Agency, Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Importance of Cultivating Agency

In all of education, and especially in higher education, we are committed to cultivating strong critical thinking in our students.  Many of our classes provide students with essential tools for critical thinking as we try to help them understand statistical and scientific methods of analysis, forms of argument and evidence, and even the values from which our questions emerge.  We strive to shake our students from their comfortable senses of reality so that they may form their own understandings of truth and what makes a good life. We want them to leave us empowered, confident in their ability to navigate the myriad questions and decisions they will face in their lives. These efforts are our passion and our joy.

Sometimes, however, we need to think a little deeper about what we want to accomplish with these critical thinking skills.  We must consider the cultural contexts in which our students have been raised and ask ourselves just how much critical thinking they can take. Lately I’ve been noticing that a lot of our young people are a little freaked out.  There have been lots of articles in the popular press about this, and I don’t know what the real figures are about anxiety, but I will say that there are some real and frightening things that have happened during this group’s childhood that gives them the right to be scared.

Consider Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Parkland.  Gun violence isn’t just a story for the unlucky few, it is a dominant narrative in all of our student’s lives. Then there’s September 11th and the subsequent wars, literal and cultural, that never seem to end.  Terrorism is a reality in the United States, not just something we can say is happening elsewhere.  Oh, and let’s not forget climate change, which is starting to scare our young people a great deal.  They are wondering about the feasibility of planning anything in the face of the looming crises of rising waters and shrinking resources. No wonder they are a little shaken.

Now listen, people have had rough childhoods before.  I grew up at the tail end of fears about nuclear disaster and war and lots of my friends were truly terrified of that potential reality.  I knew many veterans of Vietnam, and a fair number of conscientious objectors, who were suffering the after-effects of that war.  Then there were the wars before that, and the Great Depression, and dustbowls, and segregation, and poverty, and so on.  Disasters and injustice have always been here, but that’s not how it feels to this generation. The media messages are universally devastating, positive narratives are shaky, threats are nearby, and the future, at least in terms of the climate, appears to be out of their control.

So what about critical thinking? Well it is more important than ever. We have to give our students the tools to decode probabilities, if for no other reason than to relieve some of their fear levels. We have to show them how science and technology may have caused some of the problems of climate change, but they might also be tools to some of the solutions.  We have to teach them to argue with bad evidence and to identify good evidence, even if it is just the best evidence to date. We have to show them that they are capable of making a case for the kind of world they want to live in.  We need to recount the scope of the history of changes that have made most of us ashamed of our bigotries and biases so that our students have a sense of how far we’ve come.

And then we need to take another step after all of that. We need to cultivate agency. As we consider creating the necessary moments in our curriculum when we disrupt our students’ assumptions about what is real, we also have to consider creating pathways to agency.  We can’t flinch from the complexities of the world. There are real dangers and disagreements that have to be sorted out, but we cannot leave our students without a sense that they might be able to sort out at least one part of the messes they perceive.

So, let’s look through our course plans and the experiences we are designing and consider building in some opportunities to discover that agency. Don’t just show them the problems, show them some of the ways we might start looking for solutions.  Perhaps there are small things that you can actually tackle in your classes–things like community service, or a campus culture initiative, or promoting good environmental practices.  Perhaps there is some group research that can become a policy recommendation that your students might take on.  Maybe there is room to connect with neighborhoods in productive ways.  These things will be small, but if they truly flow from the learning context, they can have a profound impact on our students’ confidence in their ability to make positive change in the world.

We really need to do this.  We have to balance the critical skills with that sense of agency.  It is this sense of agency that will help all of us move from anxiousness to action.  We may not believe in our agency everyday, but those little glimmers might just make us hopeful enough to use our critical thinking to make things better.