Learning in a classroom setting does not leave room for self reflection

Agnes Cho

What have we learned recently? Chemistry, statistics, physics, history, calculus and psychology among other disciplines, we might reply. Naturally, we assume the context of this question is academic and answer it in reference to the subjects we have been studying most recently. However, is true learning, which implies a sense of discovery and active acquisition of our truths, interchangeable with the equally important yet very dissimilar accumulation of facts that are not our own? 

There is undeniably great value in education, and the questions above do not challenge this rightly accepted idea. However, is it possible that “higher learning” should encompass a much broader scope of knowledge, including the profound awareness of oneself as well as the extensive and intensive study of a particular field? Upon centralizing the prospect of learning about oneself and conceiving one’s own ideas, we must wonder what we discover and re-discover daily about ourselves. Amid the rigid routines in which we study our specified subjects, we forget that we ourselves are also subject to learn about.    

When Villanovans returned to campus after Christmas break and were asked how they enjoyed it, many of them responded claiming that they had finally gotten some long over-due alone time to reflect, to be alone with their thoughts without the distractions and noise of their surroundings. Even as I agreed with them, I was struck by the implications of this idea—that we are unable to fit much-needed introspection into our strictly scheduled, overcrowded quotidian lives.  

It is indisputably difficult to retreat into our own minds and try to become more deeply familiarized with ourselves when we first and foremost have a new concept we must be familiar with for a quiz later in the week. It is difficult to discover what we ourselves think when we are incessantly surrounded by other people’s louder thoughts; our academic missions and protocol in social situations predominantly consists of learning their ideas, their opinions, their logic— whomever they are, great thinkers or our family, friends, and teachers alike. While solely trying to understand what everyone else is thinking, however, we run the risk of silencing our own voices.

To compound this already daunting challenge of deepening our self-knowledge, routines govern our time, acting as the engines of our lives and allowing us to exist, being blind to ourselves and stunted in our reflective growth for an entire lifetime if we so choose. Routines enable us to go on for days upon months upon years, following the same constructed skeleton to shape a regimented use of time in which reflection or individual thought is unnecessary to “success”— if we just think within the structured template of the outside world, we’ll make money and be happy, right? Knowing ourselves, discovering what really makes us tick, unveiling a better part of our beings, gaining clarity into our identities— all that is just optional to a satisfying life, right? Or, is it not?

Routine can pose a threat to us if we let it become a license to resign from independent thought and internal growth. Living in only the outside world can cloud us with an unfocused myopia, rendering us excessively concerned with the details of our external world, unable to see the smaller equally important one within. 

Perhaps the solution is to reconcile the two forms of “higher learning” and extend one’s education into oneself—to understand fully what they think but also search for what you think. When we learn the ideas of the great thinkers in each subject, we must remember that those ideas do not have to be compartmentalized into the box of “school,” but rather, we must take what aids to self-discovery we can and apply it to ourselves.  Make it our own,  combine them with your own ideas or refute them entirely.

Perhaps we can also render routine a tool that we control. We can be more deliberate in designing our routines, so that opportunities for self-knowledge or expansion of one’s internal horizons can become part of the engine that drives us every day. Although this idea may be translated as counter-intuitively making our routines even more rigid with the scheduling of time for introspection, the ultimate goal of becoming familiar and synchronized with oneself can be achieved. 

The understandable lack of self-awareness and self-certainty among most college students is rooted in several sources. One involves the aspect of communication that is spoken about comparatively less frequently than external communication— that is, internal communication. We are told to be ourselves, and this is essential to a fulfilling experience at Villanova, as well as at any other point in life. However, how can we be ourselves when we do not know who are— when there is no regular communication delivered and received within ourselves, between our head and our heart, among opposing ideas in our mind, between possibilities and expectations? 

Communication strictly applied to our external environment does, indeed, encourage peaceful acknowledgement of thoughts among people in a group, but when there is only acquiescence or a collective conclusion reached solely through the influence of others’ thoughts, is there any original thought one can claim as one’s own? As invaluable as the general act of communicating thought with others is, thoughts that originate from internal communication are oftentimes much more appreciated and uniquely worthwhile when finally shared. 

With this idea, we can endeavor to be more thoughtfully independent when we surround ourselves with our friends, our teammates, our fraternity brothers and sorority sisters and our classmates and our families. We can be a group of individuals with individual thoughts—not a single unit of identically thinking constituents. 

So, though it may be a little late for New Year’s Resolutions, let’s embark on self-discovery by starting with this reflection: as we receive a higher education we can also become educated in ourselves. In addition to being dedicated to our majors of study, let’s also major in ourselves in the most self-aware, least self-absorbed sense of the concept. Then, when we share our reflective thoughts, they will count just as much to each other as the thoughts of those leading the academic subjects we study. After we learn the subject of Ourselves, let’s define it and share it, inviting others to study it with us. This will be the kind of “learning” that can allow Villanovans to become a truly close community.  After knowing ourselves and understanding the big thinkers, we will get to know each other—we will major in everyone we get to know at Villanova, including ourselves, as well as majoring in an academic discipline.