Throw Your Kid in the Scorpion Pit


"He has a class on race and emotional safety," an old friend of mine squealed with delight about her son's public school schedule.

I am equally delighted to report that my own kid receives no such lessons. When it comes to Anthony's education, my goal is to de-emphasize, not ratchet up, the importance that race plays in his interpersonal dealings. I also don't think that focusing on emotional safety—whatever that is—is likely to build the kind of strong, resilient people who can handle life's curve balls.

But I'm also glad that my friend is free to feed her offspring whatever nonsense she sees fit. The worst-case scenario is a world of homogeneous groupthink. Instead, if enough families do their jobs right, our kids will grow up in world of differing opinions and contending values—the sort of intellectual scorpion pit that fuels a free and open society.

"An important part of critical thinking is being able to give reasons to support or criticize a position," argues Joe Lau, a philosopher at the University of Hong Kong who specialized in metacognition. "The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice."

Critical thinkers "strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society," writes educational psychologist Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. "They strive never to think simplistically about complicated issues and always to consider the rights and needs of relevant others."

To support or criticize a position and consider the rights of others, you first have to be aware that ideas beyond your own exist, and that it's important to engage them. There's not enough of that right now.

Echo chambers arise when children are raised in an environment kept scrubbed of disagreement. Many college students today never learned to defend their positions because they rarely encountered contrasting views. Given that, headlines about speakers being chased off campus, while troubling, are hardly surprising.

In her May 2017 commencement speech, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust addressed the obvious disconnect between the students and faculty at elite universities, including hers, and recent political developments in the country. Too many people were simply blindsided by the degree to which a large percentage of Americans disagreed with them, and were willing to support a presidential candidate and policies that university dwellers overwhelmingly rejected.

"From at least the time of Galileo, we can see how repressing seemingly heretical ideas has blinded societies and nations to the enhanced knowledge and understanding on which progress depend," Faust said. "We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them."

To avoid fueling this problem, I try to give my son contrasting viewpoints on controversial subjects in our home-school lessons. When he studied the Progressive Era, we worked from video lectures by a college professor sympathetic to the progressives' cause, alongside lectures from a broadly conservative point of view, readings from Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States, and excerpts from Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard—which is to say, a group of sources with very different takes on the same topic. My son knows where I'm coming from, but he also knows that a lot of people strongly disagree with me, just as he inevitably will on some topics.

As a result, he's already better prepared at 12 than most of those Harvard students to engage with somebody with different views, such as my old friend's son. And that kid will hold his own a lot more effectively if his class on race and emotional safety similarly draws from a variety of ideas and arguments.

There's a lot of talk about the value of educational choice—of experimenting with different teaching methods and environments. Some approaches work for some kids, different ones for others; competition among the many alternatives drives them to excel overall. Often neglected, though, is the importance of avoiding groupthink by making young people grapple with conflicting ideas and test them against each other through healthy debate in a free and open society.

Ironically, throwing our kids into the scorpion pit may be the safest thing we can do for them.