True skepticism is the opposite of blind faith; it allows one to escape the confines of simply being able to analyze the virtues of a statement or concept beyond a purely ideological context. Today’s high school students live in a world where there is corporate consolidation of the media on a global level, an ongoing history of elected officials whom have routinely misled the American public with false information and empty promises, and the criticisms from scientifically methodological skeptics are granted little public exposure. America is in need of more skeptics, so I propose that a class on the theory and application of skeptical analysis becomes mandatory for high school students.
This class could start out relating the concept of skeptical analysis to the students on a familiar personal level- first by analyzing advertisements in the popular media. For example, in watching a televised football game over the course of a few hours a high school student will have been exposed to literally dozens of commercials endorsing oversized “gas-guzzling” automobiles and varieties of alcoholic beverages. Without the proper critical thinking skills to filter these messages, conspicuous consumption and substance abuse appears attractive.
Students could first learn to ask simple questions about advertisements: “Do I need this product? Will this product bring me happiness or comfort for more than the short term?” Students would then explore the concerns: “Can advertisements create unrealistic expectations and promote a negative self-image in adolescents? Do advertisements present a truthful representation of reality?” Eventually the course could build up to larger philosophical questions about the media such as: “How can the media shape and limit ones worldview?”
From there, pupils would explore skepticism as it relates to other fields of study through exposure to the works of history’s great radical thinkers. Students would study a cross-cultural array of social commentators, economic theorists, leaders of political movements, scientists, and journalists who significantly altered the world with the questions they asked.
Trained in skeptical reasoning, students will reap benefits both within and outside of their immediate academic pursuits. When students read a new text they will know to determine: “Who wrote this and what was their personal ideology? When was this written? Who was the intended audience?” When they see a politician speaking on the news, students will inquire, “Are the statistics being used to justify a policy proposal supported by research? Has this official historically delivered on their promises? What private interests might motivate this politician?” When being taught about a scientific theory, students will understand and appreciate the rigorous testing and experimentation behind the formulation and refinement of that theory.
One of history’s great skeptics, Carl Sagan, wrote, “In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.” The ideal class would teach skepticism rooted not in cold rationality but compassionate reason that fosters a desire for a society that is more honest and just.