Friday, September 30, 2011

Aristotle Jones: Personal Archaeology for Teens

Every year, around this time, I assign a paper to my high school seniors. It is called "The Learning Experience." In the paper, the kids write about a change in their perspective on something in their lives. It can be anything. One student might write about the day he discovered he liked onions. Another might write about the day he realized his mom was a good mom, even though she was strict. Another might choose to write about a calling to the priesthood, for all I know.

It is an assignment that satisfies the need to expose the students, from a writing standpoint, to some important Aristotelian modes of rhetoric, namely: process analysis, narration and description. But, more importantly, it forces these young people to learn something about themselves -- another branch of old Aristotle's areas of interest.

It always surprises me how lost they look when I ask them to do this. It scares me, a little, year-to year. But, when it is all over, my conclusion is always the same: a) most people regard themselves as a bag of sand that just walks around doing stuff and b) with only the slightest prompt, these same people can learn dig in the sand and find important artifacts -- learn to do enough personal archaeology to step onto the path that leads away from "the unexamined life" that Aristotle, himself, warned against: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

My students just need a nudge, really. Once they get that, they realize that examining and drawing conclusions about their own lives is as easy as finding delicious grub in a freshly-stocked fridge.

I don't often get to see whether they keep up with this self-explorational thinking after the assignment is over -- after we cross into things like evaluative writing and Lincoln-Douglas debating. (Though I do sometimes get a glimpse of it in the students I keep in touch with after graduation, some of whom comment frequently on this site.)

What this means to me is that we need to keep moving in the direction that modern educational principles point to: encouraging higher-level skills in our kids, like analysis and creativity. Parents and teachers, with some little prompts, can, if they remain dedicated to the idea, actually create a generation of thinkers -- of people who (strange as it may seem) try to understand before they act -- to replace the hordes of preconception-following robots that generally run our planet.

Wouldn't that be lovely? And it really wouldn't be that hard. Just a nudge here and there.

Kids really want to learn. I keep seeing that. But the surest way to kill that urge is to log jam their synapses with low-level thinking and petty recall. Teach them to think, parents and teachers -- not what to think, but how to think -- and they will never stop.


  1. Mr. Matt,
    Beautiful, reminds me of the scene in "The Dead Poets Society," where the principal asks Keating "Free thinkers? at 17?" YES! that is exactly what we need. the best professors teach you about life, not only the subject you learn. I have had multiple English teachers help me in my studies in college as well as studying life itself. I'm not an English major. Does that matter? I have had a chemistry teacher teach how to think critically about life, not electrons. I'll be honest, many of the facts I learned from these teachers are buried in my brain somewhere, waiting to be useful again. But the general teaching about finding meaning, discovering the truth of what actions and words mean, being a positive mentor to people, and how to think critically about chemicals, coma, or even creativity have stuck with me.

    ...and it has made all the difference


  2. Well-put, Papi. I would revise one phrase: turn "finding meaning" into "making meaning." That can make all the difference, as well . . .