Friday, December 14, 2012

Raising a Superbly Critical Student

“Today’s teenagers are just too critical!!”

     Oh, how I wish that were true. The truth is, while many students are vocally cynical about certain things, they are far less critical than they ought to be. Students need to be trained to be critical. Specifically, they need to learn the art of examining and evaluating the things they come in contact with in life. By “things” I mean anything and everything: music, books, movies, and internet sites. Even teachers, mentors, and other students should not escape scrutiny. Before you object to instructing students to be critical of their teachers and other leaders, think about what being critical really means.
     I am not advocating that students should naturally distrust everything. That isn’t healthy either. What I am advocating is that students should begin at a place of honest intellectual neutrality when taking something in, proceeding carefully, evaluating as they go. That isn’t what most students do when they listen to music, watch a movie, or read a book. Typically, they will instead rate and rank a given experience by how much they like it. That is a very natural thing to do, but we need to teach students to move beyond the initial appeal of something and to think critically about it.
     It may be time for an example. Let’s say that Jane is hanging out with Sue. Sue slips a CD into the car stereo and some band, say Metalbrains, begins to fervently destroy the speakers of the car. Jane says “Wow, that’s really cool – I like it!” But what does Jane mean by that? Maybe she is responding to Sue’s obvious enjoyment of the music. Maybe she likes the thundering drums or the screaming, ear-piercing guitar solo. Regardless, what she is saying is that something about this experience appeals to her. What she has not said is, “Gee, I really agree with the anarchist views of the singer,” or “this music really inspires me to do (fill in the blank).” There has been no criticism of the musical experience at all. Sadly, this is the level of thinking at which many students make up their minds about something. Jane is sold; she buys the CD and becomes a life-long follower of the band.
     What we need to teach students to do is to move past initial appeal and deal critically with the substance of the item at hand. This is hard work for both the student and the parent. But the hard work pays off in the end- with a student who is able to evaluate something based on its content rather than its appeal. Why is it so difficult? Because there are so many levels on which to evaluate, and so many angles to consider when being critical. If we continue with the music example, Jane might begin with the lyrics. What is the message of the vocalist in the song? She can’t stop there, though- she has much more to consider. What about the music of the piece? I’m not one to classify all driving, forceful music as categorically wicked, but if the music inspires Jane to go into a rage, it really doesn’t matter if the lyrics are “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya.” Additionally, Jane needs to do some homework on the artist. Is this band made up of people she can support with her money (or her parents' money) - with a clean conscious? Does the group support or sing about things (even on other CDs or songs) that are problematic?
     As you can see, Jane has her work cut out for her in making a decision about listening to a particular band. And the same applies to books, movies, internet sites… the list could go on and on. This type of evaluation should even apply to her relationships. “What do these friends encourage me to do?” “What kind of example are they?” “How do we spend our time together?” These are the important questions- far more important than “how do my friends make me feel?!”
     Books are another place we can teach Jane to be critical. Even within a particular genre, there are things to carefully consider. Let’s consider fiction. Again, I’m not one to say all fiction is bad; certainly one should consider how much fiction is read in comparison to other genres. If Jane is into the mythical-type fiction books, she might pick up Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As she reads, she needs to move past the initial “I like it- there’s a cute little talking mouse!” She would need to ask hard questions about the message of the story, the motives of the author, and the like. She might just as easily pick up a copy of the latest Twilight installment. I would suggest that asking good, critical questions of the two aforementioned books would yield startlingly different results!
     This approach is the hard-work way. What are the easy ways? Well, allowing our students to become (or remain) unchecked consumers of anything and everything the world throws at them is one  easy way. Another is to take the road of modernized monasticism: insulating and sheltering young people from all the world has to offer. But this is counter-productive. Certainly, as parents, we have to give an account for what we allow and disallow; the responsibility for what our children are exposed to lies with no one else. But there is greater value in training the child for righteousness. Take the time to  move past the realm of lecture (though there is a time for that!) and into a teaching wisdom moment. That doesn't make you soft or a pushover. you still have complete authority over whether Jane listens to the CD or not. The difference is moving from "you are never to listen to that garbage again!" to  "Jane, let's talk about Metalbrains... what do you think of them? Why? How does listening to them match up with this scripture verse?" Teaching Jane the difference between something that appeals to her and something that is beneficial to her is the key.

     Imagine the results of raising a generation of superbly critical Christians. Oh how the sway of the “stuff of earth” might be reduced in their lives! After all, what we’re really talking about here is training them to be discerning. The Scripture speaks on the value of a discerning spirit. It is what God used in Joseph to bring him before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:33, 39); it was the quality that was sought out in the youth of Israel when Daniel was found (Daniel 1:4). But Proverbs might be the best inspiration for us to train up radical discerners. Consider what Proverbs 2 promises to the son of discernment:

     “My son… if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD And discover the knowledge of God… Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course. For wisdom will enter your heart and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; Discretion will guard you, understanding will watch over you, to deliver you from the way of evil.”

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