The path to a more just society requires that critical...

The path to a more just society requires that critical thinking skills are a central element in a sound basic education. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Schools likely will reopen this month with mask wars and curriculum wars. To mask or not to mask should be driven by science; how we present curriculum should be driven by best teaching practices. Unfortunately, both are now driven by politics. Political perspectives should have a place in discussions and debates about the overall direction of education. They should not override the findings of science or the art of teaching.

Many adults, especially parents and community members now showing up at local school board meetings, have stepped into the quagmire created by viewing education through a narrow political lens — a lens with no room for observing opposing views. This approach is harmful to students in a democracy morally responsible for their education. Young people need the skills to fairly and carefully consider and evaluate different perspectives. They need a traditional teaching tool: critical thinking skills.

I enjoyed a 34-year teaching career in Central Islip and interacted with teachers, students and policymakers as president of New York State United Teachers. These interactions continue in my role collaborating with Speak Truth To Power, the curriculum arm of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Too often in these situations, critical thinking has been squeezed out of the decision-making process.

Consistently applying critical thinking skills serves us all well and must be reinforced as a tool for the next generation of thought leaders. Young people need to develop the ability to gather and evaluate information in order to make value judgments about the significant issues facing society today. Foreign policy, the social safety net, voting rights, how we apply or interpret the Constitution — these are among the issues about which today’s students will need to develop policy tomorrow.

This is most important in the current overcharged atmosphere surrounding issues of race and policing, and topics like critical race theory and the events of Jan. 6. In many communities — including my own in Smithtown — school board meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches aimed at preventing others from expressing their views. Students need the tools to avoid mimicking these behaviors so they can act responsibly based on facts, not emotions.

There is no more important area to develop and apply these critical thinking skills than human rights. Issues central to our Bill of Rights — freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to bear arms, among others — need to be approached in a constructive and critical way. Likewise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations in 1948, outlines rights equally guaranteed to all "without distinction"; students need to carefully weigh how society has applied or denied these rights.

The path to a more just society requires that critical thinking skills are a central element in a sound basic education. To safeguard the rights we all enjoy in a democratic society, we must prepare our young people to be constructively critical in an open-minded way — a way that invites discussion and debate (in all disciplines) before formulating, and often needing to reformulate, opinions. This requires a thought process that listens to both sides and weighs the evidence, not just the noise. This is especially true as we ask students to carefully develop their own views on our basic values and the rights that protect those values.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is a trustee at Robert F. Kennedy Human...

Richard C. Iannuzzi is a trustee at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and former president of New York State United Teachers. Credit: Richard Iannuzzi

Critically thinking about what we value and our fundamental human rights is, in the end, critical to our democracy.

This guest essay reflects the views of Richard C. Iannuzzi, a trustee at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and former president of New York State United Teachers.

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