Helping Students Look Critically Within
This is the Age of the Selfie. We live in an image-obsessed society. A significant slice of the global economy is driven by individuals’ hunger to appear better: better than those around them or at least better than their current selves; better in their own eyes and better in the eyes of others. By definition, “image” and “appearance” are superficial things, as opposed to identity and substance.
Many of my students are rich with self-esteem. They look at themselves. Engaging in this autospection – sorry, nothing to do with looking at cars – and they like what they see. Yet far fewer demonstrate significant evidence of introspection or its fruit, self-knowledge, whether in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their character or their reasons for believing what they believe about Ultimate Things.
I take for granted that we should work in the classroom to cultivate self-knowledge. No community of faith, liberal arts educational institution, democracy, or marriage can thrive without individuals who understand themselves. This is not the only thing that matters in such contexts. But a reflective attitude towards ourselves is a useful tool and a helpful curb against hubris. True self-knowledge is the antithesis of self-worship, for it imbues its possessors with a keen awareness of their own limitations, including their fragility and fallibility.
While some may be gifted with a greater capacity for self-knowledge than others (some call this aptitude “self-intelligence”), all of us can and should pursue insight into who we are. For a variety of reasons today’s college students in the U.S. tend to struggle with this. How can we work in the classroom to help them know themselves?
We can only guide others are far as we have traveled ourselves. We should remember that reading others’ introspections can help students develop their own. Writing provides a critical opportunity for students to articulate and refine their thoughts. And they must see themselves through the eyes of others, receiving the critical scrutiny of sympathetic but not permissive peers and mentors.
Integrity: Clearing Our Own Eyes and Looking
Those of us who aspire to guide our students to better know themselves must practice what we preach. It can be tempting to rely on the momentum of past reflection rather than cultivating fresh insights. Let us not let the fields of our own hearts and minds lie fallow. As Newman said, “To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often.” To teach is to learn and to grow. Only those committed to lifelong learning, both their own and others’, are worthy of the title of “educator.” The following recommendations for students apply to an even greater extent to us their mentors.
Reading: Observing the Introspection and Insights of Others
A book is a window into the mind of its author, at least when it is a primary text in the humanities. For memoirs, this is doubly so. Some authors are more self-intelligent than others, some more in touch with the reality of their psychological, social, spiritual, and intellectual condition. Yet any true work of literature will provide insight into how its author sees themselves and others alike. By providing terminology and narratives with some element of self-reflection, the best literature gives our students models for how to best understand themselves. As C. S. Lewis says in Shadowlands, “We read to know that we are not alone.” In print, we can see elements of ourselves expressed in the words of others, perhaps in ways that we have not or could not express ourselves. Certainly this will be the case for many of our students.
Writing: The Road to Self-Knowledge
Building on the written models provided by others, our students must put their own pens to paper. The blank page can be an extension of one’s mind. It is ripe with potential. We must encourage our students to seize it. It is a safe space to give voice to thought and emotion, every idea needing further exploration, and any memory in danger of being forgotten.
I delight at the bafflement of my college sophomores every year when assigned an 8-10 page Formal Argument Paper. They have already composed a brief reflection paper, highlighting the key elements of their personal belief systems – already a challenging feat for many. Now their task is to present one aspect of their beliefs and advance a coherent argument to support it, contrasting their position with that of three historical figures whose works we have read. Possible topics include: “What is the ideal society and why?” “What is the relationship between faith and reason? What can it be and what should it be?” and “What is the relationship between religion and modern science?” A few weeks before the final draft is due, students submit drafts of their thesis statements and outlines.
A few students present drafts of the kind of paper I am asking for: they argue their argument about what is true, contrasting their position with the strengths and weaknesses of the historical figures they have chosen. However, the vast majority of my students give me something else. Many produce a soup: blending the elements from the irreconcilable viewpoints of historical figures (ex. Tolstoy + Nietzsche + Locke). The problem with soup is that a superficially homogenous position belies the incongruities and plausible weaknesses of its sources. Some students produce a descriptive thesis that is about the historical figures, rather than about what is true. Others produce an argument of their own but without knowing how to incorporate the arguments of others beyond some cursory summary.
These well-meaning but misguided students struggle with the assignment even though we have gone over its specifications in the syllabus. The reason is that I am asking them to write a very different kind of paper from anything they have been accustomed to writing in high school or in their other college coursework (in my context, I am providing one of the few writing-intensive humanities courses many of these students will have). “What do you believe and why?” I tell them. “This is more than your opinion. You need to give clear and compelling reasons. That is what makes this an argument.” The notion is foreign enough to most that I changed the name of the paper to the Formal Argument Paper, indeed, so foreign that confusion persists.
Ultimately, the goal is to train the students not to be intellectual navel-gazers but to become adept at critical thinking and clear communication, no matter how complex the topic. We are all works-in-progress in such matters, but the lack of progress among many college underclassmen can be shocking for the newer professors among us. Rather than blame our students’ prior educators, I’m inclined to attribute the struggle to our students’ cultural and technological milieu. In terms of opportunities and incentives for reflection, the cards are stacked against them. As a result is all the more incumbent on those of us who perceive the need to demand rigorous self-examination of our students.
Criticism: The Scrutiny of Others as a Mirror
Not all ideas are created equal. All people are equal in terms of their human worth, but not all people have equally good belief systems. Yes, you can believe whatever you want to believe. You can. But you shouldn’t – not without good reasons. It is our task as educators to call bad ideas into question. It can be a liberating for a student to hear, “Your ideas have been weighed and found wanting because [insert reasons here].” There is no such thing as a bad question in my classroom, but there are such things as better and worse answers.
By enduring such scrutiny, students can know not merely who they are but who they should be in the process of becoming, growing in their ability to profess thoughtfully whatever it is that they believe. I do not assume that my students agree with me about what is true. In fact, it is far more interesting if they do not. But I insist that they have clear reasons for asserting whatever it is that they claim as their position.
Of course criticism of others’ ideas, however compassionate, flies in the face of the spirit of the age. Many of today’s college students would sacrifice justice, reason, beauty, and truth on the altar of autonomy, embracing the dictum, “We are all equally right.” Those who believe this find freedom to believe and to do whatever they desire because they have granted others that same license. As culturally offensive as it may be in the present age, at least in my context, those of us who lead classrooms must assert, “No, some of us are more right than others. Maybe I’m not one of them, but I have compelling reasons that your position on a given issue could have better reasons to support it.” Otherwise, our students are in danger of believing and doing whatever is convenient or enjoyable in the moment rather than pursuing what is rational and right in the grand scheme of things. Self-knowledge is not the end; in education as in 12 Step Programs, it is a beginning: you have a problem, you are wrong, and there are clear reasons why.
Beyond Introspection: Know They Neighbor
The ultimate end of turning inward is turning outward and upward. In light of what I realize about myself, I have the potential to understand others more fully. Because of what I understand about my intellectual, psychological, and spiritual condition, I can more freely seek knowledge and wisdom, aware of my deep need for both. Let it be said of us what John the Evangelist said of Christ (2:25) – or, if you prefer, what the anonymous narrator said of the Shadow – that we know what is truly in the human heart. We can only have such knowledge of others, their motivations, aspirations, and desires, when we understand ourselves. Now that is a practical kind of knowledge.