Teaching Our Students What to Think

By Travis Copeland

Even if it is possible, do we want our curricula to be value-neutral?

As a teacher who has spent considerable time in classical education, I hear a variety of replies to the question: What is classical education? While it is challenging to define briefly, one answer that is often repeated is the pithy and sharp response: 

“We aren’t teaching them what to think, we are teaching them how to think.” 

This statement tends to come toward the end of a conversation, when someone wants to summarize and needs something memorable and short; but it is not true. 

Classical schools and teachers should stop asserting that the content, the “what” to think about, is not essential to a classical mind. It is certainly true that students are being taught how to think. While classical schools aim to cultivate virtue, which makes them exceptional in this regard, they are not alone in wanting students to learn to think for themselves. Public, charter, and private non-classical schools all assert that they are teaching students how they ought to think—some even offer “critical thinking” classes. A major distinguishing mark of classical schools is learning what to think about. Considering what is pure, lovely, and admirable is an essential part of classical education. This means that what  you think about is as important as, and should not be set against, how to think.

First, teaching a student or class how to think always comes through the form of  content. This content inevitably shapes what to think. The substance shapes the way in which we learn to think, and the more time is spent on it,  the more it passively helps teach us what we should think about. Even more concerning, there are plenty of examples that would categorically fit this pithy phrase, but that classical educators would never be willing to hold up as an example. 

Consider a student, Tom, who is logically sound in arguing that there are no universally moral constructs. Tom outright rejects the existence of God. His logical conclusions are formulaic. He can construct a solid argument with a thesis, topic sentences, proofs, and refutation. Tom is even rather gentle in his articulation of his belief. He credits the ability of a classical education to teach him to argue well and speak well about his beliefs. However, his vocal support of classical education that supports this belief makes his teachers, parents, and administration uncomfortable. Rightly so, they regard his ability to think a failure, because of what he thinks. Tom’s Christian school would be right in rejecting him as a model graduate, even though he has clearly been taught “to think.” Tom has failed the right things to think about. It is not, then, true that classical education is only about how to think. It is also rooted in a set of things to think about.

People often think professors should stay in their ivory towers and "be above it all" (or at least "out of it"). But I think, to the contrary, that professors have an obligation to speak what they believe to be the truth ... That's why we're called profess-ors.

Postmodern thinker David Foster Wallace famously outlined similar thinking from outside the classical renewal movement, during his Kenyon College Commencement Speech in 2005. Wallace plainly explains to the graduates that every school “teaches you to think.” What marks you as an educated person, he argues, is learning what to think about. Once you have been taught how to think, you have to know what to set your thinking upon. You must (for classically educated thinkers) learn to love the true, good, and beautiful. According to Wallace, the content of your thoughts (and your disposition toward it) is what marks true, proper thinking. What you think about, using a brain that has “learned to think,” is the mark of a truly educated liberal person. 

Wallace, a postmodern, is a correction for Christian classical schools when they say the subject matter is not essential. What we are teaching them to think about is shaped by virtue, logic, and rhetoric, but it is not non-essential. Of course, what we truly mean is that we are not teaching our students to automatically repeat ancient creeds and worldviews without giving it independent thought. However, what we communicate is: it does not matter what they think about as long as they can get there in a syllogism. 

If we want to communicate classical education beautifully, then we should offer the value of the contents of our tradition. We should not passively, quickly, or easily disregard classical content, which helps to shape a brain into a thinking brain. Even more, this material shapes the person in virtue and moral character. Working to develop our own definitions and explanations is important. Instead of absorbing the cultural phrases, we should do the hard work of explaining and thinking how we want to define what is so important to those of us embedded in classical education culture, and we should begin by returning to the explanation, “classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue”—the cultivation of which is essentially rooted in what we think about.


Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other material here at the Journal, like this previous essay by Mr. Copeland on the Federalist Papers, this discussion of the idea of ideas, or this essay from one of our top students comparing Clytaemnestra and Medea. You might also like our seminar series on our own “great books” list, Journey Through the Author Bank, hosted by academics from all around the country.

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