points out in her discussion of Huckleberry Finn – how to expose children to the richness of the past without condoning its negative features. Our kids need to confront these dilemmas without feeling pressure to come up with the “right” answers.
That’s not easy in a fill-in-the-bubble testing culture, where getting it right is what matters most. It’s particularly difficult when adult role models make claims of certainty when none exists and provide pat answers to unanswerable questions. And as much as we may give lip-service to the notion of critical thinking, the kids know that, most of the time, the right answer will get them farther in school than the right questions. Or the hard questions. If we really want to prepare our children to live in uncertain times, we need to help them develop the courage to live with uncertainty while they continue to search for answers to their – and our – dilemmas.