Developing Critical Thinking and Analysis through Seminal Readings at ALA

Each term at ALA, students, faculty and staff immerse themselves in a week-long exercise of studying and discussing carefully chosen texts, all reflecting the Academy’s founding beliefs and values: Seminal Readings.  Over the course of the week, students cover six sets of readings, meeting in groups to analyze, discuss, and debate each set. The readings completed this term focused on “Ending prejudice” for first year students, and “Creating a good society” for second year students.

Developing Critical Thinking and Analysis through Seminal Readings at ALA

This week is a unique piece of the ALA curriculum, enabling students to develop their critical thinking skills by formulating questions, and evaluating diverse arguments and perspectives. The readings stimulate thoughtful analysis, deep conversation, and transformative thinking. In the second year readings, the texts sought to outline instances of prejudice in human society, and offer insights into the way these are shaped, with an end goal of understanding what actions need to be taken to end prejudice.

One of the most important aspects of the Seminal Readings is the reminder of the deep sense of community thriving within the ALA network. This sentiment is perfectly echoed by Dean Hatim Eltayeb, “At its best, Seminal Readings – more than any other element of our curriculum – ties our community together across cohorts. Two ALA graduates, many years apart, can still encounter each other as “classmates” because they’ve walked many of the same paths in their readings.”

The Seminal Readings set the focus for the community in a way that is unique. For the most part, the texts by design have been kept the same since the inception of ALA. These include classic texts such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Stanley Milgram’s The Perils of Obedience for first-year students and C.S Lewis’s The Inner Ring and Julius Nyerere’s Education for Self-Reliance for second-year students. These carefully chosen pieces enable students to have dynamic conversations around complicated texts.

Developing Critical Thinking and Analysis through Seminal Readings at ALA

Additionally, this moment of intentional community is created by imploring the same complex themes that tie the texts together throughout the week. In discussing The Perils of Obedience, a piece that describes a study completed by Stanley Milgram, testing the conflict between one’s conscience and authority, faculty members Ms. Pelumi Botti and Mr. Tatenda Murisa initiated the discussion by instructing the students to complete various seemingly arbitrary acts including writing their name on a piece of paper multiple times, ripping said paper into tiny pieces, placing their ripped shreds of paper on their chairs, and lastly balancing on top of their swivel chairs. Unknowingly, the students had participated in an exercise that mimics precisely what the individuals encountered in Stanley’s experiment. All of the students listened and complied with the instructions diligently, which forced them to further consider the complexity of general obedience and their conditioned obedience before they delved into the physical text itself. 

Imani Cherubala, a first year student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, believed this exercise shifted her perspective entirely, “After reading the text my initial response was the following: ‘I would never hurt someone else just because someone of authority told me to do so. This behavior is completely inhumane’. However, this exercise provided a moment of self-reflection and the time to take a good look at myself in the mirror before our discussion. I realized that I am more inclined to do the things I am told to do even when I don’t agree with them especially when the demand comes from a person of authority. I immediately started to question myself and this shifted my perspective on the participants who did not question the authoritative figures in the study. Would I have really reacted differently to the majority of the participants in the study? It was interesting to see in a different context, one that felt as though it were completely natural. I now feel as though I probably would have followed instructions and been obedient without questioning authority because in this exercise I realized I had obeyed every instruction given by Ms. Pelumi.”

Developing Critical Thinking and Analysis through Seminal Readings at ALA

Contemplating and discussing the Seminal Readings consistently allows for the staffulty to build on and sharpen their facilitation skills while allowing the creative space for students to have a formative connection to both their ALA peers and alumni. The model of the Socratic method used and frame student-centered learning in Seminal Readings enables the ALA community to engage in communal dialogue on globally important issues and reflect on personal and shared values before they restart their classes.

Do you know a critical thinker who enjoys reading and engaging with challenging texts, nominate them for the ALA two-year Diploma programme.

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