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Opinion: As Utah wrestles over school curricula, don’t forget the purpose of education

Thinking critically does not mean examining things in order to tear them down. In the academic sense it is the process by which we actively examine and evaluate information that ultimately guides our beliefs and actions

Curtis Linton and Jackie Thompson hug as community activists and educators protest a Utah State Legislature resolution to ban Critical Race Theory concepts. Counterprotestors holding signs stand behind them.
Curtis Linton, with the Utah Educational Equity Coalition, hugs coalition Vice Chairwoman Jackie Thompson as community activists and educators protest Senate and House resolutions encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Behind them, counterprotesters hold signs opposing the theory.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As conversations continue around limiting the scope of what can and cannot be taught or what should or should not be offered at Utah’s educational institutions, I believe it is important to remind ourselves of the purpose of education.

To do this, I’ll begin by sharing three historical perspectives: In the 1930s, well-known educational philosopher John Dewey believed that the central purpose of education was democracy and that students needed to learn to think intellectually, critically and reflectively; problem solve; and develop the skills they would need to become a socially productive human beings who would work for the betterment of society.

The hope, specifically around critical and reflective thinking, is that we will be able to choose the course of action that makes us more likely to adopt true beliefs rather than false ones — facts rather than emotion. He believed that good thinking — in terms of both process and character — can be taught.

In the 1940s, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke at Morehouse College and stated the following: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. ... We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

In the 1950s, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development published the following statement: “The main purpose of the American school is to provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society.”

As Utahns are wrestling over educational content, we cannot lose sight of these purposes of education, which has critical thinking at its core. Thinking critically does not mean examining things in order to tear them down. In the academic sense it is the process by which we actively examine and evaluate information that ultimately guides our beliefs and actions. Overall, it seems that the goals of a good education are to develop our minds (to think intelligently, critically and reflectively), our hearts (to be good, ethical and honest people), and our hands (to earn a living and to care about and do good in and for our families, communities, communities and societies).

Today, we see threads of these crafted into the mission, vision, and values of our Utah State Office of Education and our colleges and universities. Here are some excerpts that illustrate the combined goals of engaging our heads, hearts and hands:

  • Creates environments that allow all individuals to thrive (Utah Valley University).
  • Cultivates diversity of thought and culture (Utah State University).
  • Encourages innovation and cultivates an atmosphere of engagement (Snow College).
  • Prepares students of diverse backgrounds for lives of impact as leaders and citizens (University of Utah).
  • Prepares students to be creators, innovators and responsible citizens (Utah Tech University).
  • Prepares students to succeed and lead by having the knowledge and skills to learn, engage civically and lead meaningful lives (Utah State Office of Education).
  • Promotes education, health and quality of life (University of Utah).
  • Promotes student achievement, equity and inclusion and vibrant community relationships (Weber State University).
  • Serves the public through learning, discovery and engagement (Utah State University).
  • Strengthens the communities served (Salt Lake Community College).

These goals are complex and take decades of work and education to understand the best steps forward.

So how do we implement them and who takes the lead? In the age of the internet, it can be tempting to confuse opinion with fact, a Google search with scholarship and influence with real authority. In crafting our educational goals, we need to allow experts — those who have been educated, know the research and have worked tirelessly through the years to understand what works and what does not — to lead the conversation.

These leaders (e.g., superintendents, presidents, provosts, commissioners) weigh the complexity of situations, with the Utah environment and with research and best practices. Those who have spent their careers in understanding the challenges and making effective decisions can be trusted to continue to serve our families well. Again, we may not always agree on content, but if we trust the process, students will learn to develop the skills required to evaluate, decide and act. I appreciate lawmakers, community leaders and residents who respectfully work alongside these leaders and other experts toward the common good. Thanks to our educational leaders in Utah for their work to ensure that Utah thrives in years to come.