Introduction to Critical Thinking Through Intro to Psych

Author: Justin Nortey '19

Prof. Anré Venter, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology, teaches PSY10000, Introductory Psychology First Year, every semester. This course is a broad survey of the methods and findings that characterize scientific psychology, including historical and recent developments in learning and motivation; perceptual, cognitive, and physiological processes; social, personality, and child development; and abnormal behavior and clinical treatment.

With 15 years of experience teaching first-year students, he has valuable insight into how new undergraduate students should approach their education at Notre Dame.

Although PSY 10000 is a survey of the basic principles of psychology, Prof. Venter hopes the course will be relevant to his students many years in the future. “I’m not expecting kids to remember all of the psychological terms and principles they learn about in my class — I want to try and leave them something that will be with them 10 or 15 years down the road. [As an example] I got an email recently from a girl who was the valedictorian about five years ago — she was a psych major. She told me that she thinks every day about some of the things that she learned in my social psychology class. But, it wasn’t all of the definitions and principles that she remembered, it was about how what she learned applied to her life and how she could make sense of thinking about who she is.”

“So, what I want people to leave this class with is a grade and the information, but also with questions about who and what they are, what it means to be human and how to live a meaningful life,” he continues. “What is a good life? When I die what will I not want to regret, what will I want my life to have looked like? In the American education system we have a fetish with assessment. I think real education plants seeds that will bear fruit 10 years later.”

Does teaching first-year students differ from teaching upperclassmen? Venter says many of first-year students need to change their mental habits and embrace new ways of thinking about learning. “What is the purpose of education, why did you come to Notre Dame?” he asks. “For some kids it’s a credential to get a certain job. But, I think you should go to university to become a critical thinker, a critical consumer, to become a questioner, to ask why.”

“Part of what I do in Intro, part of how I behave, is I want to see if these kids can see through what I’m doing,” he explains. “They look at you they write down every word that comes out of your mouth, and they don’t think about it, they don’t question. Part of what I try to do is knock that tendency out of them.”

”You have to know that things aren’t always what they seem. You’ve got to learn how to think, how to listen, how to see abstract meaning and make sense of it. I think that I can create situations where students will be forced to do these kinds of things.”

“I do like teaching freshmen,” he adds, “A lot of them think I’m this scary person, but I like to see who can see through that.”

Professor Venter attributes his appreciation for critical thinking to his not fitting in as a child, and he believes that those who do not necessarily feel they fit in at Notre Dame might be the ones to get the most out of the experience. “I’ve always thought that the kids who get the most out of a Notre Dame education are the kids who don’t fit in. I never fit in. I was an Afrikaans kid in an English school, I was an English kid in an Afrikaans home. I’m not American, but I’m not South African,” he says.

“By not fitting in you become critical of yourself and of your environment,” he emphasizes. “Part of education is coming to terms with the fact that most things in life have both good and bad aspects to them, and I think those who don’t fit in with the larger general population develop the ability to understand this and avoid the concrete either-or judgments about people that seem to have become commonplace today.”

Venter also suggests that first-year students should deliberately cultivate a wide range of interests outside a chosen major or field and interact informally to pursue them. “I read a lot of Buddhist thinking and where I spend my time intellectually is in Buddhism and other philosophy. Not necessarily just eastern philosophy but just thinking in general. I’m very interested by quantum physics and how we don’t really know what reality is.”

“I do think that if you take only a psychological focus, or only a physics focus, or only a sociological focus, you get a very narrow view on what is means to be human and on what life is,” he explains. “So, I try to get as broad a lens as possible to look at those issues. I like reading and thinking and there are small groups of students where we read and talk about these sorts of things. That’s what I like doing.”