Catholic Homeschool Articles, Advice & Resources

Critical Thinking: Why We Need to Rediscover the ‘Why’ in Education

When my oldest son, Athanasius, was 11 years old, I took him to a baseball camp run by Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken. As we parents excitedly watched our children with visions of major leagues dancing in our heads, we took note of each instruction and nuance.

Surely knowing that we parents would remember these lessons to pass on to our children, but fail to explain the logic behind them, Ripken offered some advice to us parents on child instruction: “Explain the why.” In other words, instead of simply providing rote answers, provide the reasoning.

It’s a lesson I never forgot. Increasingly, I came to realize that explaining the “why” went far beyond the baseball diamond, and that subjects like mathematics, history, writing, and doctrine benefited from whys, too.

Also—and this takes patience from parents—encourage the why. Lastly—and this takes patience from children—ask the why.

Scripture recounts that Jesus often asked questions of others in order that they might answer their own questions, in order that they might seek the truth:

“Why does this generation seek a sign?”

“Why did you make trouble for the woman?”

“Why did you doubt?”

However, whys are often discouraged in today’s education. Modern pedagogy doesn’t like whys, because whys can lead to questions about causes, and questions about causes can lead to questions about God. Why is a brilliant question. But in an educational structure that constantly demands answers to someone else’s questions, there’s little time for students to ask their own.

As playwright David Mamet recently wrote:

“Society functions in a way much more interesting than that multiple-choice pattern we have been rewarded for succeeding at in school. Success in life comes not from the ability to choose between the four presented answers, but from the rather more difficult and painfully acquired ability to formulate the questions.”*

Critical Thinking in the New Course

Explaining, encouraging, and asking why are matters that I kept in mind recently as I wrote Seton’s new online American Government course (which should be available in the coming months).

In the course of my research, looking at other American Government textbooks, I was surprised how dry and stale they were.

Now, with a degree in Political Science, this should have been an area of interest for me—but not the way these textbooks presented things. I noticed how few questions were answered, and how few serious questions were ever asked. In a hurry to address the what, they all seemed to ignore the why.

I wanted to do something differently.

For the first six weeks of the 36-week course, we don’t even discuss the political structure of America. Instead, we discuss things like why the natural law matters, why rulers have authority to govern, why governments have duties toward citizens, why political justice matters, why we should pray for our troops and for our leaders, why some things are “rights,” and some things are not, and why liberty is vital to a nation.

In short, we examine all the important things that an American Government textbook should address.

Understanding the American Political Structure

In this course, by the time the students analyze the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, students know why these historical documents are wonderful. Then they study the political structure of American government and its three branches.

For the third quarter, the students spend nine weeks reading and analyzing the Roe v. Wade decision and why that decision was un-Constitutional.

In the fourth quarter, we examine why some authority is properly left to the states, to local authorities, and to the people.

Of course, the undercurrent of all this is the constant reference to the teachings of the Catholic Church and the writings of some of her most brilliant members.

Therein lies the simple motivation for writing such a course. It is the motivation behind all Seton’s courses. Just as there is a body of encyclicals that are known as the “social encyclicals” of the church, so also are there what could be termed the “educational encyclicals” of the Church.

And in those, the popes have consistently maintained that all subjects be taught from a Catholic perspective. At Seton, for thirty years, we have believed the popes were serious about that.

Today, more than ever before, we need to answer the call of the popes. We need to re-discover critical thinking, the why in education, and re-discover the beauty of our Faith. The beauty of homeschooling is that it allows parents and their children to do just that. We at Seton are committed to helping you achieve your homeschooling mission.

As we continue forward in an effort to assist you, please pray that we be given God’s grace to do so.

About John Clark

John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
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