Wednesday, July 07, 2021

How Do You Know?

What to Believe or How to Think?
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, July 7, 2021, p. 6

A lifelong friend we’ll call “Ralph” told me his father always asked, upon Ralph’s return from school, “Did they teach you what to believe, or did they teach you how to think?”

The Harvard Business Review published “Why China Can’t Innovate” and concluded, “The problem . . . is not . . . the Chinese people . . . but the political world in which their schools . . . need to operate, which is very much bounded.”

Americans’ innovative, entrepreneurial, economic, artistic and intellectual comparative success is largely driven by the educators who have taught us “how to think.”

As you may have noticed, for the past six years America has been sliding from the “shining city on a hill” down toward the pit of authoritarian dictatorship with the uncontrolled speed of a kid on a plastic sledding saucer in winter.

A democracy can no more stand without supporting institutions than a beach home can stand without pilings. Democracies need their respected and protected “columns of democracy” – professional, independent, journalists; wise, impartial, non-partisan judges; electoral procedures that encourage ever-increasing numbers of voters – and dedicated public school educators teaching students “how to think.”

President Thomas Jefferson wished “most to be remembered” as “Father of the University of Virginia,” not president. Iowa’s early 12,000 schools made it number one. When I was teaching at UC Berkeley, California’s tuition-free education fueled its position as, today, the world’s fifth greatest economy. [Photo Credit: Iowa Department of Education (“Here is the original well of an 1800s school house located near Shellsburg in Benton County.”) And see, Tom Morain, “One-Room Schools,” Iowa Pathways, Iowa PBS, undated, (“The first schoolhouse in Iowa was built in 1830 in Lee County.”)]

Educators’ freedom is as essential to our economy as to our democracy and our “pursuit of happiness.”

Chinese journalists explained to me the freedoms they have – so long as they don’t use the wrong words.

Fortunately, the Iowa Commissar of Acceptable K-12 Vocabulary does not understand education.

Some years ago, I was asked to speak to Iowa’s National Issues Forum high school students at the Herbert Hoover Library. I shared a basic general semantics tool: “What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?” (Asking yourself and others, “What facts brought you to the verbal generalizations you just used?” and, “What were your sources supporting that conclusion? Why do you believe them reliable?”) The technique was successfully used by a couple Metro High School teachers after that talk, became the subject of a doctoral dissertation, and a published book.

Teachers should ask their school board’s lawyer about HF 802's restrictions. But as I read it, teachers are free to present, or better have students find, historic facts about African-Americans’ lives during the last 400 years; answer students’ questions; ask students, “How do you know?” and let them draw their own conclusions and generalizations. In other words, teaching them “how to think” and evaluate research. Like Chinese journalists, Iowa’s teachers still have their freedom to teach – just so long as they don’t use the Commissar’s forbidden words and phrases.

Ralph’s dad understood education. So do Iowa’s teachers. It’s just a little more challenging to teach, or do journalism, within an authoritarian dictatorship.
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, is the author of Columns of Democracy and What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? Contact:

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Regina M. Abrami, William C. Kirby, and F. Warren McFarlan, “Why China Can’t Innovate,” Harvard Business Review, March 2014, (the full last paragraph reads, ““The problem, we think, is not the innovative or intellectual capacity of the Chinese people, which is boundless, but the political world in which their schools, universities, and businesses need to operate, which is very much bounded.”)

Courtney Vinopal, “2 out of 3 Americans believe U.S. democracy is under threat,” PBS, July 2, 2021.

“City on a hill.” Matthew 5:14; Ronald Reagan’s use, “A Vision for America,” Nov. 3, 1980, “City upon a Hill,” Wikipedia,

Amy Meadows, “How to Install Piling for a Beach House,”

Democracy’s supporting institutions. Columns of Democracy (2018)

Jefferson’s epitaph. “Jefferson’s Gravestone,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Jefferson Monticello, (“Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave. In this undated document, Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker, and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed:
"... on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia

"because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.")
12,000 Iowa schools. “A walk through Iowa’s one-room schoolhouses,” Iowa Department of Education, (“more . . . than any other state in the union”)

Tom Morain, “One-Room Schools,” Iowa Pathways, Iowa PBS, undated, (“The first schoolhouse in Iowa was built in 1830 in Lee County.”)

California tuition-free education. Lilia Vega, “The history of UC tuition since 1868,” The Daily Clog, The Daily Californian, Dec. 22, 2014,

“Economy of California,” Wikipedia, (“If California were a sovereign nation (2019), it would rank as the world's fifth largest economy, ahead of India and behind Germany.”)

Theodore R. Breton, “The Role of Education in Economic Growth: Theory, History and Current Returns,” Educational Research, v55 n2 p121-138 2013,, (“The paper presents evidence that education has direct and indirect effects on national output. Educated workers raise national income directly because schooling raises their marginal productivity.”)

What do you mean? What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? (2009), ch. 5, p. 49

Use in Metro High School. Although the author used the Metro experience as a major part of the book, Metro was presented as an anonymous high school. Jane Bolgatz, Talking Race in the Classroom (2005)

The law prohibiting reference to such words and phrases as “systemic racism” originated as House File 802, and can now be found, as enrolled, at

Samantha Hernandez and Ian Richardson, “Iowa Poll: More than half of Iowans oppose new law limiting certain concepts from racism, sexism training,” Des Moines Register, June 29, 2021,

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