Why and How to Teach Skepticism

I think most of us can agree on a few things:

  • All news today is insanely biased.
  • None of the politicians and people in the media are truly “good guys.”
  • Our students are very confused because they are watching 12-year-olds on tiktok telling them the “previously unknown truths” about history, politics and other things they know nothing about.

And ultimately…

  • They need critical thinking skills now more than any other time in history.

I remember a time when we were taught in teacher’s education school that it is wrong to be political in the classroom. We were encouraged to be unbiased and to encourage all students to do their research and support their various worldviews.

Yeah, that sounds great and all BUT at the same time, the professors in the College of Ed were extremely biased and political. All the while we were taught this, we were also taught that our main objective was to change culture and teach students to be social justice warriors.

I only got out of that place alive because I was a skeptic about everything. Maybe I was born that way. I rarely followed the crowd. For example: I was the only Marine in my entire company of 120 marines who didn’t smoke cigarettes the entire time I was enlisted. Other Marines would sometimes not be smoking, but none of the others were not addicted to some sort of tobacco. So call me an independent thinker if you will.

I like to think that if I was in a superhero movie, I would be the one who doesn’t just run when everyone else is running away. I’d probably pause and get myself killed because a zillion thoughts would be going through my head: What they are running from? Is it logical to run with them if that’s also the direction the thing they are running from is going? Should I stop and do something to help? What if what they are running towards is worse than what they are running from?

Yep, I’ve decided. I would definitely be killed in that first scene. I’d be thinking too long about the options and not reacting quickly enough. But… That’s a true skeptic. We think about all the possibilities before we react or come to a conclusion too quickly which is a great skill except if you find yourself in the first 10 minutes of a superhero movie.

Why Teach Skepticism?

There is so much information thrown at our students, why would they know what to believe?

They have information overload from every area of their lives. They have non-stop videos of randomness on the internet trying to surprise them with “previously unknown information!” They have people trying to tell the “real story” (hear that sarcasm) about stuff the speakers know little about. They spout out half-truths with such confidence and clarity that it’s hard to see through that arrogance and realize that a 12-year-old with zero life experience thinks they know something we don’t know.

My 12-year-old daughter was complaining about homework.

She said, “Mom, do you know that they only created homework to punish kids?!?”

Me: “How do you know that?”

Her: “I don’t know. I saw it on a video.”

Me: “Where did they get this information? Is there information about the origin of homework? What point are they trying to make? What do they really want you to do with this information? If you choose to listen to them and don’t do your homework, then maybe you’ll fail. Do you want that?”

Yes, I intentionally go overboard with these types of questions. As a result, I have created 2 children who are major skeptics, too. Is it for the good or for the bad? It is yet to be decided.

The truth is that I agree with her. I am a teacher and I rarely give homework unless it is intended for punishment: they have homework most of the time only if they don’t do the work while they are in class. However, I am not going to send my children out into the world where this “previously unknown information” causes them to be unsuccessful in other classes and situations because their beliefs about the origins of homework is more important than getting it done.

She’s not going to go to her history teacher and tell him, “Well, I found out the origin of homework is for disciplinary reasons, and I did nothing wrong, so I didn’t do the homework.” She knows better than that.

On the other hand, I encourage her to be skeptical and think for herself while still being successful in the crazy world we live in. No matter if the original reason homework was created is for punishment or not, she still needs to do it. But she can also be bitter and angry about feeling like she’s being punished. We still do hard things even if we don’t agree with them.

How to Be a Skeptic

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you are a die hard for any political party, politician, or can’t acknowledge the dark side of almost every belief, you might be manipulated… and you’re definitely not a skeptic.

To be a skeptic, you must be willing to do three things:

  1. Acknowledge the dark side of things or people you agree with.
  2. Be willing to give credit to the other side for positive things they do or qualities they have.
  3. Consider that you could be wrong.

Let’s chat about these three things:

Acknowledge the Dark Side of Things or People You Agree With

Is it possible that Obama or Trump (whichever side you prefer) isn’t as perfect as you think he is? Are you willing to acknowledge things that he was wrong about? Are there ways he shouldn’t have acted? Things he did that were selfish and not selfless?

If you can’t acknowledge that there are some things that your guy did wrong, then you are not a skeptic. For us to be logical human beings, we must be able to see through the facade of good words, style, and acknowledge that the way they build up and connect to a crowd may be manipulative. We also must admit that maybe, just maybe they aren’t perfect. *gasp* Surprising, but they can’t be… They are humans, too.

The goal here would be to fully acknowledge moments when they did something completely unacceptable. They pushed the envelope too far. They did something that should cause people to wonder and question whether they are good leaders or not.

If you have a religious or political belief that others in the world disagree with, it’s possible that they have a valid reason they feel the way they do. Religion or religious people can be destructive. They hurt people individually and collectively. There are ways they can use their beliefs to destroy rather than to build up.

I’m a Christian, and I have spent time considering not only other religions but also other eras in which Christian leaders have destroyed other cultures, people, and have caused wars. You can’t study British history without also learning the details of the wars between Protestants and Catholics. They worship the same God, they believe in the same Jesus, yet the wars were bloody. This is just one of many things we cannot ignore in our attempt to be skeptics.

Be Willing to Give Credit to the Other Side for Things They Do, or Qualities They Have

Before I continue with the comparison between Obama and Trump, we must acknowledge that they are more of contenders head-to-head than any other political pair. As a skeptic, I would have loved to see them battle it out for the presidency. It would have been a doozy but would have divided the country so severely that it may have truly led to a war.

Either side you support, you’re thinking the other guy would have no chance, but unfortunately, you’re wrong. It would have been a battle between the ENTIRE fleet of Avengers and Thanos… you get to decide which is the good guy and which is the bad. It would be an epic battle.

Both of these guys have qualities the other doesn’t have and some qualities they share. They both had the ability to unite a subgroup of Americans. No, neither united the entire country or much more than 50% of the country. No president receives much more than 1–3 percent more than 50% of the votes. No matter who wins, there is always about 48% of voters who are angry and frustrated. Let me make it clear: NO political figure will unite the country. It is not possible with people with such vast worldviews, beliefs, religions and cultures in the U.S. So if a politician pretends they are going to unify the country, we should know they are lying or will be declared a liar eventually.

Both guys have the ability to speak to the hearts and minds of their audience. They do it in different ways. Obama is a skilled speaker who has refined and built his speaking skills through practice and being trained by the best but also enhancing his God-given skills of persuasion. Watch him: His pauses are strategic. His calmness puts people in a meditative state. His presence is strong but easy to receive by many.

Trump is a powerful presence. His past experience as a billionaire-celebrity has caused him to know how to speak to the elites without being bought out by them. He says what he wants. He’s not Politically Correct. He speaks powerfully and unabashedly, exactly the way his audience receives his words. They don’t want to be talked to sweetly, they want to be united and empowered and that’s what he does.

It may be hard to acknowledge the other side of a tough issue, but it is part of being a skeptic. We must be able to acknowledge that there’s a reason people disagree with us. We must be able to come to an agreement and give the other side credit for why they have their opinions. If we don’t, we are bashing into one another’s horns like bulls and will continue to see the division grow and expand into possible war or destruction of our country.

Consider That You Could Be Wrong

That sentence may have caused you to lose your mind… “I could be wrong?!? How could she even mention that?!? There’s no way!!” Juuuuust kidding. If you were like that, you wouldn’t have made it through the Trump/Obama comparison. Most likely, you agree with me and are excited that someone is finally saying it.

Yes, as much as you could be wrong, I could be wrong, too. I could be wrong about everything I believe. We could be spawns of alien overlords who planted our human seeds and cultivated a planet to watch for their own entertainment. They could be watching us like Jim Carey on The Truman Show. My ideas of skepticism could be planted in my head while I think they are my own original ideas but were put there by my alien parents to throw my readers into a new level of thinking critically. Who knows?!?

But seriously. Have you ever deep-dive questioned your faith? Have you spoken to an abortion survivor or a person who was raped and felt like abortion was their only way out? Have you ever served at a homeless shelter and seen the tragedy of the world that we’ve created through bad decisions, laws? Have you acknowledged the innate desire for people who don’t live in tragedy to ignore those in desperate situations? Have you ever been outside of the country and seen the injustice, prejudice, racism, and other phobias that occur in most of the world?

Being aware of how the world works doesn’t justify our own injustices, but it should cause us to consider if it’s a problem within our country or it is a problem with our humanity.

For some reason we have this “difficulty” of uniting with people who are the same as us, those who agree with the way we view the world. We have all these labels for a reason: American, Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Sudanese, Mexican, Puerto Rican. We are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist. We are Californians, Phoenicians, Arkansans, Floridians. We are Republican, Democrats, Libertarians. We have interests: readers, writers, historians, scientists.

When we have these labels, that causes others to become “OTHERS.” They become unlike us and therefore, in many scenarios, they become the enemy. They don’t think like us. They don’t want the same things for the country, for family, for individuals, for our future. They want different things that will ruin everything we’ve worked for. They will take us back 20 years. They will hinder the growth that we desire. They will stop us from living the life we desire.

But what if your side is wrong? What if all the ways you identify yourself is causing you to feel above everyone else? What if your identity is stopping you from validating the possibility that others, in their place in life, their culture, country, and city, may be right? That if you weren’t born in your skin but theirs, that you might have a different way of thinking. That you’re thinking that you have the right perspective and are blessed because you actually understand the situation “more” than them is circumstantial and has nothing to do with you but where you were born and what family you were born into.

What To Do:

This is what I teach my students. I don’t always make it as obvious as my explanation above, but I try my hardest to teach critical thinking and to teach them to become skeptics about everything. They must learn to break down their thinking, wonder why they believe what they believe, have sufficient evidence for it and support their claims using that evidence.

This generation’s problem with writing well, I believe, has nothing to do with being unable to write, but having nothing worthwhile to say. When I teach students to write, I first teach them how to think. That way when they have a pen in their hands or a computer in front of them, they can’t help but explode with excitement. They finally feel like they have something to say that’s worth reading.

Over time they become bold and are able to argue their points tactfully, thoughtfully, and logically. Let me tell you… it’s a fight at first. Many of them don’t want to think for themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I hear them say, “But Miss, just tell me what to write.” I respond each time, “I can’t do that… tell me what you think you might want to write…” and the real conversation begins.

You might not know how to begin this conversation. That conversation in my class begins with the topic of Rhetoric. I have some articles on rhetoric and resources. This is where you can begin. I am working on other resources for you to use in the classroom. It will motivate me more to complete these and provide them to you if I know it’s what you want, so let me know in a comment or message.

You’re welcome to check out my TPT page to see if any resources could help you get started but be looking out for more on this topic!!

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Jessica L. Moody MaE (Curriculum Specialist)

Jessica L. Moody MaE (Curriculum Specialist)

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Author of Into the Depths: Pursue Your Calling Through Intimacy with God. USMC Vet, educational consultant & Phoenix Chapter Lead of the Kingdom Writers Assoc.