'Deep Learning'

08/29/14

Higher purpose leads to deeper learning, students told

BLUFFTON, Ohio—A Northwestern University undergraduate first got Dr. Ken Bain’s attention because he hadn’t read a book assigned by Bain for a history course.

But given a second chance by the instructor, the student went well beyond simply finishing an assignment. He “developed a deep commitment, and out of that commitment came his devotion to deep learning,” said Bain, who cited the story in his 2012 book, “What the Best College Students Do.”

The educator and author retold it in his Aug. 28 address to Bluffton University students, faculty and staff during the university’s annual opening convocation.

“What the Best College Students Do” was this year’s summer reading for first-year Bluffton students, more than 240 of whom—also including transfer students—were introduced following Bain’s presentation. The reading and the convocation kicked off campus consideration of Bluffton’s 2014-15 civic engagement theme, “Education Matters! Learning for Life, Vocation and Responsible Citizenship.”

The Northwestern student’s commitment was to justice, which began taking shape after he read the book assigned by Bain, “The Massacre at El Mozote.” Journalist Mark Danner’s 1994 book recounts the mass killing of hundreds of villagers in December 1981 by U.S.-trained Salvadoran army troops in an anti-guerrilla campaign during El Salvador’s civil war.

For a follow-up assignment, Bain recalled, the student wanted to write a play, but said he would need additional time to do the research and writing. He said he needed to go to El Salvador to find a woman who was among the only survivors of the massacre, and to get the findings of an Argentine forensics team that investigated it in the early 1990s.

The following summer, he did just that. After coming back, he not only wrote the play, but also enlisted other students as crew members, put them through a three-week seminar and staged the play, which had a two-week, sold-out run on the Northwestern campus, Bain said.

But the student’s work in El Salvador wasn’t finished, continued Bain, now president of the Best Teachers Institute. Returning to the Central American nation the next summer, he talked to another woman who had escaped civil-war crossfire years before. Only when she stopped to catch her breath, however, did she realize that the young son strapped to her back had been shot in the head.

Following that trip, Bain related, the student said he wanted “to bring more justice to the world.” Graduating from Northwestern with honors, he went on to earn a master’s degree in Latin American studies and a law degree from the University of Arizona, and became a public defender in Pima County, Ariz. And he credited his journey to his commitment to having received the second chance and reading “The Massacre at El Mozote,” his former professor added.

Research has indicated that people are more likely to take a more in-depth approach to learning when they’re trying to answer questions they’ve come to regard as important, he noted. That was true with his Northwestern student, and with Emma Murphy, whose experience at the University of Virginia he noted as well.

The instructor of a Russian literature class arranged for Murphy and her classmates to go into a juvenile correctional facility and talk with the boys there about Tolstoy’s short stories, which address such issues as individual commitment to higher goals and the purpose of life, Bain explained. Those were topics that many of the incarcerated boys had never discussed with anyone, making for a “transformative experience” both for them and the college students, he said.

“There’s a connection between having a commitment to something bigger than you and the learning you will do in your life,” he told the Bluffton students.    

“What the Best College Students Do” was Bain’s follow-up to “What the Best College Teachers Do,” which was the subject of an award-winning TV documentary series in 2007.

In addition to Northwestern, he spent much of his teaching career at Vanderbilt and New York universities. He was founding director of teaching and learning centers at each of the three, and at Montclair (N.J.) State University. The former history professor has written three books on the history of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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