Carleton College welcomed back Louis E. Newman on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 28, 2023 to discuss his recent publication, “Thinking Critically in College: The Essential Handbook for Student Success.”
In his opening remarks, Newman reflected how, after teaching at Carleton for 33 years, it “feels like I’m coming home.” Describing Carleton as “a place I love,” Newman attributed the findings of his book as “deeply connected to time I spent at Carleton.” He drew from his decades in higher education as a professor at Carleton College and Dean of Academic Advising and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford in crafting this book.
Newman was an accomplished teacher and mentor at Carleton from 1983 to 2016. Throughout his time at Carleton, Newman occupied numerous leadership roles, from two terms as chair of the Religion Department to chair of the Academic Standing Committee to, most recently, from 2010 to 2013, Director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching.
Not only is he thoroughly knowledgeable in the practice of teaching, Newman brings a perspective of professional leadership to his work as well. He was the first president of the Society of Jewish Ethics, an organization he helped found, and serves on the International Council of the New Israel Fund. He served as president of the Board of Directors of the St. Paul Talmud Torah from 1994 to 1996, and was president of the board of Beth Jacob Congregation (Conservative) from 2009 to 2011.
Presently, he works as a scholar of Jewish ethics, education consultant and ethics coach building on over 35 years of thinking, teaching and writing about Jewish ideas as one of the country’s leading scholars of Jewish ethics.
“Thinking Critically in College” is the product of many years as an educator and an author. Newman’s previous work includes “Repentance: the Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah” (Jewish Lights 2010), “Past Imperatives: Studies in the History and Theory of Jewish Ethics” (SUNY Press, 1998) and “An Introduction to Jewish Ethics” (Prentice Hall, 2005). He has also co-edited, with Elliot Dorff, two anthologies, “Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality” (Oxford University Press, 1995) and “Contemporary Jewish Theology” (Oxford University Press, 1999). He is co-editor (with Elliot Dorff) of three volumes in the “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices” series (Jewish Publication Society, 2008/09) that address contemporary moral issues from a range of Jewish perspectives. “Thinking Critically in College,” however, is his first work speaking directly to students. As Newman succinctly put it: “I wrote the book for students and to students.”
The discussion of this book was formatted as a book panel coordinated by the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching, featuring panelists Melissa Eblen-Zayas, professor of physics; Deborah Appleman, Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies; and Arthur Koenig ‘25, LTC Student Fellow.
This panel launched with some background information from the author himself. Newman shared the origins of “Thinking Critically in College,” crediting a conversation he had with a senior religion major here at Carleton as his inspiration. In this conversation, he supplied feedback on a research project, encouraging the student to pinpoint the questions the author is trying to answer. To his surprise, the student responded, “Why has no one ever told me this before?” Newman noted how shocked he was that such a capable and smart student could miss something he found essential to a college education, and, in that moment, realized the need for something to hand to all students that explains how to think like a college student. A broader phenomenon Newman wanted to address was the common occurrence of the college student entering a new discipline who “just walks in and expects the teacher to start talking.”
In this book, Newman aims to answer the question, “what are the critical thinking skills college students need?” In shaping his answer, Newman gathered information from his own experience, conversations with fellow faculty and interactions with students. From this body of observations, Newman worked inductively to craft the general principles in his book. These principles highlight four necessary skills for anyone to think critically: the ability to explore context, balance alternatives, weigh evidence and understand the implications.
Following this brief introduction from the author, the panelists then shared their thoughts, beginning with Eblen-Zayas. Her main takeaways from the book centered around the idea of “transferable skills.” The term “transferable skills” refers to the way in which one engages with course material rather than the course material itself—the act of learning, rather than what one is learning.
Building on the idea introduced by Newman that learning today is “all about the questions, not the answers anymore,” Eblen-Zayas stressed the importance of learning the skill of “question-asking.” Furthermore, Eblen-Zayas shared how students think what is important are answers, but that she’s “not interested in [students’] ability to get the right answers.” Rather, she encouraged students to “observe how your professors think.” Highlighting this transition to a “how do we ask questions” mindset, Eblen-Zayas touched on the strengths of the graduation requirements, noting how different disciplines are uniquely positioned to help students gain universal skills relevant to whichever major they go on to pursue.
Appleman, the following panelist, commented on the important timing of this book in response to the “devastating effect of the pandemic on learning.” Appleman noted that students today are “out of practice of being with each other” and points to “Thinking Critically in College” as a solution to that: “This book makes explicit the things we took for granted and shouldn’t have.”
Koenig then brought a student perspective to the panel, reflecting on his recent transition from high school to college learning. Speaking to the freshman experience, Koenig shared, “Students when they show up are unclear what they’ve signed up for and what they’re doing here.” In trying to provide support during this transitional time, Carleton hosts activities such as New Student Week, but Koenig remarked that the introduction is “mainly social.” While beneficial, such an introduction lacks what this book has: an intellectual guide to gaining the college mindset necessary to succeed at this level, teaching readers the “art of mulling over information and taking things slowly.”
In closing, Newman underscored that learning is a lifelong process, stating “your education is about a lot more than just what job you get when you get out of here.” In “Thinking Critically in College,” Newman provides a defense of a liberal arts education, advocating that the most important thing in college is learning how to think: “To think critically is the number one thing that will undoubtedly serve you well.”
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