When I am teaching, my goal is to pass on the basic principles and tenets of anthropology to my students. After all, they are taking an anthropology class with me, and I am obligated to teach them the fundamentals of the subject as summarized in the course description, whether it is Cultural Anthropology or Human Origins. But what I am really doing is using anthropology to teach them something much more useful and important: how to think. I don’t flatter myself that I am the best person in the world to teach them this, or that I am the first or only person who will expose them to the strategies of critical thinking. It is, however, a charge that I take extremely seriously, because I am deeply concerned about what seems to be a basic lack of critical thinking skills in the world at large. Because I am teaching college students I can at least reasonably expect that these young thinkers are only at the beginning of a process of becoming skilled at interpreting the world around them. I am also not arrogantly assuming that college educated people are the only ones who are good critical thinkers; nor do I subscribe to a corollary thought that being formally educated automatically means a person is a good thinker. I have encountered many a person with a college education who is nonetheless not skilled at thoughtful analysis; and I have met many people whose life experiences have honed their thinking skills far more sharply than a formal education has. I guess my point is that you find a broad spectrum of thinking ability in society at large, and it doesn’t necessarily correlate with education.
Back to the point of what I do in the classroom. I find that anthropology is an excellent vehicle for helping students discover and practice new ways of thinking about the world. It teaches you to look at situations from multiple perspectives. As I ponder ideas and information, I often visualize the issue at hand as an object sitting in the center of a room, and I imagine myself walking around and around that object, looking at it top, bottom, and middle, prodding it, testing it, moving it to see how it looks in different positions. I imagine other people entering the room and describing the object to me from their perspective. Sometimes those other people see things I didn’t see, and open my eyes to original or alternative points of view. Sometimes, I still can’t see what they see, but I welcome their description of the object nonetheless. In anthropology, being open to other points of view is absolutely critical. We all bring preconceived notions with us to the field, but we are trained to shed those ideas as best we can and let the experience itself tell us what we need to know. The most magical moments can sometimes occur when our experience in the field makes us suddenly recognize things we had taken so deeply for granted that we weren’t even aware of our own perceptions (this can also be frighteningly disconcerting). Those moments can make me almost giddy with excitement. What makes me even giddier is introducing those moments to my students, and seeing the recognition on their faces of new ideas that, once introduced, bring on the “a-ha” moment of understanding.
I have to remind myself that I am a professional in the study of human culture and behavior. It’s easy to forget that I, too, had to be taught how to think this way. I think this is why I often feel such deep frustration at the fact that so many people seem unable or unwilling to look at issues from multiple perspectives. I am more than happy to accept that, once someone has explored an issue from several angles, they can come to a rational, logical conclusion about what they see. I am also happy to accept that I can come to an equally rational, logical conclusion about the same issue that is nonetheless very different from another person’s. What I have a hard time accepting is people refusing to consider any view other than the one they originally brought to the issue, in spite of repeated opportunities to see things from another perspective.
Over and over, I have heard people refer to those who blindly follow along with a single point of view as sheep. A sheep follows the sheep in front of it, and the lead sheep simply follows the shepherd. Those who rail against the sheep usually have a problem with the perceived leadership of the shepherd. What I find confounding is the failure of many to recognize that they are following a leader of their own. Those who label others as sheep may very well be members of a herd of goats, blindly following the leadership of the goatherd. Humans, in many ways, do have a herd mentality. Whether you are a sheep or a goat is immaterial if you are still blindly following the leader. Maybe the sheep and goats should spend some time talking to each other and learning about each others’ herds. Perhaps the sheep should follow the goatherd for a bit, and see what it’s like to walk in a goat’s hooves. The goats should do the same with the shepherd. In fact, all of us would do well to consider each others’ perspectives. Take the anthropological view. Strive to recognize your biases. Reach for those “a-ha” moments. Learn to really talk about what you believe and why you believe it, and learn to really listen to what others believe and why they believe it. Don’t fall for the easy way out by going for the ad hominem (or would it be ad ovinem?) sheep label. That’s too simple, and too dismissive, and not worthy of those who truly wish to have others take their point of view seriously.