Thinking carefully about the Academy

The following entry is from Dr. Owen Anderson (Arizona State University), a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education. 

I am starting a series on the Academy. We need to assess the state of the Academy and the challenges it faces. This includes questions about its purpose and how it achieves that purpose. It can be easy to fall into platitudes.  These are nice sounding and wellmeaning phrases that do not actually provide any substantive meaning. They rely on positive terms that everyone would want to affirm. But it is precisely because of this that they do not communicate anything of substance. Some examples of terms you might hear in the Academy are critical thinking, human flourishing, the common good, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, curiosity, freedom. These are all wonderful terms. However, what do they mean? 

Let us start with critical thinking. I have had many students tell me they think this means negatively assessing an idea you don’t agree with. Or I have seen it used to mean something like exchanging the ideas a student entered the classroom with for other ideas, or even simply making the student aware of alternative ideas. These are not yet getting us to critical thinking 

Critical thinking involves the analysis of the structure of our thought. Becoming aware of the meaning of our beliefs and then analyzing the structure of these especially in terms of what our beliefs presuppose about reality. In doing this we are beginning to achieve two of the mottos of the Academy: “know thyself” and “lead the examined life.”  We come to know what we have unconsciously assumed and how these beliefs have shaped us.  

This is part of the work of the Academy: helping us grow in our understanding of the meaning of our beliefs and being able to identify our assumptions. It is once we have done this that we are then able to start thinking about the truth of these assumptions. Next time I want to talk about how this helps the student move through the phases of pre-skeptic to skeptic to post-skeptic.  For a longer discussion about the Academy you can find a talk of mine here: The Academy. 

Dr. Owen Anderson is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. In addition, Anderson is also a fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University and a visiting scholar at Princeton Seminary. We are pleased to have Dr. Anderson also serve as a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education.  


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