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November 13, 2011

Chess and Excellence

Chess and Excellence

If I had to pick one word to describe what we're learning at Summit Semester, it would be excellence. Excellence in academics first and foremost, but also in prayer and reflection, in building friendships, in working, and even in our sports and games. And one of our games is a good analogy for what learning to think is like.

I wasn't very good at chess when I came here. I knew how the pieces moved, and could pick up on some threats, but that was the extent of my knowledge. But by playing other students who are better than myself and having them show me how they think, I improved. This is exactly what is happening in class as Dr. Bauman challenges my thinking and the students shape my thoughts as well.

I discovered that in chess you need to have three things: experience with the game, knowledge of openings, and and understanding of  tactics. Experience with the game allows your eye to pick up patterns and threats which would take a less experienced player long pondering to see. After two months of practice thinking with Dr. Bauman, we are becoming able to see silly mistakes coming up in a discussion and avoid them, or let our brain run down a train of thought until we see the trap at the end. Our experience is growing, and with it our effectiveness as thinkers.

Another useful skill in chess is knowledge of openings. These are sets of moves which have been analyzed and found to be a good way to start a game. They make starting with a good position easy.  Likewise, in each class we are taking, there are certain fundamental issues which you need to know in order to intelligently discuss the topic. For example, when talking about economics, you need to understand both the socialist and capitalist positions in order to know what the person you are talking about is likely to say, and the implications and counters with which you might respond when they say it. Now that we have understood the positions we are talking about in class, we have a leg to stand on in the discussion.

Finally, knowledge of tactics, such as knowing that a single move could threaten more than one piece, allows us to systematize and recognize methods of attack, or respond early to opponent's threats. One of the first things that Dr. Bauman taught us was that there are certain phrases which are just stupid to use. Self-defeating statements like "who's to say?" (you just said it), or "everything is relative" (you just made an absolute statement). You know they'll never go well for you, so don't get sucked into them.

These have all been positive examples of how thinking is like chess. There is a negative analogy as well. No matter how good you get at chess, you will still make mistakes; you won't be perfect. Luke Riel, one of the better chess players here, showed us a famous game in which a grand master missed a checkmate in a championship match. In the same way, no one is perfect in their thinking. Some of our ideas will always be off. So we must learn to be intellectually humble and think through any contrary position with care and an open mind, looking for the truth we can learn from it. Dr. Bauman is a supreme example of this. The debates in class always follow our ideas to their logical conclusion rather than being steered toward his own set beliefs.

But any analogy breaks down eventually, and so with this one. Chess is a game that few people can really enjoy, but thinking well is important for everybody. Whether it is choosing the right candidate to vote for or knowing how to live a good life, every important decision which we make is one which requires careful thought. And if, at Summit Semester, we learn how to do so with excellence, our time will not have been wasted.


Luke LaValley

Luke is interested in electrical engineering and computer science, and is fascinated by the internet’s power to connect people. He feels strongly that the world needs people who understand both technology and a Christian worldview, and he hopes to be one of those people. He is studying for his Associate of Arts degree at Lake Superior College, and plans to transfer to a technical school to complete his degree in electrical engineering or computer science. He is a licensed amateur radio operator, and enjoys anything to do with the outdoors.

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