Teaching the Mind Good Habits

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Smoking is a habit. Even the most hardened smoker had to take a first drag, sucking into the lungs a noxious cloud that scorched the unsuspecting alveoli and produced an uncontrollable cough. For many people, what began as a bizarre and exotic behavior becomes second nature, and they light cigarettes on rising in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee, relaxing at lunch, or unwinding after work.

Habits of mind aren't exactly the same, of course, but there are similarities. At some point in our lives, each part of the intellectual process demanded our full concentration. But once learned (or, more precisely, once mastered), our mental habits became so automatic that they faded from view.

It is that very point that spells trouble in the classroom. For the same aspects of cognition that ease our job as thinkers pose the greatest threat to our effectiveness as teachers. Our familiar mental habits, often overlooked or omitted when we describe our thinking processes to others, can create a gulf between us and our students.

For more than a decade, I have studied intellectual habits by asking scholars to read documents in my presence and to describe their thoughts as they do so. I have focused on historical texts because the ability to reconstruct the past from fragmented documents requires an expertise that intrigues me, as a cognitive psychologist. I search for clues that reveal how scholars see patterns among apparent contradictions that daunt less-skilled readers.

A typical research session goes something like this: I tell an Americanist that he will be reading documents on Abraham Lincoln and ask him about Lincoln's views on race. He cites lassic monographs like Winthrop D. Jordan's White Over Black and George M. Fredrickson's Black Image in the White Mind, articles by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Lerone Bennett, and newer works like Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic and Eric Foner's Story of American Freedom. Even historians with specialties distant from the topic -- Africanists who study the Portuguese rule in Mozambique, or medievalists who write about the Albigensian heresy -- have no trouble delivering mini-lectures, bringing to bear the expertise they do possess and drawing analogies to Lincoln and the American Civil War.

Despite the range of documents, periods, and topics represented in my research, nearly all the historians I've studied have approached the primary sources that I give them in the same way. They glance momentarily at the first few words at the top of the page, but then their eyes dart to the bottom, zooming in on the document's provenance: its author, the date and location of its creation, the time and distance separating it from the event it reports, and, if possible, how the document came into their hands. Then the historians mull over that information like a prospector examining a promising rock for ore. Is the document an un-self-conscious diary entry, or a text written to be read by others? Is the author someone noteworthy, or an ordinary person? Did the author write when the events were fresh in his or her mind, or so many years later that memories may no longer be reliable? The answers to questions like those create a framework upon which the historian's subsequent reading rests.

Few historians have found the pattern of looking first at the attribution worthy of comment when they describe to me how they approach a document. In fact, when I asked one prominent scholar of American industrialization about his initial focus on the document's provenance, he said, "Why would I mention that? Everyone does it."

For as long as I have been interviewing historians, I've also been presenting the same documents to high-school and college students. The students' readings follow a different path from the scholars', beginning with the first word at the top of the page and ending with the last word...
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