Often, my high school students would draft a sentence that began “I don’t think,” and I would highlight or circle the construction and then comment: “If you don’t think, why should I listen?”
This was a typical ploy of my feedback on student writing—one designed to develop in my students a purposefulness and care for not only the words they chose, but also the assembling of those words.
For “I don’t think the movie was good,” we would discuss the placement of “not,” recasting as “I think the movie was not good” or simply “bad,” and then “I think the movie was cliche and condescending to the viewers.”
But I was relentless (and still am) about what word choices and sentence formations actually stated (“I could care less”) versus what was meant (“I couldn’t care less”): “I want to kiss you badly” isn’t a very good invitation to romance, I’d explain.
We argued about “not” and “only” placements, but also I emphasized the lazy openings of sentences: “Flying low over the fields, the cows were startled by the plane.” So we could examine dangling and misplaced modifiers as well as the inherent dangers of passive voice; eventually, hitting on the real danger of passive voice—the absent agent: “Documents were shredded.”
Mostly, for my students, class time was about playing with language as readers and writers. It endeared my students to Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut—Atwood’s wordplay and Vonnegut’s sparse snark.
Words are how humans define the world, and how we are equipped to re-define the world.
And that is why I am so persistent about the importance of careful, purposeful language—especially for young people.
“I Don’t Think” v. “I Don’t Believe”
During my first 18 years as a high school English teacher in my rural Upstate South Carolina home town, I was committed to confronting the provincialism that had plagued me—and the realization that education had changed my life by changing my mind (or more accurately, education had realigned my mind with my soul).
My wonderful parents gave me life, but writers—many black writers, notably Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin—saved my life.
Currently, I am easing into my second decade teaching at a selective liberal arts college, also in the rural Upstate of SC, and the provincialism is different, but not absent.
While I had to confront “I don’t think” with my high schoolers, I am more often challenging “I don’t believe” with undergraduates.
In my education foundations course, I engage the students in the lingering controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. The students at my university are high-achieving students who tend to be religiously and politically conservative and from economically and racially privileged backgrounds.
I must note here, that for 30+ years, I have taught overwhelmingly wonderful young people, and I must stress that all young people have histories, misconceptions, and home-based baggage to overcome.
This is what it means to go from childhood to adulthood. But for some of us, that journey and the baggage are uglier than for others.
During the teaching of evolution discussion I witness each semester some patterns:
- Students often make this statement: “I don’t believe in evolution.”
- When I note evolution is a credible theory, students rarely can define accurately the term “theory” (confusing it with “hypothesis,” and even “guessing”).
- And when I ask what evolution means (and thus what they don’t believe), students typically misrepresent evolution (something akin to “I don’t believe humans came from monkeys”).
And then, I must admit, that I am fairly certain that despite the care taken (and the time, including viewing and discussing the documentary Flock of Dodos) to examine terminology (“hypothesis,” “theory,” “law”) and the students’ misconceptions, many if not most of those students claiming “I don’t believe in evolution” hold that same view afterward—as well as their belief that “both sides” of the evolution debate should be taught in biology, despite the problem with that stance being discredited in our discussions.
Yes, “I don’t think” is both a sloppy construction and a real problem behind what many people embrace—because in many instances people cling to “I believe” without having challenged those beliefs, and with little regard for evidence that contradicts those beliefs.
For those of us in academia, claims and evidence are a way of discourse and the foundations of knowing the world.
However, in the so-called real world, unsupported and unsupportable claims have a great deal of power.
And as I am often overwhelmed with my recalcitrant but very academically bright students, I am equally discouraged by the impact of my public work, most of which addresses education, poverty, and racism—phenomena awash in “I believe.”
Is teacher quality the greatest factor in student achievement? Well, no.
Is education the great equalizer? Well, no.
Is the U.S. a post-racial country? Well, no.
This could go on for quite a while— pairing the entrenched commitments to charter schools, merit pay, school choice, etc., against the substantial body of evidence showing those commitments are ill founded.
There is great irony in all this.
Education could be the key to overcoming this problem, but when many people start their comments with “I don’t think” they are unwittingly admitting exactly what is wrong with the claim that follows.