Susan Cox: Think critically instead of banning topics


Indiana and other states are considering (and in some cases passing) bills that would limit what teachers can teach and what books are available in school and public libraries. While I realize that topics like racism and sexual identity are difficult to discuss and reading or learning about these topics may be uncomfortable, we shouldn’t restrict access to materials that bring up difficult topics.

Often examining ideas that make us uncomfortable brings growth and can help us see things from a different perspective. Additionally, we all have different ideas of what topics or views should be emphasized. My view isn’t more important than your view regardless of how I feel about it.

Instead of limiting what can be taught or read, we can help our children, students, or even ourselves learn how to think critically about what we are reading or being taught. I teach my college students how to do this by asking questions such as who is the author? Is the author knowledgeable about the topic? What is the author’s purpose, e.g., are they just sharing information or are they trying to persuade us to do something? What is the author’s perspective? What does the author value? How do those values and perspectives influence what the author is saying? What was happening in the world at the time this was written? What is the author’s message? What implications does that message have? Are there ideas or information the author has left out? Does the author provide enough credible evidence to support their views? Who is the author’s audience? Who published or funded the work?

Another strategy my college students use to examine what they are reading is playing the believing and doubting game. For the believing part, you look at an issue, idea, or point of view and think about how this idea could be true and/or how people could believe this idea or think this way. The doubting part is the opposite. You play the devil’s advocate and try to falsify the idea, find reasons it is not true, or look for flaws in its logic. The challenge in this game is when you feel strongly about an idea. If you agree with the idea, the believing part is easy, but the doubting part is difficult and vice versa. While playing this game may not change your mind, it helps you see things from the opposite perspective, which may help you develop empathy for those who are different than you.

Considering the context and how things are presented is an additional way to evaluate what we read. Books are frequently banned due to language, violence, or other things deemed offensive. For example, a school board in Tennessee recently banned “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, because of nudity and profanity, but how are the nudity and profanity being portrayed? Do they add meaning, depth, or better allow the reader to empathize with the story or are they just gratuitous?

Once you’ve looked more closely at what you are reading, you can then consider how it meshes or doesn’t mesh with your values and views and help your children or students do the same. Examining and evaluating what you read is more beneficial than just prohibiting books or topics you disagree with. Additionally, our children and students have access to information outside of school and libraries. Learning critical thinking skills will give them the tools to evaluate any information they encounter, so perhaps our lawmakers should mandate the teaching of critical thinking instead of declaring that certain topics or books are off limits.

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