The Winchester Award

The nice young gentlemen at Psi Upsilon gave me their Teacher-Scholar award this year and have posted my remarks on their website:

The following remarks were delivered by the 2011 Caleb T. Winchester Award Winner, Professor Michael B. Nelson of Wesleyan’s

Government Department…

I want to begin by saying how truly honored I am to receive this award. Receiving an honor such as this from our students is especially meaningful and I think it is a great service that you do to the University by honoring us, encouraging us.

I was asked if I might make some remarks on the theme of critical thinking and leadership.  One of the first things that came to my mind was a quote that was on the wall of my 6th grade classroom, Mr. Farrar’s Classroom. It said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” That quote has stuck with me ever since. However, I couldn’t remember who it was attributed to for a long time. But at some point in graduate school, when Google was finally around, I looked it up and found the source: Plutarch. In particular, the quote is from Plutarch’s Moralia.

This is a lesson on “How to listen to lectures.” He describes a range of students that one might encounter: the over-enthusiastic student who is a nuisance, the contemptuous student, the unappreciative, the over-confident, and—finally—the “lazy”.  Plutarch must have had a lot of very bothersome students—not at all like I’ve had here at Wesleyan!  Let me read to you what he had to say:

“But after those lazy persons whom we have mentioned, let us urge them that, when their intelligence has comprehended the main points, they put the rest together by their own efforts, and use their memory as a guide in thinking for themselves, and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it. For the mind does not require filling like a bottle,”

At this point in reading the passage I realized that my quote on the wall was really a general paraphrase of a much longer passage. The “mind is not a vessel to be filled”, so…

“…the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling…”Or, a fire to be lit!

“… to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.”

This more than anything else animates my scholarship and teaching.

As a scholar, my goal is not merely to collect and organize the information in my fields — though those are often useful tasks. But instead to find ways to search out the conventional wisdom on a subject and test it, and if there is no clarified wisdom yet on a subject to create it.

As a teacher, my goal is not to fill my students’ heads with knowledge, but to get them to apply it an analyze it. That is why in every class I teach, even my international law course which may sometimes feel to my students as an information-shoveling exercise, I include a research project.

The skills of my discipline—how to find information, how to analyze information, how to communicate your analysis—these are skills that one can use throughout their lives. I often tell my colleagues that while the substance of what we teach—African politics and international relations in my case — are undoubtedly important, very few of our students will go into fields where that information is critical and in today’s world much of that information is readily discoverable. But they will need the skills that we can impart. For these are skills that don’t just apply to writing a research paper, but to a whole range of post-college activities from writing grant proposals and legal briefs to developing business plans and conducting policy reviews to voting and participating in public institutions..

There is a link to leadership here as well. Plutarch’s essay is embedded in his volume Moralia. These are his moral teachings and he is addressing them to a young individual who will likely become a leader in Roman society. Moral action may indeed be linked to our ability to think critically. The Milgram experiments are a famous series of experiments conducted in the 1960s.  Subjects were placed in a room and told to answer a series of questions. If they got the questions wrong an individual in a separate room was to receive an electric shock (but not really).  The question here was whether subjects would continue behaviors that they believed harmed another individual just because they were told to do so.

The people telling them to continue with answering the questions looked and seemed authoritative, given the laboratory setting. And, indeed, most of the subjects allowed for the shock treatments to go on for some time. But some did not. Some questioned the experiment and ended their participation. Indeed, had all the participants thought critically, they may have realized that theydid have a choice. They did not have to just follow orders.

To be a strong leader requires that one be able to make good independent judgments. Good judgment, in turn, rests on the ability to think critically. I am told that many of you are likely to become leaders in our world. So I truly hope all of you apply the skills we impart, to take the information that we have been feeding you in the classroom and let it burn.


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