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Change Magazine - March-April 2014
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March-April 2014

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Editorial: Transferrable Thoughtfulness

Transferrable intellectual skills—that's what we all want our students to get out of college, right? But we want more than that. I've always loved this quotation from Middlemarch because it portrays a kind of person who is all too common in academia: the spiteful humanist; the rigid-minded philosopher; or the scientist who, beyond his narrow intellectual realm, dispenses with evidence and logic in making truth claims.

And extending “distinction of mind” outside the disciplinary pale over a lifetime is as much a matter of feelings or disposition as it is of intellectual skills. We want students to both have critical thinking skills and the desire to use them across their lives, even when doing so is intensely uncomfortable. So we need another term—transferrable thoughtfulness gets closer to it, perhaps.

“Reflection,” as George Kuh has said, “is not a natural human act.” People have to be taught to do it, stimulated into wanting to do it, motivated to take it beyond the narrow area of their expertise.

The articles in this issue suggest that a college education can perform this vital service for students.

But the first question to address, as Roger Benjamin does in his article on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), is whether critical thinking skills independent of the disciplines exist at all. Frankly, the denial that they do has always struck me as on a level with the assertion that animals don't have personalities.

That distinction of mind which belonged to his intellectual ardour, did not penetrate his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women, or the desirability of its being known (without his telling) that he was better born than other country surgeons.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

The kinds of evidence we look for to back a truth claim may differ from discipline to discipline; knowing that evidence is necessary before you can assert that something is so does not. And the rigorous logic, the attention to cause and effect that Eliot's hero brought to his scientific work might conceivably have helped him anticipate how his taste in furniture and wives would affect his need for money, and hence require him to do more lucrative work than research.

So what motivates people to extend the use of their intellectual skills beyond the lab or classroom—say, into their roles as citizens? Ernestine Fu says that students in her generation prefer to do their civic work on the ground, where they can see its impact, rather than in the ethereal realm of policy and the dispiriting one of politics. They want see their knowledge in action and the results of their actions on people whose faces they can look into (virtual sociability isn't enough, even for this generation) and on issues that they care about.

But motivating students is only one part of the job—equipping them to continue developing and applying their skills and knowledge throughout their lifetimes is another. Elizabeth Moy and her colleagues suggest that we do so by pairing active learning with training in metacognition, which “builds skills and habits that deepen learning, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, goal setting, evaluation, and adjusting to meet goals.” Ron Callahan and David Jarratt's description of the SERVprogram for veteran and active-duty-servicemember students includes “a three-course curriculum focused on resiliency, leadership, and empathy [that] trains student veterans to teach others as a means of becoming more effective learners themselves.”

Many people who write about active learning tell us that we can coach, teach, and motivate students to continuously develop and extend their intellectual powers by encouraging them to “take ownership” of their learning. Several contributors to this issue, including letter-writer Barbara Wright, talk about the importance of placing the responsibility for learning in learners' hands. As Wright rightly says, “Ultimately, the quality of a student's education is the product of his or her own effort, and the coherence of the college experience must be constructed in the mind of the student.”

Helping students get to the point of being able and willing to become the agents of their own learning is extremely hard work, and sometimes we will fail at it. Jill Jenson and Paul Treuer's description of the University of Minnesota Duluth's abandonment of e-portfolios shows how hard it is to convince students to make the effort to be thoughtful about and bring coherence to their own intellectual growth. There are drags in the system that include the complexity of students' lives, the deadening effect of a lot of their schooling, and the human tendency to minimize mental effort.

But it does seem that human beings have impulses towards reflection that schooling and life often haven't killed altogether. You see it in small children (“Miss Peggy, for Christmas I want a notebook to write in,” a six-year-old neighbor told me) and in returning adults, whose lives have taught them how important it is to become their best and most authentic selves. Mike Rose met some of them while interviewing students at a community college (“You might discover somebody you never knew you were,” one of them said to him); students who have seen war are another group in which that impulse may exist.

Sure, students want to develop competencies that will help them do rewarding work, and one of our key roles is to certify that they have such competencies. As Sally Johnstone and Louis Soares tell us, we can do that much better and more directly than we have traditionally done. But “rewarding” doesn't just mean “remunerative.” As Stephen Tepper and Danielle Lindemann remind us, the work itself can be the best reward of all, if it is creative and engaging enough.

But the professional life of Eliot's hero was rewarding in that sense, while his larger life was bitterly disappointing. To live the fullest human life, thoughtfulness needs to extend into our lives as citizens, friends, and family members. Otherwise, we end up so much smaller than we need to be. None of us want that for our graduates, and neither we nor they have to settle for it.       

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