One of the goals of a liberal arts education is to expose students to new ideas—although mere exposure is probably not the ultimate objective; rather, it is a necessary ingredient in helping students become well-rounded, critical, and autonomous thinkers and better democratic citizens. Education that allows students to live and think within the comfortable confines of their inherited worldviews is education that too often fails to provide students with the tools to embrace and navigate the diverse world in which we live. The aim is not necessarily to get students to reject the views they bring to college, but to help them to critically analyze and develop their beliefs. Confronting new, unorthodox, and sometimes even initially strange ideas and perspectives provides a contrast class against which to critically compare already held views. As students confront new situations and diverse cultures they gain a greatly expanded set of concepts and theories from which to draw, thus better enabling them to understand and empathize. It is not, then, simply the exposure to new ideas that matters, but the importance of this to the other values of a liberal arts education. Importantly, without care new ideas could be simply memorized as needed for an exam, only to be quickly forgotten or, worse, to have no impact on a person’s thinking at all. Perhaps the point is, then, that just as more conversation is not always better conversation, the value of being exposed to new ideas can be had only in the context of, for example, critical thinking and personal growth.
Critical thinking and puzzling (“problematizing”) is essential to the creation of autonomous thinkers and able participants in a democracy valuing diversity. Why? The straightforward answer is that if a person confronted with new ideas is unable to critically appraise those ideas, he or she will simply reject any challenge to his or her own beliefs, will simply embrace the new claim and hence be manipulated at will, or will be utterly incapable of building a coherent worldview that draws carefully from their inherited and new views. The result is paralysis or the lack of integrity.
One of the often overlooked steps in critical appraisal is being able to find the fault lines—the weaknesses as well as strengths—of competing positions. This is different from simply saying that something is bad because it doesn’t fit with one’s already held views. Problematizing is not a cynical, arrogant enterprise aimed at scoring points against an opponent. Educators must equip students with the ability to identify the premises and underlying assumptions of claims to then identify where potential weakness and strengths exist. Engaging with students (as opposed to announcing one’s own evaluations) and modeling critical thinking (as opposed to cynicism or arrogance) is crucial.