When I teach, I often begin my classes by telling the students not to believe me. They’re usually shocked by this. It’s uncommon for teachers to discourage their students from believing what they say. What would be the point of school if teachers weren’t worth believing?
It’s not that I want my students to distrust me. Rather, I want my students to be able to distinguish fact from opinion and to be ready and willing to ascertain the validity of any statements or statistics they hear, see, or read. This is no easy task. How can any of us know whether the information we read and hear is accurate?
When I learned that approximately one trillion sea animals are killed each year by the fishing industry, how could I confirm this? When I read anti-slavery activist and author Kevin Bales’ statistic about the number of slaves alive today (27 million), how could I determine for myself whether this number was accurate? In order to decide whether I would share these statistics, I had to investigate them. Since few are counting the numbers of sea animals killed each year or the number of slaves alive in the world, that meant judging whether the sources and their efforts at documentation were legitimate.
Some statistics are easier to validate than others. Sea level rise, glacial melt and temperature averages are largely verifiable, but the specific causes for each, and the likely rates of change over the coming decades, remain hotly (pun intended) contested. It matters that an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human actions are causing global climate change, but the rates of change, the likely scenarios for the future, and the habitat destruction that will ensue, are subject to opinion. Whose opinions should our students believe? What should be our real commitment to them as educators?
Regardless of what I’ve come to believe myself through reading, research, thought, dialogue, and, when possible, first-hand experience, I want my students not to accept my “facts” or adopt my conclusions, but rather to care enough to find out if those facts are true and those conclusions warranted. I want them to be able and eager to do the research necessary to, for example, discount the “information” from Holocaust deniers who may one day cross their path.
I want them to be immune from the influence of false conspiracy peddlers and astute at assessing the real threats we face in our world. I want their minds to be open to new information, but not (as the bumper sticker says) so open that their brains fall out. This is why I tell them not to believe me and why I’m so committed to giving them critical thinking skills.
As a humane educator – someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation, with the goal of providing students with the knowledge, tools and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and changemakers for a just, healthy and humane world – it’s more important to me that my students learn the skills of critical and creative thinking so that they can be solutionaries, than that they believe the “facts” I tell them. I don’t want them parroting what I say; I want them to confirm whether what I say is valid and meaningful.
I want them to think for themselves so that they won’t be at the mercy of the slickest or most manipulative speaker, advertiser, politician, or writer. I want them to take whatever I teach them and carry it further than I ever could; to assess not only the truth of what I say, but more importantly, to explore what those truths that they find mean and imply as they work to come up with ideas and approaches that help produce more human rights, greater animal protection, and better environmental preservation in the future.
I’m an educator, so I don’t want my students to believe me.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.