Walter Dorn’s Teaching Philosophy: Encourage the Inquiring Mind
The best way to learn is to thirst for knowledge. That is best achieved by exercising freedom of inquiry. The university teacher, whether in a civilian or military educational institution, has an important responsibility to give students the freedom to explore themes of their own choosing. This can be done through student-chosen presentation topics in seminars or in student-chosen essay topics or through open but guided discussion about readings, where students feel free to raise the topics that they find most intriguing. Dr. Dorn has practiced the freedom of inquiry not only in his classes but also in his own studies and process of life-long learning.*
Structure and detailed guidance still have great value in the learning process. Students should feel a clear sense of progress in their study of a subject. In some situations, it is valuable to have highly structured and formalized activities, such as formal debates followed immediately by free-flowing discussion. This promotes the critical thinking and the ability to see multiple sides of an argument. The “Hegelian dialectic” of thesis and antithesis is useful to find a synthesis, as can be explored in the classroom though the encouragement of diverse viewpoints. Similarly, in essays it is important to recognize the counter-arguments to a thesis in order to minimize the counter-thesis or to reconcile the thesis and counter-thesis.
In military colleges, it is extra important to make the student feel that they have freedom of inquiry and expression— to “think outside the box” in a frequently-used military expression. During training, military personnel are taught to think alike, but during education they must be encouraged to think differently; not at cross-purposes but in order to discover the diversity of thinking and approaches that are needed to find workable solutions to complex problems.
The mottos that best describe Dr. Dorn’s approach to teaching are: “Be Curious”; “Keep an Open Mind”; and “Seek the Ever Bigger Picture.”
A quote that he likes to include in his course syllabi is from Bertrand Russell: “While we differ widely in the various little pieces that we know, we are all alike in our infinite ignorance.”
* Dr. Dorn obtained three degrees in the physical sciences, while also taking medical sciences courses. His Ph.D. thesis was in an interdisciplinary field, biophysical chemistry (biosensors), aimed at practical applications in the detection of chemical and biological warfare agents (arms control). He conducted studies of arms control and disarmament, specializing in treaty verification, for over a decade then branched out into United Nations studies, with a focus on peacekeeping operations. In his studies and research, he has used historical cases studies, field trips, quantitative as well as qualitative analysis and theoretical models (to some extent). He is still learning.