“to compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, and learn from the data….” [The quote is from R. Estling (1998). “Is science concerned with the truth?” Skeptical Inquirer, 22 (4), 55-56.]

Teachers are always trying to get their students “to compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, and learn from the data.” Essay questions often ask students to compare, contrast, or to justify something. Discussions in class are often attempts to develop and see arguments about positions students can take on an issue. Textbooks, at least in scientific fields, are full of theories (sometimes contradictory ones) and tons of data.

Why? Why aren’t your teachers only interested in simple definitions – the ones you memorized from the glossary of the text? (I know, some are, but as you move on in college you should get fewer requests for simple regurgitation every year.) Why aren’t they giving you straightforward and clear answers to seemingly simple questions like, “does television violence cause aggression in children?” Well, does it or doesn’t it? Why are your teachers showing you the weaknesses even of published studies? Isn’t anything in print holy to one degree or another? And why do those same teachers keep insisting that you cite references? Don’t we all know what the facts are?

One of the promises of college is to make students into educated, critical thinkers who approach issues the way, well, the way that college-educated people are supposed to approach issues. We’re supposed to be a little bit more careful, more informed rather than misinformed, more capable of dealing with complexities and ambiguities and contradictions, and of course, more right. But how did we, or how do we get there? In part, the answer is simple: it takes practice, practice, practice.

“To compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, and learn from the data” are some of the basic processes that foster the development of a college-educated mind. Teachers don’t want students who are just sitting in their classrooms doing the minimum work necessary to collect college credit hours; teachers want curious students. And if the students aren’t curious on their own, teachers try to get them to act that way. Curious people compare different ways of completing the same task, or different explanations for the same observation; they pay attention to the contrasts, the differences between points of view, interpretations, or the data used in support of arguments; they doubt claims that are made without evidence, or systems of explanation that don’t fit the facts (and especially those that don’t even rely on facts); they learn how to develop an argument to present a point of view, an interpretation, or a system of explanation so that it all makes sense; and they let the data speak, rather than letting their minds limit which truths they might want to be exposed to and which they have to hide from.

These habits of mind don’t come to many people naturally – perhaps they don’t come to anyone naturally. They have to be learned and fostered, and this is what your college teachers are doing when they ask you “to compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, and learn from the data.” It’s much harder work than memorizing definitions from glossaries or simple facts from a set of lists. But it’s what a college education is all about. We know that none of your future employers are going to ask you to define the concept “social norm,” so what does it matter that you may have memorized a definition? And it’s unlikely that you’ll get yourself into an interesting conversation with interesting people and only be asked to define a concept like “deindividuation,” so why stop after investing in definitions? College educated people are expected to think about the material; think about what could have been, or what might still come; think about what it means and what the value is, and so on. They’re also supposed to be familiar with the evidence, the facts that are really out there, and they should know how to find facts when they have to look for them.

So “compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, and learn from the data.” It’s good practice. It’s what eventually makes college educated people out of high school graduates. And remain curious, even in your “required” classes.

Michael S. Ofsowitz, 2005