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Critical Thinking in the Classroom—and Beyond

This fall’s HNRS 2000: Why War? course teaches Ogden Honors College students to think analytically

August 2014 marked the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War—and the introduction of a new course at the LSU Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College. This course, titled HNRS 2000: Why War?, has explored both the causes of World War I, and the effects other wars have had on societies throughout history. In the process, students enrolled in the course have learned to think critically and analytically—skills the HNRS 2000 rubric was created to impart.

Associate Dean Ann Holmes explained some of the reasoning that went into choosing WWI as the course topic. “We thought, it’s a hundred years since the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and our students probably don’t have any notion of how devastating and destructive that conflict was. It really set the stage for the 20th century on so many levels. So we wanted our students to have some knowledge of that war.”

“The questions that emerge,” Dr. Holmes continued, “are: how could the countries of Europe fall into this war that destroyed their civilization? How could they then become involved in an even more destructive war two decades later? Why do humans continue to fight one another in devastating conflicts all over the world?”

The HNRS 2000 course is designed to use its topic as a platform from which students can explore a wide variety of perspectives, and then learn to analyze those perspectives. Its topic is always interdisciplinary; past topics have included “Disaster and Disease,” in which students studied the human response to crises throughout history, and “The Individual and the Community,” which centered on social issues and their associated ethical debates. The idea is to attract faculty from an array of disciplines, expose Honors students to new modes of thinking, and encourage spirited in-class discussion and debate.

In the case of Why War?, “the seriousness of the subject matter requires critical analysis,” noted Assistant Professor of History Dr. Gibril Cole, who taught a section of HNRS 2000 this fall. “The postcolonial world is essentially invisible to students until they get to college. World War I was a world war, not a European war, and this is what I wanted them to realize. Comparing how various societies have reacted to war, and to challenging environments—this broadens students’ horizons.”

Each section of HNRS 2000 is a discussion-based seminar class capped at twenty students, with one day of class each week reserved for a group lecture by one of the section instructors. “It’s been the smallest class I had this semester,” said one student. “Most of my other classes have been very large, so it’s been nice to get a feel for a smaller class—we get much more freedom to interact with each other, and our professor.” Lectures covered a wide variety of WWI-related topics, from the war in Africa to art, from poetry to PTSD. Course readings spanned historical and literary accounts of wars from ancient history to the 21st century and included The Iliad, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, and Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. Students then dissected the history, issues, and narratives of these lectures and texts with their classmates and professors, and attempted to answer the central question of why, exactly, we go to war.

“I learned how to read with an analytical eye, instead of just reading on the surface,” agreed another student. “I never would have connected the Trojan War with modern-day American wars before this class. Now it seems silly not to make those connections.”

HNRS 2000 instructor Dr. Drew Lamonica Arms explained one of the benefits of this collaborative exploration: “I certainly hope that the students leave the course with an appreciation for the tragedy of WWI,” she said, “in hopes that their generation can work to avoid repeating such tragedy.”

“No matter what your major, no matter what you go in to, you have to think about the world you live in,” Dr. Holmes said. “You’re going to be voting, and if there’s a contentious issue, I want you to be able to read, and think, and weigh both sides, and make a decision. That’s what critical thinking is. It’s not just some abstract, lofty ideal. It’s looking at a question from different perspectives, gathering evidence, then making a decision—and that’s what research is, too.”

As an important keystone of the Ogden Honors College mission to involve students in undergraduate research, the capstone assignment of the HNRS 2000 course remains a research paper. 

“I think our students come to LSU for a variety of reasons, but one of them is because it is a research university, and they want to do research with scholars,” said Professor of English and HNRS 2000 instructor Dr. Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. “And to encourage critical thinking we have to expose them to nontraditional research databases and primary sources.”

“The research papers I was used to writing consisted of me gathering materials and spitting out a summary,” said an HNRS 2000 student. “This research paper was nothing like that. It was an investigation and analysis of primary materials, then relating that plethora of information back to a big-picture idea. It was definitely hard, and stressful at times, but also exciting." 

Students also debated Thank You For Your Service, a non-fiction account of the lives of US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel. Thank You for Your Service was the Honors College 2014 Summer Shared Read—all incoming Honors freshmen were required to read the book—and Finkel delivered the address at Honors Convocation in September.

“This was the first book I’ve ever really read that had anything to do with a modern war,” said an HNRS 2000 student. “It didn’t just give facts—it showed readers a look into the lives of modern-day soldiers and how war affects not only the soldiers but their families as well. “

“It was a great way to introduce the semester,” said another HNRS 2000 student. “The opportunity to meet with David Finkel was a unique privilege—and an intellectual motivation for us to engage with the ideas and issues in the text.”

Throughout the fall semester, the Ogden Honors College also provided students with a number of outside-of-the-classroom opportunities to engage with the challenges explored in Thank You for Your Service and HNRS 2000. The college hosted a number of informal faculty talks on related topics, including WWI and ISIS propaganda, and the Belle Époque in France. In October the college hosted a discussion panel with Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans currently enrolled as students at LSU.  

“Instead of hearing only [about] the politics and semantics of war, we got to hear first-hand from people who put their lives on the line for their country,” Ogden Honors College student Abby Jennings remarked of the panel. “It added an entirely new shade of perspective on everything we had discussed prior.”

Over the week of Veterans Day, Honors College students and staff conducted a fundraiser for Hope for the Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides services and support to post-9/11 veterans and their families. Volunteers sold camouflage Hope for the Warriors wristbands at locations around campus, and raised more than $1600 for the organization.

Instructors noted the high level of students’ enthusiasm, dedication, and interest in the course topic throughout the semester. “I was very pleased with their willingness to critically engage,” said Dr. Bridwell-Bowles. “Their discussions of and responses to art, pacifism, socialism, feminism, the suffrage movement, were all very open and interrogating.”

Ogden Honors College freshman Alex Cloutet took HNRS 2000 this fall and noted that the coversational nature of this seminar is what makes the class so worthwhile. “There is something much more candid and real about the way we examine topics,” she said. “The accepting and positive environment is definitely conducive to incredibly rewarding discussions.”

Dr. Bridwell-Bowles noted that in-class discussions repeatedly came back to certain questions. “We talked about war’s impact on the human individual, rather than on national interests. They questioned whether war is inevitable—hardwired in the human condition. Students in the sciences may go on to investigate that. Ultimately,” she concluded, “they wanted to know: what does it mean to be human?” 


Story by Anna Kalmbach & Liz Billet, Ogden Honors College