**This article was written and scheduled to be published by the Education that Inspires online magazine 6 – 8 weeks ago, before we knew the devastation the coronavirus could have on our world. The post now seems to me an artifact of a lost time. But one thing I hope we learn from the response to this pandemic is how important it is to constantly improve our critical thinking capacity and enhance it with emotional awareness and compassion. And our whole culture needs to put education, public education, in the prominent position it and our children deserve. Our public schools need to be set free from Betsy DeVos and those like her, set free from the 30+ years of corporate attacks on public education masquerading as “reform,” and allowed to teach critical thinking enhanced by imagination, social-emotional awareness and compassion. If we learn how to think more critically and compassionately, and we study our world and examine what our political representatives say, and do, more clearly, maybe there will be less of a chance anything like this situation will happen again. For now, maybe this post can inspire online educational discussions.**
Teenagers are natural philosophers, when the educational environment is open to them asking sincere questions. They are constantly asking themselves, their friends, and, hopefully, their teachers questions like: “Is love real? What does friendship mean? Who or what am I?” So, one of the first things to do is discover what questions the students have related to the course ⎼ or life⎼ and what questions they think must be answered to better understand the course material.
One of the big questions often raised, although sometimes students can’t verbalize it, is “Do we have free will or is that just a comforting illusion?” It is related to the question of “Who am I?” And: “How much freedom do I have to shape who I am and what I feel?” Such questions provide educators opportunities to develop their students’ critical and creative thinking and engage with the Philosophic Imagination.
I remember students gleefully proclaiming in a class discussion that we have no free will. I don’t know if they did this after studying in a science class how every event has a cause, and they were saying to me or to the rest of the class: “I know something you don’t.” Or if saying “there is no free will” was an assertion of it, like saying “I am not bound by old ways of thinking.” It didn’t matter that by saying there was no free will they were denying what their emotions were proclaiming. Or maybe they were just daring me to prove otherwise.
Once in a psychology class, we were discussing compassion and one student asked: “Are we really free to be kind when we want? Maybe some people are just born nice. With all that we learned in science about how chemical and electrical messages and genetics control us, how can we be free to decide anything?”
I asked: “What does it mean to be free? Does it mean we act without any reason or that there are no restraints on what we do? Or that every time we have a thought or desire, we act it out? Would we feel free then?”
“I would feel a slave if I had to express every thought I heard in my mind,” responded one student.
“But would I lose my spontaneity if I didn’t act on my thoughts?” asked a third student.
Then I asked: “Does what we know or believe influence how we act? If we learned about experiments that show people can learn to act with more kindness and compassion, would we be more kind? Or if we studied experimental evidence that mindfulness training strengthens the parts of the brain that prepare us to act to help others⎼ would knowing that change your mind, or not, about being free to be kind even if you weren’t born kind?”
How do you start the discussion? Decide on a question for imaginative mindful inquiry.
After students have settled down and we have greeted them, tell them the question for the day. “Our question for today is What does it mean to be free?” Ask them to raise their hands if the question has come up for them in discussions with friends or family.
In engaging in this discussion, we need to keep in mind religious beliefs about the question. We might also have to re-shape the questions we ask to meet the age and personal history of our students.
One way to start is with an exercise in imagination and mindful inquiry. This can not only introduce the question but develop the skill of self-awareness that is crucial in actually acting freely. And being able to imagine a situation, the implications of one’s words or the consequences of one’s actions, is central to critical thinking and making decisions….
To read the whole post, go to the EducationThatInspires magazine.