People who are not thinking are capable of anything: What are students learning, how are students learning it, and does it make them better people

Presented by: Elizabeth Minnich

Room: Peer Gynt – Level 2

Time: Thursday, 08:30-9:25


The work that has deeply engaged me for decades springs from questions about the relations among knowledge, thinking, and moral political responsibility. More particularly, I have been haunted by this question: Why have there been so many evident, even egregious, failures of moral political principle and/or judgment among well-educated people? Rather a large tangle, that: I certainly make no claim to have sorted it all out, but focusing on what and how students are learning with us in the specific ways I have has led to some reflections and suggestions about which I hope you will think with me.

Is the way to bring knowledge and moral concerns into fruitful relation to teach one particular moral code, religion, philosophical system’s principles? Or: If moral political neutrality, objectivity, or, perhaps, an entirely non-judgmental pluralism are the positions we should take as educators and researchers of student learning, what do we do with our concerns about injustice, inequality, prejudice? Are such concerns proper when we consider how to create a learning community, or how we are teaching and students are learning, but improper with regard to the what, to knowledge? Ought student learning to be thus compartmentalized?

In this talk, I will make a case for the view that moral political concerns are entirely appropriate and indeed intrinsically necessary to higher education specifically with regard to its intellectual claims and standards. That case reflects the journey of my work, beginning with a focus on transforming knowledge to include – not just add on – study of society-wide injustices, and landing most recently on study of how the perpetrators of “extensive evils” (e.g. genocide, racisms) think – or fail to.

If the case succeeds, moving from consideration of the knowledge students learn to a focus on the importance of thinking, we arrive at further questions that implicate us and are suggestive for our teaching and on the lines of inquiry we pursue as SoTL researchers: Should, and how might, we make the restless, troublemaking activity of thinking the heart of all education? How do students learn an ability, a practice, an art that is the very wellspring of human freedom? How might we engage purposefully with all learners such that conscience can arise, and thinking what we are doing becomes second nature?

My earlier questions have brought me, then, to this: How do we learn and teach thinking independently and always also with many diverse others so that those who are educated – as many of us as humanly possible – are simply disinclined to take seriously, let alone give their minds, their consciences, their work, their power to anyone or anything that requires them not to think?


Elizabeth Minnich is an educator and philosopher who works at the intersection of moral, educational, and political issues. Her first book, Transforming Knowledge, won the annual Frederick W. Ness Award for best book in liberal education. She has published on teaching thinking in Change magazine; spoken and consulted widely on inclusive education; and has held the Alexander Chair for Public Philosophy at Scripps College, and the Whichard Ditinguished Professorship of Humanities and Women’s Studies at Eastern Carolina University, among other faculty and administrative positions. Most recently, she has published The Evil of Banality: On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking, a book given the rating of “essential” in Choice, the journal of the American Library Association.

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