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Sustaining curiosity
Students gathered in a circle listening to a speaker.

Sustaining Curiosity

In an age when we can access infinite information with the swipe of a thumb, critical thinking is more important than ever.

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I got up early on a crisp April morning and along with 15 or so students, I went to class. Okay, it was the first college class I’d attended in 30 years—but it all felt familiar. Technology may have changed a bit in that time, but the classroom felt much the same—fluorescent lighting, seating in the round, a whiteboard lying in wait. The main difference was that this time I was old enough to be the other students’ mother.

Laleh Panahi ’25 looking down and smiling.

Laleh Panahi ’25
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These students also seemed a lot more awake than I would have been for a 9 a.m. Monday morning class. Apparently showered and well rested, they arrived on time and quietly settled themselves. Only one student looked the way I remember feeling in college. He was a little rumpled around the edges, with a Patriots winter hat pulled down over his ears and sitting slightly slumped in his seat.

Kathleen Brown-Pérez, an energetic assistant professor, briskly got things started. Today’s discussion would focus on the disturbing facts and statistics laid out in 13th, the 2016 documentary that tracks the evolution of slavery through the Jim Crow era to today’s shocking levels of mass incarceration. In preparation for today’s class, I had watched the film too, and now I found it difficult to keep from raising my hand. But I didn’t, because I was not actually a college student—and even if I were, I probably wouldn’t be in this class. This class, Honors 201, was designed for members of the Commonwealth Honors College (CHC), and frankly, I wouldn’t have made the cut. UMass Amherst generally is more selective than it was in my college days, and CHC is a whole other level: Only 14% of UMass students make it in. That’s a high bar to jump when your peers’ incoming GPAs are averaging 3.8–4.3.

Conversation began to whip around the room. You can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about politics, and Brown-Perez pointed out that both Democrats and Republicans have run for office on being tough on crime. “Yeah, I guess I was surprised to see that it wasn’t an entirely partisan issue,” said Laleh Panahi ’25. “It was very bipartisan.”

Brown-Perez pushed a little further: Why does the 13th Amendment, an amendment about emancipation, mention imprisonment at all? “It’s a back door,” pointed out Cassandra Gordon ’26. Brown-Perez agreed; the amendment created an out for an economy that has historically depended heavily on unpaid labor, and to a great extent, still does. As the documentary 13th points out, corporate entities increasingly work in concert with Congress to create laws that help funnel more unpaid laborers into the system, usually without cases even going to trial.

“That’s not what the legislation is supposed to be,” challenged another student.

Three students looking at Kathleen Brown-Pérez.

Tuned into Brown-Pérez
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And then Nikhil Khond ’25 piped up, “We’ve got to educate the populace. We have to make sure everyone knows what’s happening.” Khond was the one I assumed might not pay attention, the scruffy one in the Patriots hat. I stood corrected: Everyone here was fully engaged. The class was living up to its mission: gathering up some of the country’s best and brightest students and sitting them down together to think. I felt like I was watching the wheels in their heads turn in real time.

Seeing through cultural narratives to the true crux of the matter is exactly why Honors 201 exists: to change the way we think altogether. But the class hasn’t always been such a pedagogical hit. More than a decade or so ago, this course was called Dean’s Book, and it was one of the lowest-rated in the catalog. Brown-Perez remembers what the course was like then, and she admits that she actually kind of hated teaching it, so the class began to morph. It’s still organized around books—the syllabus starts with Socrates and Plato and then snakes its way through centuries of great thinkers including W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Rachel Carson, Howard Zinn, and Isabel Wilkerson. Senior lecturer Connolly Ryan ’90, ’01MFA, who teaches another section of Honors 201, dubs the material for the course: “Books that Opened Cans of Whoop-ass.” Books hold the content, but the larger point of Honors 201 isn’t simply reading those books; it’s putting them in context, helping students connect the dots. And even more than that, the professors of this course want to model for their students something more important than ever: critical thinking.

You realize there’s so much more you didn’t even know you didn’t know

Both Ryan and Brown-Pérez come into the classroom with particular lenses. Brown-Pérez’s identity as an American Indian and her background in corporate law color the way she sees these issues, and she’s upfront about it. “I don’t hold a monopoly on truth,” she says. “My goal isn’t so much about the topics that we cover in class, but how they can take the skills they learn in class and apply them going forward. I want to make sure I give them a set of academic tools—how to look things up, how to write a paper. I want students to know about various issues historically.” Yet another stark difference from my own college days is that there’s a much wider array of knowledge resources out there—not all of it great. “Yes—there may be a glut of information out there, but they have to sift through it and figure out what’s believable and what’s not,” Brown-Pérez says. She pauses. “And then I want them to ask, ‘What else was going on? Why would that happen then?’”

Ryan, too, emphasizes to students that while he has his own perspective, they’re welcome to their own. In fact, they’re encouraged to develop one—and then maybe even change their minds. “I tell them that I’m ideologically ambidextrous,” he says. Ryan’s first assignment tasks students with identifying a modern-day Socrates, someone bringing challenging ideas into the public square. “They might pick Malala [Yousafzai] or Howard Stern […] as long as they are artfully persuasive in their arguments. They can take any position they want as long as they’re willing to listen to the exchange of ideas. I think they feel pretty safe taking risks.”

Nikhil Khond ’25 looking off to his left.

Nikhil Khond ’25
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This seems to be bearing out. “I don’t think people are afraid to share their opinions here. That’s not always true in other classes. They’re more hesitant,” says Khond, a chemical engineering major. While his engineering classes might not always flex his critical-thinking chops in quite the same way, he knows he’s going to need these skills all his life. “You always have to synthesize whatever you’re learning and then integrate it into your own life experience. Not everything is as simple as it may seem—you have to dig a little deeper, cross-check sources, understand people’s biases—understand your own biases,” he says. “This is important for everyday life.”

Josh Yang ’26, a computer science major, backs this up. “Whether it’s Plato’s writing or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, we’re reading these primary sources and coming to our own conclusions. That’s the exercise of critical thinking. Here are these documents from history; now, what do you make of them?”

While Ryan and Brown-Perez do have slightly different syllabi, all sections of Honors 201 start with Socrates for exactly the reason Yang hints at: It’s a classic exercise in critical thinking. “The beauty of Socrates is he’s all about putting emotions on the side and tackling conversations through logic and what Plato called the ‘music of ideas,’” says Ryan. “It’s almost like jazz—taking a ready-made phrase or generic argument, and then just destroying it and putting it back together again in order to improve it.” Like me, Ryan was himself a college student about 30 years ago—in fact, he was a student here at UMass. Now, as a professor, he meets with colleagues once or twice a semester to compare notes, talk about what works and doesn’t work in the classroom, tinker with the syllabi, and bandy about ideas. “It’s the kind of course I’d always wanted to take, and now I get to teach it, which is pretty sweet,” he admits.

Students circled up for a class discussion

Students circle up for discussion
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Honors 201 has another name: Ideas that Change the World. It’s a lofty title, but it fits. “That’s the spirit of the class,” Ryan says. “The more you figure out about your own truth and reality, the more you realize there’s so much more you didn’t even know you didn’t know. It creates a lifelong search and a sustained curiosity. I think in the end that’s the ultimate antidote to despair or apathy.”

Maybe it comes down to this: preparing students to realize that they themselves might actually generate their own such powerful ideas someday. That’s how Gordon, a future forensic scientist, sees it. “I thought this class would be a gen ed. But it ended up being a lot more about our society and our culture, and the way that we might go about changing it,” she says. “It’s a pretty cool class.”

Read along with Honors 201

Ready to dive deeper into the ideas covered in the course Honors 201: Ideas That Change the World? Here’s the complete list of texts from Kathleen Brown-Pérez’s most recent syllabus so you can read along.

Painting of Plato in a red toga.

Unit 1
Modes of Inquiry

“Allegory of the Cave,” by Plato

“Apology,” by Plato

“Can We Handle the Truth,” by Howard Zinn

“Textbook Controversies and the School Librarian,” by Willard A. Heaps

“Shall We Have Freedom to Learn in U.S. Classrooms?” by Ruth Wood Gavian

“Textbook Censors Mobilizing for Action,” Library Journal

“How Texas Rewrote Your Textbooks,” by Wayne A. Moyer

“Who Is Censoring America’s Textbooks,” by Joan DelFattore

“Remaking History,” by Mary Lord

“Textbook Publishers Learn: Avoid Messing with Texas,” by Alexander Stille

“Sex Edit,” Harper’s Magazine

“Write Wing,” by Christopher Keyes

“Texas Mom Wins Fight Against McGraw-Hill Textbook,” by Molly Jackson

“Florida Law Expected to Increase Textbook Challenges,” by Terry Spencer

“Replicating Math Textbook Censorship, Florida Tells Publishers to Kill Social Justice and CRT in History Books,” by FlagerLive.com

“Rep. Malinowski and Senator Booker Lead Letter to Textbook Publishers,” by SNS

A detail from the movie poster for 13th.

Unit 2
Social Thought and Civic Action

Film: 12 Angry Men (1957)

“Call for Unity” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Viewing: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech

Viewing: Peter Jennings in Ridgefield, NJ after MLK’s death

Viewing: “Mindless Menace of Violence,” Sen. Kennedy’s speech at the Cleveland Club, April 5, 1968, Cleveland, Ohio

“The New Jim Crow,” (article) by Michelle Alexander

Viewing: Bryan Stevenson on “We need to talk about an injustice”

Film: 13th (2016)

Drawing of a worker spraying pesticides on pink flowers.

Unit 3
Revolutionary Changes in Science and Technology

Viewing: “Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks”

Viewing: “Unnatural Causes: Place Matters”

“Silent Spring” (from The New Yorker) by Rachel Carson

Viewing: “TED: Toxic Baby,” by Tyrone Hayes and Penelope Jagessar Chaffer (2014)

“Price Competition in 1955,” by Victor Lebow, Journal of Retailing, spring 1955

Viewing: Story of Stuff (2007)

“The Dirty Truth is Your Recycling May Actually Go to Landfills,” by Dominique Mosbergen

“Your Recyclables Get Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not,” by Livia Albeck-Ripka

Viewing: “TED: What really happens to the plastic you throw away?” by Emma Bryce

Viewing: “TED: The Economic Injustice of Plastic,” by Van Jones

Viewing: “Unnatural Causes: Bad Sugar”

Graphic collage of art from the movie 12 Angry Men.

Unit 4
The Power of the Arts

Film: 12 Angry Men (1957)