To think or not to think

PHOTO: Joe Hunt, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

For all its horrors, the pandemic allowed many Americans to finally experience what teachers do for a living. It’s certainly useful for parents to know that teachers aren’t just babysitters. Rather, the work teachers do at all levels remains complex and important. 

However, the pandemic has also taught us where modern society falls short when it comes to education. Namely, we struggle to teach thinking. That starts with our youngest children and continues all the way to college and adult learning. The pandemic has only intensified this shortcoming. 

Phone apps encourage us to make mindless, unimportant choices, to accept what we’re shown, and to react within a limited emotional palette. Even educational apps like the ones kids use at school often allow kids to simply poke buttons to find the answer without ever really knowing why it’s right. 

For instance, I play a solitaire game on my phone and it’s remarkably difficult to avoid using the “hint” button on the bottom of the screen. Online news and information leads us down rabbit holes we do not choose, suggestions that serve some unknown, often unhealthy agenda.

As a community college instructor I do my best to prepare an effective online learning environment. I’ve been teaching online since long before COVID-19. Still, even online, students do the most thinking when I’m communicating with them directly, or when they’re talking to each other. Those experiences allow students to later think and create in their own private space.

“Thinking” is the subject of a recent book by Scott Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education” (Princeton University Press, 2019). Newstok, who grew up in Duluth, now teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He and his family spend part of the year in northern Minnesota.

Newstok’s central idea is that the great renaissance poet and playwright William Shakespeare didn’t just churn out genius works in isolation, but rather as the product of expansive thinking. Thinking that he learned.

The brainwork of a classical education isn’t just rote repetition and memorization. It’s the exposure to ages of human works and questions that fire the mind. And Newstok thinks it’s gotten a bum rap in the highly politicized and standardized conception of the liberal arts today. 

My (mostly) conservative friends share posts from the television host Mike Rowe about how we need to push the trades as a more suitable career for kids. But I don’t think Rowe, who is a thoughtful writer, would regard skilled trades as mutually exclusive with the arts and humanities. Even if he did, his training and background as a professional opera singer would belie the fact. It takes more than a job to make a person. And critical thinking benefits all of us, no matter our vocation.

In fact, Newstok argues that original translation from ancient Greek points us to the real meaning of “liberal arts.” Liberal means free. Arts means craft. The free practice of a craft — whether it’s in art, design, or building — combined with the ability to think, springs from a truly good education. There is no need to create an “us vs. them” narrative on matters like this. 

At one point in the book Newstok describes the reaction of a poet who asked his students if they’ve ever heard of the Roman poet Ovid. They hadn’t. “You’ve been cheated,” was the poet’s reply. In other words, our efforts to streamline and modernize education have also disconnected students from great ideas and important works.

Here I must admit that Ovid is best known to me as a crossword puzzle clue. When I reached for my phone to look him up, I was waylaid by a song stuck in my head. I present to you the lyrics of “Purple Hat” by Sofi Tukker:

Purple hat, cheetah print
Dancing on the people, rolled up at the after joint
Dancing dancing on the people
People dancing on the people, I got people on the people
People dancing on the people
With the people on the people 

The second and third verses are much the same. Maybe Ovid just needs a killer hook?

I kid, but not about the modern challenges that work against critical thought. We live in a world of distractions. As the din grows louder we seek simplicity, even if it only provides false comfort. It doesn’t mean people are dumb, an oft-repeated claim. It only means we’re not using all of our minds to become all we can be. That sells our children short and our society, too. 

The world hungers for solutions to problems, for beauty, and for human connection. Starving our minds will not feed any of these needs.

In a world that seems devoid of frontier “How to Think Like Shakespeare” reminds us that undiscovered country lies within our own borders, and even inside our own skulls. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Excellent…remind me if you could please about community college curriculum these days ? When I graduate or matriculated or whatever it was from Hibbing Jr College which at the time was a wing in the high school building, my first years there were earning or attempting to earn general education credits. Are those beginning two years not about general education anymore or has that definition changed ? Have the liberal arts requirements in those years been diminished ? Before I distract even myself I guess what I am saying is that those years should be entirely taught “through the eyes” of liberal arts. But to do so society then would need to fold in more support for the learners in those years. Or all study years for that matter. I am all for that. Let the trade track begin later.

  2. I spent too long scoring standardized tests for a Doofenshmirtz multi national. One test asked the children to compare and contrast Kennedy vs Obama. They had the prompts, and everything, obviously. One child wrote an entire essay about these two characters named “Brock” and “Kenny”.

    Baby boomers in my vicinity seemed not amused. “The student didn’t properly read the prompts,” they claimed. “The student is less than average,” they argued. I almost acquiesced until I saw it. I read the essay again in a SoCal accent. Now it was funny, and revealed a better than common understanding of the material. Plus, the child constructed a whole comedy scenario around the prompts.

    We may have problems. We had to adjust. Millennial people were raised with American Exceptionalism. The Zoomers have no dissonance. They were never promised middle class lifestyles for their student loans, or health insurance, or fairness. The entire city is on fire? “Let’s order pizza!” Cops shoot at people again? “Let’s change it”

    The children already grew up in a multi cultural society within a global economy. Not new to them. They have no adjustments to make. Young students are already at the point where many Millennial and older had to learn to reach.

    Are we fine? Probably not many. The children, though, are all good . . .

  3. Dorothy Wells says

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