Teaching history is only partly about instructing students about dates, names and the significant events of the past. Of more importance is teaching them how to think critically - to analyze, critique, synthesize and evaluate the evidence objectively before arriving at any conclusions. This may be the most useful skill they acquire during their high-school years, preparing them (one hopes) to become thoughtful adults and discriminating citizens.
"Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way," explains Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. "People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably and empathically. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason."
But once students enter the real world, they are confronted by a wide range of complex issues that play on their prejudices and biases, narrow ideas that are reinforced by their families, peers and the media. Thinking critically is hard work, and far too many of us take the easy and lazy route. We just react.
How else to explain the tremendous and illogical current backlash against Muslims in the United States. The most widely publicized issue is the vocal opposition to the construction of Cordoba House, a mosque and community centre, near Ground Zero.
The emotional and decidedly uncritical response against Cordoba House is almost understandable from the family members who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attack. Yet, what about the residents of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Sheboygan, Wis., and Temecula, Calif., who have also denounced local mosque projects?
They and their ilk have behaved completely contrary to the tenets of critical thinking: Using a few selective passages from the Koran, they have incited fear, generalized and tarred every Muslim living in the U.S. and the West.
"I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion," declared Diana Serafin, one of the protesters in Temecula, a small city between Los Angeles and San Diego. "But Islam is not about religion. It's a political government and it's 100 per cent against our Constitution."
Such a statement is tailor-made for the classroom. There are many holes in Ms. Serafin's viewpoint, which ignores the fact that most North American Muslims are assimilated and have absolutely no intention of taking over the U.S. government in the name of their religion. They are loyal Americans and Canadians who cherish the freedoms in the countries they have adopted or been born into, no different than their non-Muslim neighbours.
From a critical thinking perspective, Ms. Serafin has made a classic leap in logic. The media have reported (and frequently sensationalized) a handful of serious incidents in which American, British and Canadian Muslims have indeed embraced jihadism. But any Grade 11 student could argue that it is intellectually dishonest to make sweeping statements against all Muslims.
The existence of fundamentalist regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia seems relevant to the anti-mosque groups, but this reasoning, too, is deeply flawed. Similar fears and prejudices were used by the U.S. and Canadian governments during the Second World War to justify harsh actions against American- and Canadian-born Japanese. It was believed, erroneously, that these individuals were a threat - that despite the fact of their North American birth, their true loyalties were to the enemy.
In that case, more critical thinking would have served Franklin Roosevelt and Mackenzie King well. But amid anger and sorrow over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, leaders were driven by emotion, prejudice and politics.
Winnipeg historian Allan Levine's next book is By the Hand of Destiny: The Life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's Greatest and Most Peculiar Prime Minister.