The Thought Police?

I am finishing up teaching my juniors the novel 1984 by George Orwell. While I won’t rehash the entire plot here (and you simply MUST read this book, by the way), I will tell you that the novel focuses on how society becomes controlled by a mysterious leader known as Big Brother. (Yes, the origin of that name comes from Orwell’s masterpiece.) Among other things, Big Brother and his cohorts are concerned that citizens may be thinking too freely and that they may rebel against authority, What to do? Send in the Thought Police!

The Thought Police are just what their name implies: they arrest citizens whose thinking contradicts long-held traditions or beliefs, even if those traditions or beliefs are inherently flawed – or worse. Citizens reveal their “thought crimes” by committing another misdeed: face crime. In other words, if you are listening to Big Brother speak and display any sense of disapproval (rolling your eyes, for example), you are done. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. The Thought Police will arrest you on the spot, and good luck finding a way to avoid punishment. In Orwell’s “fictional” society, citizens either follow Big Brother or pay the penalty.

While the aforementioned sounds far-fetched, the truth is that many of today’s – and tomorrow’s – classrooms are under the surveillance of the Thought Police. In my first post, I mentioned the idea of the “sage on the stage” approach to education, where the instructor stands in front of the class and lectures incessantly for the entire class period. Students take notes but otherwise have no meaningful contributions to the class, and they are assessed on how well they listened to the lecture, not how much they actually learned. “Sages” also leave no room for free interpretation of a given idea: if said instructor opines that Hamlet exhibited no signs of delusional behavior, then take it as gospel and avoid questioning the validity of such a claim. Those “sages” are, in fact, the Thought Police and are leading the charge in stifling individual student thought and expression. While colleges traditionally employ such instructors, high schools are seeing their fair share of Thought Police as well. For some English teachers, students are not intelligent enough to form their own opinions about complex literature, so those teachers simply will spoon-feed them a singular strand of thought. That, in turn, will make it easier for the teachers to assess student performance: a student is either right or wrong, as simple as that.

However, what are we teaching students if we restrict their abilities to think for themselves? Not to go all Dead Poets Society (a must-see film) on my audience, but do we not want our students to formulate unique responses to the issues and ideas present in their studies? What good would it do me to tell my students all they need to know on a topic? Sure, it might make grading essays a cakewalk, but how will they learn the way the world works if they take no ownership of that world in class? Today’s teachers need to do more than present the material (and their own perspectives) to students while policing the students’ thoughts and attitudes – teachers need to ask students to devise and explain their perspectives on a given topic and then encourage further exploration of said topic. Students, meanwhile, need to learn to think for themselves and to take more initiative in the learning process. Your teachers want to help you think independently, but we cannot do that if you resist our efforts and merely absorb the content without proffering a unique thought. Oh, and mindlessly staring at a computer screen (the subject of a later post by yours truly) doesn’t help, either. Stay active, stay engaged, and stay an independent learner.

Teachers and students alike have their work cut out for them if the above is to succeed. Eradication of the Thought Police is no easy task, and that’s just the first step. Constructing an original thought takes time and can be risky if that thought contradicts another belief, especially one held by a teacher. However, the goal is to foster student independence in the classroom, and as the old saying goes, to make an omelet, you first must break a few eggs.

And really, who doesn’t love a tasty omelet?

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