• Julian Malcolm

“I’m Afraid My Students will have to Think for Themselves”

Why 'Helicopter Teaching' is the Wrong Approach for Catholic Educators

Earlier this year, I benefited from a conversation over dinner with a member of our school’s Board of Directors. This person is a former philosophy professor, and we were trading stories from the classroom. I mentioned a segment from my senior theology class that addressed a current cultural issue. I wondered if I should have offered a particular counterpoint to better prepare these students for the arguments they would encounter as freshmen in college. My friend replied, “It sounds like you’re worried your students will have to keep thinking for themselves, even after they leave your class.”

His point was this: an educator can’t exhaustively cover every single question about a topic, and it is certainly the case that an educator can’t hover over students and think for them in perpetuity. That would be "helicopter teaching," and it would inevitably backfire.

How to Equip Students with the Essential Skills of Liberal Learning

Catholic teachers, whose mission is to help form young people to become free, faithful, joyful young adults, should embrace my friend’s point. The job of a teacher is not to walk students through a diagram of all the right answers. The job is to cultivate their appetites for the truth and teach them how to pursue that faithfully. Grounding students in an intellectual framework that prioritizes the truth is the great differentiator of Catholic liberal education. In an age of virtual realities, an education that takes reality seriously is more appropriate than ever. It must focus on two areas.

1. Discerning arguments

Students should learn to recognize and discern arguments. In reading a text, they should be able to assess: what is the author saying? In writing, they should learn to clarify what they are proposing. They should be able to answer the question: what is your thesis? In executing their own experiments or observing another academic’s research, they should be able to articulate: what is the hypothesis? Students should understand the question at hand. Part of understanding questions depends on the ability to identify supporting claims, both explicit and implicit. Claims demand evidence.

2. Examining evidence

Students must learn to examine the actual evidence that is in front of them. In any reading, whether the class is history, theology, literature, or science, they should be asked, “What does the text actually say?” They should be able to restate what they are objectively encountering before discussing subjective feelings. This can be difficult because our culture conditions young people (and older people too) to be highly emotive.

Encountering Poorly Developed Ideologies in College

How does learning how to discern arguments and examine evidence play out when our students go to college? Generally speaking, young people who develop these skills not only survive higher education, but thrive in their college studies, without being seduced by poorly developed ideologies. Just this past week I caught up with a recent graduate of our school who was home on break from her freshman year of college.

My student shared her thoughts on an introductory level anthropology course she had just completed. She recognized early in the course that the material hinged on two faulty proposals.

The first proposal suggested that there was barely anything distinct or unique setting mankind apart from other species and even denied the reality of human nature itself. This point was carried so far as to suggest extending the same ethical norms and moral obligations to animals that we generally privilege to humans.

The second proposal insisted that diversity itself is the primary substantive principle in humanity, as evidenced by varied cultural norms across the wide range of human communities. According to this idea, the only universal constant in human behavior is the absence of a recognizable universal constant in human behavior, even as applied to ethical norms and moral obligations.

Now, I won’t deny that my first impulse was to wade in and vent about the tyranny of relativism that was clearly on display. I began to ask how anthropology could take account for the common threads in which certain human events were marked by rites such as marriage, childbirth, coming of age, death, and other archetypal events or the common element of myth and symbolism across diverse cultures. In other words, I started asking questions I wanted her to ask about the evidence.

There was no need. I was gratified to find that my student had applied the tools of liberal learning on her own, outside of my classroom. How could it be, she wondered, that humans are so diverse that they have nothing in common with one another—no shared human traits or qualities—and yet they are simultaneously indistinguishable from the rest of the animal kingdom? Furthermore, she noted that it seemed to be a pronounced western bias for an academic to apply a principle of egalitarianism that read everything as diverse, equal, and indistinguishable. She questioned whether this was a narrative that would resonate in non-Western cultures. Talking to this young woman revealed that she is well-equipped to consider and refute ideas that are not rooted in reason or evidence.

Letting Students Push Back

It is consistent with the nature of young people to push back against their teachers. I empathize with my former student’s anthropology professor. I am familiar with the dynamic of teaching students whose first reaction to a new idea is to be incredulous and I admit that it can be frustrating. But it is a necessary part of the process of grappling with ideas in pursuit of truth.

Catholic educators can feel confident about encouraging students to develop a habit of testing ideas and pushing back. Ours is a logos-centric religion, which means we believe that the world and our faith are coherent and can be known and understood. Young people who are taught to discern arguments and examine evidence are well equipped to encounter new ideas (even poorly developed ideas). If we do our job as educators steeped in the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church, we will set our students on a path to deepen their faith and increase their credibility as witnesses in the world—in college and beyond.

Julian Malcolm is headmaster of The Summit Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


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