I remember walking out of my very first seminar at St. John’s College. My brain was completely fried after an intense, two-hour discussion. We had tackled question after question, reading deeply into one single text. The shallow interpretation I’d gotten from my first read had been stacked upon with layers and layers of meanings.
It was the moment I realized that I had come to the right school, where intellectual pursuit is in its truest form, where the individual thought process is mandatory, and, most exciting of all, where I get to immerse myself in the vast sea of intellects.
That first seminar was such an eye-opening one for me because I had never taken part in this learning method. My four years in middle school back in Vietnam were rather dull and based largely on memorization. All I could do was to listen to the teachers' lectures, take copious notes and then come home and try to cram everything in so as to do well in the coming quizzes and tests. Like any other student, I was fed the materials from the textbooks…and I inevitably swallowed and hung on to them as definitive truth.
Now that I have experienced the two extremes, I wonder what the differences between these two learning methods are. It seems that a large portion of this difference has to do with the presence of “critical thinking” in the learners. Let me remind you that this is neither an article written by an education expert, nor the thesis of a PhD dissertation; this is purely the perspective of a learner - someone who has experienced it and formed opinions on what works and what doesn’t.
The impact of critical reading is manifested most clearly in my experience of reading literature. I remember the literature textbook I had in middle school - at the end of each poem or short story, there was a paragraph summarizing the meaning of the text, neatly boxed and highlighted. The students were shoved into one interpretation, and no one ever questioned its validity.
What I get to do in the seminars at St. Johns is the complete opposite. For example, in a recent seminar on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, we discussed two interpretations of the life of Antony, a Roman general. We were debating whether his biography was written as a tragedy of a life spent fighting without a target, or as a comedy about a man who indulges in overdramatic theatrics. Through textual evidence and reasoning, the seminar raised many questions to exhaust and challenge these two ideas. In the end, it did not seem like we settled with either idea – the judgment was left to each person in the seminar to decide.
After all, it did not matter whether we got to the conclusion. The merit lies in the critical thinking process that one goes through to test the different ideas.
Education in Vietnam puts its entire focus on the ends. For the students, these ends are to do well on tests, to get good grades, to pass the college entrance exam, etc. Students, teachers, and parents are obsessed with numerical results, not necessarily the skills that the students should be cultivating. I don’t blame them. After all, it is every parent’ wish for their child to do well in school by acing the tests, to bring home the “excellent student” certificate at the end of the year, to pass the college entrance exam, to graduate with another “excellent student” certificate, to get a good job, and finally to maintain a stable life.
This is undoubtedly a noble wish. But parents as well as educators also need to recognize the importance of exercising individual thinking of the students, since eventually in the context of a workplace and everyday life, the skills are much more important. The problem is not necessarily exclusive to Vietnam. From what I observed during my high school experience in America, students very often get dangled in the whirlpool of quizzes and midterms and forget to think twice or raise questions.
I feel fortunate that the curriculum at St. Johns always demands critical thinking. It means that we are constantly looking to challenge even the most deeply-held ideas. For example, in my math class this semester we are studying the work of Ptolemy (my favorite astronomer), who believed that the earth is stationary and all other planets rotate around it. Most people nowadays probably will downright ignore him with a simple reason: “He’s wrong. The earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.” However, I’ve learned that his models of eccentric and epicyclical cycles resolve any observed anomalies and can accurately predict the positions of the sun for a long period of time. Moreover, the models Ptolemy contrived are so convenient and exact that they are used extensively, even in modern astronomy. My tutor did not exaggerate when he said “Ptolemy landed us on the moon.” How can anyone dare to say Ptolemy is wrong then? On the contrary, I think that there is so much “truth” to this seemingly false construction, and that some patience and an adept skill in critical thinking can help one gain access to this treasure of knowledge.
Let me conclude this post with a trivia I recently learned. Do you know that the word “school” has its root from the Greek word “σχολεῖον” (skholeion), which means “leisure?” Indeed, for our ancestors school was a kind of leisure. Then why is school nowadays so often identified with pressure and stress? Perhaps a learning place can only be pleasurable when students experience a kind of liberty in it - when they are allowed to soar amidst their imagination and thoughts. And perhaps critical thinking is a key tool to guarantee this intellectual freedom. After all, it is YOUR learning experience. Take control!