人間環境学部教員コラム vol.147

2014.05.08 現代コミュニケーション学科 デニス J.ノーラン

Why go to college?

One of the traditional goals of a college education has been to develop skills of critical thinking in students. Society has, and still does, expect this capability to be present in a college graduate as a sine qua non. While the expectation extends to graduates of all fields, it is highest among those that have gone through programs of a liberal arts nature since these programs focus specifically on nurturing these skills.


Hermes, the messenger of the gods
has given his name to Hermeneutics,
or critical text interpretation.

Critical thinking requires the successful interaction of intentionally cultivated mental habits and several skills. One of these mental habits is to give free range to a healthy curiosity. This surely is one of the principal wellsprings of all academic research. For curiosity to yield results, however, it needs direction, or otherwise it would end up as merely idle curiosity. As an element of the academic discipline college provides, course administrators initially orchestrate this direction. Lecture courses, for example, help define the content and limits of a field. Seminars allow students to channel curiosity into a perceptive understanding of one or more topics. In seminar courses, the teacher and fellow seminar students continually asking a student to account in a reasoned and objective way for his ideas, facilitate this process. Whatever the format of the class, college teachers are there to educe their students’ inner vision, guide it and keep it grounded in fact and logical consistency.






(by Sese Ingolstadt viaWikimedia Commons. 2007-02-16)

Another of the mental habits is a proclivity to think on your own and not just be the recipient of accepted opinion. This is difficult to do in this day since we are all constantly subjected to commercial advertisements that stoke needs for consumer products. These come at us in great numbers by way of billboards, train car advertisements, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, the films we see and so on. They work on us subconsciously and affect more than our immediate purchasing choices. They tell us that our role in life is to be consumers and that the purpose of life is to sate as many of the needs we are told we have. As this constant bombardment by commercials is done by corporations at the behest of corporations for the benefit of corporate interest, and as all the major media are corporate-owned or heavy influenced by the corporate agenda, the news and the interpretation of that news are all tailored to define and advance the corporate agenda. Of course, the corporate agenda is by no means identical or even supportive of that of an ordinary individual. Its purpose is merely to wring as much profit out of the market for the benefit of stockholders and company management. For a student to begin to see all the disinformation put out in the so-called public forum as the corporate-serving construct that it is requires that he or she question the information, the ideas being pushed and the presumptions that underlie those ideas as a matter of course. Challenging accepted opinion takes practice but ultimately it makes a person into an independent thinker.


The third mental habit is to be almost reflexively honest in acting on your own ideas in what you say, write and do. This is not advising students to get themselves in trouble. It means expressing and acting on ideas that are based on fact and logically consistent and are crafted in words and deeds that reach out in respect to others. In today’s world, many people live alone and even when they don’t their relationships are often less than emotionally sustaining. For a better world of mutual help and grassroots community building respect for others is as essential as being truthful in our dealings with these other people.


John Lavery “Lavery Maiss Auras” (1900)

Critical thinking requires the cultivation of the three habits I have mentioned, but it also requires the development of skills. Some of these relate to reading. Curiosity is a turn of mind most of us have, but when applied to reading in an academic program it entails an intentional program of reading widely in the chosen field of study, preferably among works by notable scholars in that field. There are several reasons why this is important: Frequently their work is better written and/or better edited than that of lesser known luminaries is the field. Reading well-crafted language is obviously good preparation for composing work of similar caliber. Additionally, these scholars are the leaders in their fields and a close reading of their work, the second reading-related skill being considered here, will turn up statements, ideas, or opinions that can, with the introduction of new or different material, be confirmed, taken exception to or denied. This is one of the better methods of finding a research topic on which a student can actually get a handle in the limited amount of time he has to develop a theme. The third skill that reading can assist in is to learn to think logically and cogently. Again, well-composed expository writing trains a student to appreciate the use of data, facts and scientific findings, the appropriate introduction of examples and analogous situations, and the citation of authoritative figures in the field in a logical frame that advances his or her argument.


If we aren’t going to let the fruit of critical thinking die on the vine, then it needs to find expression. In the academic world, this frequently is done in either a spoken or written form. Consequently, critical thinking often implies its effective expression in one or another of these two forms. College course work allows a great many opportunities for students to develop these skills. Many of their instructors will often be capable speakers and attendance at class will provide many chances to study their presentations. More active practice can be gained by asking questions and making related comments in the course of a class. Many teachers encourage students to be active in this way. The seminar class format presupposes students taking the lead in the administration of their own research. In courses like this, students are expected to make frequent spoken presentations and submit researched and logically argued papers. All of these activities help in honing a student’s communicative abilities in part because their fellow students and their instructor routinely critique them.


The importance of critical thinking today, however, goes well beyond the traditional evaluation that has been given it in academia. If we reflect only on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, global warming and the biological Russian roulette that has been introduced into the biosphere in the form of largely untested genetically modified plants, I think it would be hard to deny that the natural world we live in today has been highly compromised.


(Digital Globe“Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami” 2011-03-16) (NASA “Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index” 2013-01-31) (Rosalee Yagihara “March Against Monsanto Vancouver” 2013-05-25)


Add to this the overstressed economic and social systems around the world and it is obvious that most of us face the serious problem as to whether we as a species will be able to carry on a decent existence. If critical thinking is to be more than just an academic exercise, it must also be made to impact life, as we know it in this critical time. It must be wisely applied to the nuts and bolts of life as we presently experience it. It must become an actively engaged wisdom providing a conduit for insight that sharpens our faculties steering them on a course that will help resolve the anxieties that we face. Surely it would show us a different way of living, one not based on the fictive need of maximizing in isolation the consumption of consumer goods, but rather on maximizing values that are important for life.



デニス J.ノーラン(現代コミュニケーション学科)

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