OK, here’s another “forty years ago” post, but one with present-day relevance. It shows one of the most important lessons a teacher taught me.
If you’ve looked through my posts, you know where I stand on current political issues. What has amazed me is how many of my classmates from Reseda High School share the same viewpoints. People I didn’t think are political turned out to be strongly vocal about the current situation. And who is the most liberal of our group? A homecoming queen. Yes, a varsity cheerleader who donned a sash and tiara became a liberal feminist. (Perhaps it was our cheerleader uniforms. You can easily change the “Reseda” on the front to “Resist.”)
The strange thing is that the Reseda where we grew up in the sixties and seventies was conservative. When the California Legislature passed a law in 1963 to prevent housing discrimination, Proposition 14 was put on the ballot the following year to overturn it. And who backed Proposition 14? White homeowners in the Valley, who would later support Proposition 13 and oppose school busing. This wasn’t the Reseda of the Daily Crime Report.
So how did those of us who came from what was once the reddest of Valley suburbs turn out so blue?
We all have our reasons, but for me, it was thanks to my social studies teacher, Alan Benson. In another post, I told the story about how I took his “Dissent and Protest” class 40 years ago. Getting exposed to different views of American history isn’t the only thing I took away from his classes. He taught me something important that has helped me in all aspects of my life — critical thinking.
There is a lack of critical thinking these days. People parrot party lines and cling to whatever media reinforces their chosen viewpoint. They usually say they came to those positions after swallowing some “red pill.” But Alan Benson taught us not to swallow anything whole.
The challenge he gave us is how to respond when faced with information that is different from our preconceived beliefs. Do we ignore it? Or do we weigh the evidence and draw our own conclusions? And can we defend our positions when questioned?
Public schools have been accused of indoctrination, usually by those who want students indoctrinated in their chosen beliefs. Alan Benson attacked efforts to pass propaganda as history. He held up for ridicule Civics for Americans, a textbook he said was “mealy mouthed pablum” as he pointed out long debunked myths, omissions of the more difficult parts of American history, overlooked contributions by women and minorities, and just plain useless information. In a section about counterfeiting, it cautioned unhelpfully, “Good money is good, and bad money is bad.”
Instead of reading from the official state textbooks, he gave us copies of newspaper articles from different publications and pamphlets with first-person testimony. We saw movies and videos that covered current issues. We got bonus points from giving reports or drawing posters based on news stories. We had mock trials and played informative games. We had fun while learning to gather facts, challenge assumptions, think critically, and come to our own conclusions.
Developing critical thinking inoculates you from demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum. But if we tend to thump Trump and the right these days, it’s because they’re the ones in charge right now — and doing a terrible job. If you disagree with me, follow Alan Benson’s lessons by doing your own research (but don’t stick solely to your usual partisan media and Facebook memes) and deciding for yourself.
Alan Benson passed away in 2006. But his lessons on critical thinking have stayed with me and his other students. They are especially important today.