The Seminars


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The Seminars on Critical Thinking in the 21st Century

Education Institutions today must acknowledge the historical contexts which alter and define their projects. The quality and character of student learning will increasingly depend upon whether or not we are clearly preparing students for the world that they will inhabit during the remaining years of this century. It is our expereince that many of the institutions, and the faculty upon which they depend, that we are familiar with in the United States and in Europe, are not doing that. Instead, they seem to be preparing students for an idealized version of education from the last half of the 20th century, with classrooms that still resemble chapels, where the professor is 'priest,' and with a pedagogy that is informed by monologue, methodological nationalism, and a general lack of awareness of the rapidly changing social and physical worlds that we humans inhabit.


Given the intellectual challenges we see in the 21st century, higher education institutions should take up the project of structuring educational offerings so that they overcome the increase in institutionalized ignorance and ground students' abstract and theoretical knowledge of the world in concrete events rather than the simulacra of the virtual world. Today "critical thinking" is often used to signify the ability to "problem solve." We would argue, however, that it is essential to cultivate the ability to problematize. Whereas problem solving suggests working within the confines of existing structural realities to reduce difficulty or 'make progress', problematizing suggests the ability to reflect upon those realities and question our complicity with them. Failing to equip students to locate and deconstruct assumptions and ideologies that underpin the functioning of the social worlds they exist in is a failure to develop critical thinkers who are able to address the political problems and changes that will define their lives.

A Social World

Life at seminar is arranged to create a distinct social world of the kind that is often undermined by digital connectivity and the forces of consumerism. We take our lunches and dinners together, and students live in a connected set of apartments. This creates a space conducive to deep reading and reflection, but also to the shared elements of intellectual inquiry. Often the most important discussions will extend into informal activities outside of the classroom, or over meals and afternoon cups of coffee. Students frequently find that they come away from seminars with a strong sense of being part of an ongoing intellectual community which shares in their interests and concerns - even if those relationships are cultivated through healthy debate and disagreement. For more about seminar life, visit our venues pages.

“"Despite the central role technology plays in my life and work, I felt as though I had been given permission to

disconnect; it came as a relief.

I was able to reconnect my

experience of life to the

intellectual and academic

process, and I was focused in a way I haven't been for a long time.


…For me, disconnecting

was reconnecting.”


- seminar participant 2012

The seminars, thus, are rooted in an intentional pedagogical approach.


  • Reading. Throughout each three-week seminar we read between 6-7 books, assigning roughly 100 -110 pages per day. Participants should use their time at the seminar to intensely engage their reading mind, and explore both the challenges and discoveries they encounter in that process.


  • Dialogue. Three-hour daily seminar sessions take place in round table discussion. Faculty members and students are both considered participants, and students are expected to take the lead in discussions based upon the reading material. The hope is not to internalize and memorize a set of assumptions, but together to freely ask questions, and to build and critique schemas through which one might make sense of problems. 'Assessment' is eschewed in favor of the active process of co-research and co-discovery accomplished through the dialogue. Participants are encouraged to use their time with each other to connect their readings to analyses that are meaningful for them.


  • Interdisciplinarity. Our students and faculty come from a broad variety of academic backgrounds (from political science, philosophy, and geography to mathematics and physics) as well as from activist and professional communities. But we know that interdisciplinarity is difficult. The exploration of common texts aids in establishing a common vocabulary in the seminars that allow us to o collectively apply our different forms of knowledge to the subject matter at hand.


  • Disconnection. It is a key element of our pedagogy that students disconnect from all digital technologies during the three-week period of the seminars. Smart phones, computers, and any other device with a screen which emulates the digital stimulation and connectivity we experience on an ongoing basis in our daily lives should be put aside. Participants are welcome to check emails and complete necessary online tasks during a 2 hour period each Saturday - though many participants, given the sense of freedom disconnecting engenders, choose not to do even this when possible!

"In a world in which no one can anticipate the kind of expertise that may be needed tomorrow...Preparing for life' - that perennial, invariable task of all education - must mean first and foremost cultivating the ability to live daily and at peace with uncertainty and ambivalence, with a variety of standpoints and the absence of unerring and trustworthy authorities; must mean instilling tolerance of difference and the will to respect the right to be different;


[it] must mean fortifying critical and self-critical faculties and the courage needed to assume responsibility for one's choices and their consequences; must mean training the capacity for 'changing the frames' and for resisting the temptation to escape from freedom, with the anxiety of indecision it brings alongside the joys of the new and unexplored.


-Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (2001, p. 138)

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