Learning how to teach people “how to think”?

Welcome to my blog!  This is going to be a venue for ramblings, opinions, not particularly-well-referenced material and other discussions about the Life of Professors.  Maybe something like a National Geographic special, but without the cool David Attenborough accent.  Sorry, I just can’t seem to find that font.

Anyway, the first thoughts I’d like to share come from a more philosophical side, about the nature of college education.  How many times have you heard that you go to college to “learn how to think”?  I’m not sure exactly where my total is, but it’s got to be over 20.

I recently discovered a remarkable address given by David Foster Wallace that deals with the concept of “learning how to think”.  Many of you might be familiar with it, as it made the rounds on the internet few years back, having been transcribed from his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.  It has subsequently been published in book format and is therefore difficult to find now, however the audio of the speech can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8

I highly recommend listening to the entire thing, but the most pertinant part for my purpose today is:

“Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious…

…Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…

…It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.” “This is water.”  – D.F. Wallace

I think this is beautiful; the concept that from entering college to leaving it, students perceptions are transformed and their thinking redirected in more purposeful and compassionate ways.  That that is what true education is.

Of course this address was targeted to the student audience, but think about the implications it has on the professors.  According to DFW, the educators and administrators duty is no longer to transmit information, but rather to imbue their students with compassionate thinking and awareness.  Think about who provides the experience, the environment, that will transform students perceptions and re-direct their thinking.

Uh, yeah, that would be us.  The future professors.

What do you guys think?  Is this the direction of modern college education?  Is it a professor’s responsibility to challenge their student’s thinking processes and try to change them (or open them), even if they are just teaching differential equations?  How do we even do this??


About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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