Friday, July 20, 2012

Educational Wisdom from Other Times (I)

I have been doing some reading about higher education and am again struck (as I was while writing Excellence Without a Soul) how the same problems keep coming around, rephrased every thirty years or so as new discoveries and new insights about the state of higher education. And even the same solutions! I am going to post quotations every now and then as I run across them.

From "Quack-Doctoring the Colleges," by William Bennett Munro (Professor of Municipal Government at Harvard), Harper's Magazine, September, 1928. "Many things are wrong with our colleges," he begins, and lists a series of complaints, each matched with the opposite complaint, which has also been articulated. "I have positive information that the colleges are no longer educating anybody, and I have equally emphatic assurance that they are educating a lot of youngsters who ought to be left illiterate for the benefit of the unskilled labor market." (A bit more extreme than the sequence that led up to Santorum's "snob" comment, but along the same dimension.)

Munro then lists some proposed solutions to colleges' ailments, all quack medicine as far as he is concerned. "The Job-Analysis Serum" sounds like "Running Higher Education Like a Business": Clarify your objectives, conduct surveys of students and alumni to determine whether you are accomplishing them, and respond accordingly. The "Orientation Ointment" is about wrapping actual education in heavier and heavier layers of meta-educational sessions, programs, advisers, and so on--and also about the shallowness of general education courses, which were starting to appear in the 1920s. But one really hit me hard because I had just finished writing a piece for Harvard Magazine about the experience of creating an "active learning" course, CS 20, to respond to changes in students' learning styles.

Then there is Nostrum Number Three, the abolition of the lecture system and the substitution of active participation by the student in the classroom exercises. The usual academic lecture, we are asked to believe, is a process by which things pass from the notebook of the professor to the notebook of the student without going through the heads of either. So let it be amputated from the curricula. Anyhow, the lecture is a survival of scholasticism, a medieval hang-over out of keeping with the genius of the twentieth-century American youth. It its place let us have creative participation by the student--creative participation, that is the newest phrase, and it has an alluring sound without meaning much.
No more shall some ex cathedra dogmatist deliver his pontifical discourses from the rostrum with no opportunity for the benches to hit back; but teacher and pupil will exchange ideas, like Socrates and Plato. Encourage the freshman to assume a "challenging attitude" towards everything which the instructor may say, be it an assertion that the earth is a sphere, or that the poles are cooler than the equator, or that the Dutch have captured Amsterdam. Develop his spirit of criticism, his propensity to disagree. If this does not make the undergraduate a more intelligent citizen, it will at least qualify him as a municipal reformer.
And so on. Munro's bottom line is that teaching is intensely personal and there is no one best way to do it. "It is men, not methods or measures, that determine whether a college shall be first-rate or second class. Or, to put it more accurately, first find the men and the methods will take care of themselves." I can't disagree with that, and in the modern university that speaks to the hiring, incentive, and reward system for faculty, about which more another time.

But the resonance of this passage with the active-learning craze is almost embarrassing (see, for example, Twilight of the Lecture in the current Harvard Magazine). No, I'll go further. It IS embarrassing. In my own piece, I reproduce the Mark Twain quip about the brains of professor and student, and use the phrase "anachronism of the lecture era." Everything I say is still true, and I hope you will enjoy the piece when it comes out in the next issue of the Magazine, and will learn something from it. It just isn't very original!

1 comment:

  1. 1) With powerpoint the material goes from the teachers computer to the students computer without passing through the head of either.

    2) Large classes (say over 50) I don't see how to do this other than lecture.

    3) Small classes really could be more interactive. I've seen a class of 5 students where the teacher is still lecturing.