3. The Fundamentals for Studying a Liberal Arts Subject, with the History of Mexico as an Example


The study of any liberal arts subject in the humanities and social sciences has fundamental concepts, rules, and practices just like any other activity at which individuals and groups seek to succeed and excel while avoiding costly and frustrating mistakes. The purpose of this section is to provide an overview of those fundamentals to facilitate a focused individual and team approach to a liberal arts class, with the history of Mexico as an example.

Fundamentals are those key aspects that contribute to the success or failure of any activity. To make the point, we can draw on the experiences of an area outside of academia that we all know something about: professional sports. It does not matter if men or women are the players. It can be any sport like soccer, baseball, football, volleyball, or hockey. In any of these sports, even a team with brilliant coaches and intelligent and physically talented players adheres to the fundamentals if it hopes to succeed on the field. The coaches and the players know that natural talent applied in a disorganized and undisciplined fashion yields mediocre and disappointing results. They thus study the nature of their sport's environment and organize their lives to focus on their job. They have a vision of where they want to be at the end of the season. They know the rules of the game and adhere to them. They maximize individual success by working together. They are committed to their goal and pay attention to detail. They study the playbook and the films. They have a plan for every game. They are on time for practices and games. The players practice even the most basic techniques of running, passing, catching, blocking, and kicking--whatever is appropriate to the specific sport--consistently throughout the season. They use the appropriate equipment. They analyze opponents and make adjustments from game to game. They train to stay conditioned in the off-season while they evaluate the past season and make plans for the next one. No aspect of the game is too small to leave unexamined. They know a single player can win or lose a game for the whole team. This kind of dedicated and concentrated attention and effort is based on a desire to be doing what they are doing. The players have long-term team and individual goals, but they also get immediate satisfaction from playing the game and practicing for it. This is what makes it possible for them to endure and even enjoy the unglamorous, sweaty, physical training and the strenuous mental preparation that takes their game to such a high level.

The point of this sports analogy is that success and excellence in the study of a course like the history of Mexico will depend on the willingness and ability of the individual students and the class as a whole to understand the environment, identify a vision, follow a plan, commit to consistent hard work, and--most important of all--derive an immediate sense of personal satisfaction from taking the course.

As the professor teaching the course, I believe that understanding and practicing the fundamentals will maximize your motivation and satisfaction in the course. This will, in turn, maximize your commitment and ability to learn and earn a good grade. You can get yourself into a positive cycle in which commitment and satisfaction reinforce each other. On the other hand, ignoring the fundamentals can result in misperceptions and misunderstandings, boredom, confusion, frustration, lack of motivation, feelings of unfairness, poor grades, and--worst of all--a failure to learn.

The following list of fundamentals includes many that apply to other courses in the university, but also some that are specific to the history of Mexico as a course that meets the foreign-culture requirement of the university and the ethnic-heritage requirement of Chicano-Boricua studies. The section below address both the educational paradigm (context, structure, environment) in which the history of Mexico exists and the logistics and mechanics of how to do well in the course and in others like it.

The Fundamentals

I. The best reason for taking a course is to have an interest in the subject and the process of studying it that will motivate you to learn.

A. Good secondary reasons that do not guarantee you will be interested and motivated include

  • The course is a university or program requirement.
  • It fits my schedule.
  • It will help me get a better job.
  • Someone else thinks this course is good for me.
  • The course will make me more culturally aware.
  • My friends are taking the course.

B. Good primary reasons that will maximize your satisfaction and motivation. If you can state the following with confidence or are working to be able to do so:

  • I enjoy reading, thinking, writing, and talking about the subject.
  • I really understand why it is a university or program requirement, and I believe in the purpose.
  • I really feel the course fits into my transformation as an individual whose knowledge of the world is expanding.
  • I really feel the course fits into my transformation as an individual whose analytical skills are continually improving.
  • I will be able to apply the knowledge and skills I gain in this course in my social or professional life.

C. If you do not have a set of personal primary reasons, develop a set.

  • Make the effort to identify with the purpose of the university (see below).
  • Make the effort to understand the subject of the course.
  • Find ways of relating it to your existing personal interests.
  • Become an active participant in the course.

II. A university education is more than a vocational education.

A. A very common misperception that causes a lot of grief.

  • Many people approach the university only as a vocational school to train them for specific jobs and professions.
  • This kind of approach devalues the purpose of the university and creates resistance to the mission of the university.
  • It also frustrates a lot of students who believe they are forced to take a lot of courses that they think are irrelevant and in which they have no interest.
  • Students will feel mentally and emotionally healthier and happier if they
    • Recognize and fully accept the purpose of the university.
    • Do not try to force the university into a box that is too small for its purpose.
    • Do not judge the university by standards that are inappropriate to its purpose.
  • It is important that we understand the difference between a strictly vocational education and a university education.

B. The strictly vocational education is characterized by limited goals and methods.

  • It has limited aims of training you in the skills of a specific job.
  • All teaching and learning is focused narrowly on those job skills.
  • A broader world view and its issues are not part of its mission.
  • The analytical component is sharply focused on limited skill objectives.
  • Skills transferable to another job are not a goal.

 C. The university is different from a vocational or technical school because the university has the additional mission of assisting the student achieve a personal transformation by developing other areas of personal and professional growth. The added-value mission of the university is to assist the student to

    • Acquire an understanding of the broader world and its issues; and of how these relate to one's life and career.
    • Acquire skills that can be applied to many jobs and tasks.
    • Develop the ability to read well difficult and large amounts of material in a variety of styles and at many levels.
    • Develop the ability to synthesize large amounts of material into a brief summary of the message and its main points.
    • Develop the ability to write in clear, powerful prose. Writing is a craft that requires consistent and continuous conscientious practice. It sharpens thinking and adds clarity to communication.
    • Transform one's self into an intellectual, that is, to
      • Develop one's conceptual, abstract, and analytical thinking.
      • Develop the ability to build conceptual models and use these as tools of analysis and organization.
      • Become conceptually creative, come up with new ideas.
    • Develop a self-image of one's self as a professional.
    • Develop a self-image of one's self as a citizen with social responsibilities as well as individual rights.
    • Realize one's capacity for inventing and reinventing one's self.
    • Develop an appreciation for continuous self-growth.
    • Develop an ability to adjust to a continuously changing environment.

D. A fuller definition of the term intellectual is

    • A person who thinks conceptually and analytically in a systematic way on both broad issues and on details--most of the functions in section C, above.
    • Not necessarily an egghead, nerd, rocket scientist, or absentminded professor. “Intellectual” is not a dirty word for someone with an elitist attitude.
    • Someone who may have any kind of job in society as long as he or she thinks conceptually and abstractly. Someone can be a street sweeper or homeless and still be an intellectual.
    • Not the same as “intelligent,” although the two terms frequently overlap. Many intelligent people are not intellectuals, but may be very wise (often as a result of experience); and many intellectuals may not be very smart about a lot of things.
    • Someone with a learned skill. An intellectual has conditioned and trained the mind like others train the body to gain physical skills.
    • Someone with a skill that, in the best of circumstances, can help one become more intelligent and wiser. However, there is no guarantee this will happen.

E. If the components that make up the broad mission of the university sound like hollow, boring words to you--perhaps too abstract and removed from your interests--you may need to work on making them more real.

III. Students will derive maximum benefits from their education if their purpose for being at the university is the same as the mission of the university.

A. Adopting transformation-of-the-self as your personal goal will yield an instant gratification--not just the delayed gratification of a future job or career, because you will value the change and be able to feel it happen.

B. Making a commitment to self-transformation will make course work interesting and motivate you to do the hard work required to learn well and derive pleasure from learning.

C. This happens because acquiring new knowledge and understanding and sharpening your skills as a conceptual, analytical person become goals in themselves, rather than passive experiences that have no relationship to your identity. They become interesting things to do rather than distasteful obligations to postpone and avoid.

D. A deep commitment to self-transformation can be made only if you can derive personal satisfaction and even pleasure from reading, writing, and critical thinking.

IV. Becoming a successful university student often requires great effort and a conscious change in identity.

A. Self-transformation is only possible when we open ourselves to change in our identities and self-images, to the idea that we can really be more than what we have been conditioned to believe we can be due to our personal or group backgrounds. We have to turn off the secret internal commands that tell us we cannot transcend our current limits. We have the power to shape our own identities.

B. Adopting transformation-of-the-self as your personal goal may require a change in your self-identity to incorporate a larger and more complex you. It does not mean you have to give up all of your old self with all of its relationships and contexts; but you have to learn to have additional and multiple identities. Many students who attend the university find it hard to accept for themselves an identity as university students because of peer pressure and the fear they will betray who they were and are--the identities that currently give them a sense of security.

C. Deriving satisfaction from learning and pleasure from doing well educationally often requires practice, conditioning, more practice, and the replacement of old habits with new ones--or at least, the addition of new habits to the old ones. This is how we reshape ourselves. Sometimes we need to learn how to enjoy something we know is good for us. Knowing it and feeling it are two different things. The enjoyment of reading books, writing good essays, and critically examining ideas are all acquired tastes. All of these involve exercising the powers of the mind like one would exercise the muscles of the body. Because this requires a lot of mental effort and sweat, many people neglect their minds the way many people neglect their bodies. If we are motivated to do only the things we enjoy without effort, our lives may be very limited and frustrated. The university is like a gym for the mind. There is no purpose in paying the membership dues if we are not going to work out.

D. Taking a university class should be taken as seriously as working at a job. Some students unintentionally or mistakenly judge a class by the standards of the entertainment industry. You can have fun in a class, but it is usually not the same kind of fun derived from a movie or a television program or compact disc. A class should not be treated as a spectator event. The best way to make it interesting for yourself while learning is to become actively involved as a participant. Do not be a classroom potato.

E. Priorities in life may need to be reorganized temporarily. Make enough time to do the homework for each course you take. Most people have obligations to their jobs, families, and other life concerns and interests. To be a successful student, you need enough time to study calmly and deliberately. A time-management analysis and plan are important. You need to exercise the self-discipline to use your time wisely and effectively every day. If your education is low on your list of priorities, you will probably acquire only a mediocre education.

F. Using the university's many resources like tutoring, supplemental instruction, and labs will maximize your learning. You will only be motivated to use them effectively--and prioritize your time to include them in your schedule--if you enjoy (or want to enjoy) learning as much as whatever else you might do with the time otherwise.

G. Students who have been out in the workplace for several years, usually (not always) appreciate the value of a university education more than students coming directly from high school. Unfortunately, by then, they have a lot of additional obligations that compete for their time and many can only go to school part-time.

V. The history of Mexico is part of the way the university fulfills its multifaceted mission. (Some items below could be placed in multiple categories.)

A. The following list of reasons will not have much meaning unless you have already integrated (or seriously plan to integrate) the broad mission of the university as part of your identity. Refer to section I of “The Fundamentals.”

B. The history of Mexico expands your knowledge of the world around you. It contributes to your understanding of

    • One of the most important neighbors of the United States.
    • The background of an important ethnic and cultural group in the United States.
    • The role of the United States as a hemispheric and world power.
    • The world economy shaped by long-distance exchange of technology, capital, and labor.

C. The history of Mexico sharpens your conceptual skills. The course

    • Organizes history conceptually, not just according to facts and dates.
    • Exposes you to different ways of thinking, different value systems.
    • Creates a comparative framework for analyzing our own society and others.

D. The history of Mexico is relevant to your social and professional experience. The course

    • Provides you with the opportunity to sharpen skills that can be applied to many jobs and life situations.
    • Helps you better understand the links between the United States and Mexican economies, links that will increasingly shape the environment in which your job will exist.
    • Provides you with the opportunity to further develop your abilities as a conceptually oriented individual who can survive and flourish in a changing, often hostile, economic environment.

VI. The history of Mexico is a course with a well-defined purpose, goals, actors, environment, rules, and plan of action.

A. The syllabus for the course is an important resource.

    • It is a contractual agreement between the professor and each student and among all of the students.
    • It has a clear mission statement with goals and objectives.
    • It outlines the organization of the course. It can be compared to
      • The rules of the road
      • A map for a little-known territory
      • The rules of a board game
      • The rules of a professional sports game
      • A game plan
      • A handbook or guide
    • It clearly states the actions students need to take to learn the subject and obtain a good grade.
    • It sets up specific ways to measure student progress.
    • It contains provisions for flexibility which can be expanded by agreement between the professor and the students.

B. The fundamentals complement the syllabus in defining the environment for the course and the best approach for success.

C. The students are defined as actors, players, and active participant learners in a dynamic relationship with the professor and with each other.

D. The professor is a guide for the students venturing into the history of Mexico. He cannot teach what the students do not want to learn. Learning is a proactive experience, not a transfer of data from professor to students.

E. A major function of the professor is to provide the students with the themes and concepts that organize the course and that facilitate learning the course subject.

F. A contractual agreement thoroughly understood by all parties will lay a solid foundation for a good course.

VII. Conceptual learning can be a fun way to study if the basics are understood and implemented with diligence and persistence.

A. The most basic elements that form the foundation of conceptual thinking are

    • Gathering data and information.
    • Absorbing the information. Reading for comprehension.
    • Processing the information to extract the main ideas.
    • Analyzing the main ideas for their utility and validity.
    • Understanding the information and main ideas.
    • Using the information and ideas to create new ideas and new perspectives.
    • Communicating ideas and information clearly and powerfully by using concepts to organize your thinking and using as few words as possible.
    • Practicing until one gets it perfect.
    • Persevering until one gets the results desired.
    • Realizing there is always a newer idea--although not necessarily a better one.

B. Rote memorization is not conceptual learning.

    • It is a boring mechanical function that is often useless.
    • It does not create understanding or build one's powers of reasoning.
    • It is like loading facts onto a computer disk and unloading them without any comprehension involved.
    • There is more retention of knowledge with understanding than with rote memorization.
    • With rote memorization individual facts fall out of the mind like water or sand through the holes of a colander.
    • With understanding, facts are held together by ideas, and ideas are held together by concepts, theories, and themes. These relationships and structures keep the mind from acting like a colander.

C. Conceptual thinking is a process that refines information and leads to understanding.

    • In conceptual thinking, the mind is like a saw mill and furniture factory.
    • The mind refines raw data into a finished product. Much of the raw material is transformed into something new and a lot of the raw material is discarded.
    • The end product is often a distillation of understanding and insight in a highly concentrated form. This is when you get a great idea, when your language becomes powerful. Facts are meaningless without an interpretation. A dynamic relationship among the facts needs to be established. This is the role of ideas, concepts, theories, and themes.
    • Common wisdoms and proverbs, like “practice makes perfect” and “penny-wise, pound-foolish,” are examples of distillations of understanding derived from lifetimes of experience. They are powerful because they say a lot in a few words.
    • Mental milling, cooking, and distilling must be done consistently and gradually over the length of the semester. The mind goes into overload if the process is left for the last minute before an exam. You just wind up with a garbage heap of raw materials.

D. There is a step-by-step way of carrying out the basics of conceptual thinking in a course like the history of Mexico.

    • Read or listen for the main points in a chapter, article, lecture, or documentary.
    • Highlight and underline the main points in a chapter or article.
    • Make notes on the margins of pages of the text.
    • Take comprehensive notes of lectures and other presentations for further studying and refining.
    • Highlight the main points of your own notes.
    • “I do not know how to take notes” is no excuse. Effective note-taking is an acquired skill of every good university student and every effective professional.
    • Prioritize the main points according to their importance for inclusion or exclusion in subsequent communications.
    • Connect the main points, establishing a relationship among them.
    • Connect the main points to identify and create larger and larger conceptual building blocks: ideas, concepts, theories, themes, interpretations.
    • Connect the main points, ideas, theories, themes, and interpretations from various sources: the text, other readings, lectures, discussions, documentaries, other sources.
    • Develop an interpretation and organizing theme that brings it all together.
    • Look for organizing themes and interpretations provided at the beginning of books, chapters, articles, and documentaries as well as by the professor in the classroom. If you understand what these are, you can identify the main points and other building blocks much more easily than if you just read or listen without purpose while waiting for some understanding to come magically to you.
    • Look for the hidden outline (I, A, 1, b, etc.) with main points and subpoints in a chapter or essay the way “The Fundamentals” document is organized.
    • Understand that analyzing the relationships among the main points and related themes opens up the possibility for intellectual creation and invention, for discovering something new, for coming up with an idea no one else has had.

E. Communicating your understanding in a written or oral report is best accomplished if it follows a simple universal pattern. 

    • State the main organizing theme distilled above as a thesis statement in the first paragraph.
    • Support your thesis with a logical sequence of main points in the following paragraphs.
    • Every paragraph should be a mini-essay with a thematic lead sentence, supporting facts, and concluding sentence that sets up the next paragraph.
    • Provide a conclusion that sums up the central theme and its arguments.
    • A good essay can be broken up into an outline with main points and subpoints, the way the same is true for a book chapter and “The Fundamentals” section. If your conceptual skills are good, you should be able to make an outline before you write the essay or make the presentation.
    • After you have written a report or essay, go back and revise the initial thesis statement if your thinking has developed in the process of writing the piece.
    • The title of the report or essay should contain the heart of your interpretation. It should tell the reader exactly what is coming.
    • The best exams have the characteristics of a good report.

XIII. Other ways to learn better

A. Take the risk: ask questions in class and participate in class discussions.

B. Discuss a topic with other people to speed up the process of understanding and to sharpen understanding. Verbalization will help crystallize your thinking as will writing.

IX. There Are No Substitutes 

A. For understanding the big picture; using concepts to analyze the larger context.

B. For paying attention to detail. A conceptual structure , like a real building, is only as secure as the building blocks from which it is made.

C. For persistent effort in the face of difficult odds. Thinking conceptually, undertaking the task of self-transformation, running the mind's workshop, is hard work.

D. For the motivation it takes to do A, B, and C.