May 24, 2013

"I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises."

Writes Notre Dame philosophy prof Gary Gutting, who teaches a freshman seminar reading "a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov."
We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages. But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year. The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing>.

What’s the value of such encounters? They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name....

We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.
I wonder how this applies to law teaching, law school coming later in the students' lives and Supreme Court opinions not being truly "wonderful texts" like Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov (though they are kind of wonderful in their own special way). Even though I'm always imploring students to "engage" with the texts we must read in a constitutional law class, it seems a little nutty to expect them to become "vividly aware" or to find "fulfillment" and "pleasure" and "enduring excitement" (and yet somehow I feel entirely comfortable with that kind of nuttiness).

44 comments:

Ambrose said...

Law school is about process, not knowledge. No lawyer should ever tell a client "The answer is X; I remember that from law school." It has to be - "I checked this morning and the answer is X."

And I for one used to like reading the well drafted opinions, and I thought most of the Supreme Court opinions are that.

edutcher said...

Nope, not buying it.

I've had instructors that were very smart, but couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag.

In one CS course, the instructor (what I describe above) was out and another, one who could teach, filled in. You could see (and just about hear) the light bulbs as he explained the "Oh, THAT's how it works" parts.

Knowledge is the end game, but "making students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment" is only a by-product.

YMMV

Ann Althouse said...

"Nope, not buying it."

What are you not buying and how does it relate to your anecdotes?

Joe said...

This is exactly backwards. The purpose of college should be to transmit knowledge in a formalized, structured way using teachers who can correctly answer questions and to help challenge students.

Engaging in intellectual exercises is something you do on your own time. If you want to be exposed to great literature, go to a library (or Amazon.)

One of the best literature classes I had was eleventh grade English during which we read Twelfth Night out loud and the teacher TAUGHT us what the words actually meant It's quite a filthy, yet utterly delightful, play; the teacher would probably be fired in today's atmosphere. Yet, even the stoners in the class got into it and even looked forward to seeing the play when we did. I've never seen a general classroom more engaged.

Garry Geer said...

I taught Herodotus' "Histories" to some junior high kids last year. As I told them, "This is where we learn to read boring literature and get something out of it."

They were not terribly thrilled with the journey, but they survived it.

In summary, we should teach our children that many good and necessary things are very boring. Rather than trying to spice everything up, we should teach our children to have the character to glean.

G.

Nonapod said...

Part of me is more in favor of a more utilitarian form of education which focuses on teaching practical skills for employment only. But I also realize that a lot of people out there simply don't know how to think properly and how to effectively use reason. So if engaging in "certain intellectual exercises" helps improve people's critical thinking skills, than I guess it'd be a good idea.

Elliott A said...

I,m not sure, as a parent, that I'm interested in that outcome for my 1200 per credit hour investment. Maybe if taught differently/better, the half life would be better. I still remember vividly the Russian Literature I read in 1973-1975, from "Dead Souls" to "Cancer Ward". As a science major, it was a wonderful intellectual complement to organic chemistry, etc., but I have retained the various literary components which made these works classics and gave me a very clear picture of the environment which spawned them. This is just another attempt at divesting accountability.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

What’s the value of such encounters? They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name....

I agree 100%. This is exactly what kindergarten should be about.

By the time you get to college, you should be learning something practical. I don't care so much about learning specific facts, although those are certainly useful. You should be learning how-to-do things. Things like constructing a logical argument, writing a computer algorithm, or figuring out the consequences of a change in the law.

Ann Althouse said...

@Joe Seems like you contradicted yourself.

campy said...

from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov

Buncha dead white males. Where's the diversity?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Just to be clear, I strongly encourage people to learn a wide range of subject just for the joy of learning. I just don't understand why anyone would want to constrain such learning in time, space, or ideology to today's college campus.

Tibore said...

"I wonder how this applies to law teaching, law school coming later in the students' lives and Supreme Court opinions not being truly "wonderful texts" like Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov (though they are kind of wonderful in their own special way)."

Well, professor Gutting does have a point in that too much of the undergraduate experience is surveying topics, therefore the best thing might be to immerse students in the culture of learning and design courses to help them turn into better autodidacts. I've had that exact same thought myself.

The problem is, the utility expected out of a college education are broader than turning out someone who's ready to learn. If a student goes on to a graduate field, they had BETTER have the prerequisites down, even if that requires memorization/learning through sheer repetition. I'm hard pressed to conceive of a person who could deal with graduate level chemistry, for example, without having learned the necessary prerequisites of the broad general chem, biochem, organic chem, inorganic chem, physical chem, analytic chem, and so on and so forth. I don't know what law school requirements are, but I'd be flabbergasted if they can be boiled down to where a good student is characterized as a " totally blank slate, but ready to learn".

Most post graduate disciplines require the internalization of some knowledge, and often that "some" is a heck of a lot. They're almost certainly looking less for "malleable" and more "generally learned but ready for specific, advanced, in-depth material".

Oddly enough, I don't get that impression from the professional world. In my field at least it seems like the only reason to check the "college degree" box is to ensure that the candidate has demonstrated the ability to weather the nose-to-grindstone experience; it's not like anything practical comes from it. But my experience may not be representative.

Ann Althouse said...

@Garry That seems like a performance of the fact that teaching often involves the teacher being excited about the very thing that the students will be bored by. If the students were to become as excited as the teacher, it would be really weird. There's this crazy disconnect, where as the teacher you know you're excited by the material, and that's normal, but it would be abnormal for them to get excited like that. Socially, it can't be done.

Mitch H. said...

Garry, if your students find Herodotus "boring", you're not teaching it right. That book is wackier than Xena, Warrior Princess - and almost as historically accurate. ^_^

And any teacher who burbles about teaching process rather than facts is probably pretty crap at either, and looking to avoid a proper accounting of his lack-of-method. Whether your students have successfully learned "process" is a hell of a lot harder to evaluate, isn't it?

Patrick said...

What’s the value of such encounters? They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.

I certainly acknowledge that there is value in that, but those who run colleges and universities need to know that it is a luxury. It is hardly worth $30,000 per year.

Outside of your STEM courses, it may be that the best contribution that higher education makes is for teaching "how to learn," and "how to reason," which is outside of direct knowledge. The system seems very inefficient for this, and given a strong institutional bias and a very narrow range of acceptable viewpoints in your average university, I don't think it accomplishes what it should.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

So Professor-

Are you now vividly aware of new possibilities for... aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.... of using hilighting?

ricpic said...

As long as they don't teach the engineers that it's all about the aesthetics of the bridge and not that it doesn't fall down I'm good with the pleasure nexus.

Garry Geer said...

@Mitch,
There are some enjoyable portions in Herodotus. The students were somewhat entranced by dreams filled with urine, bloody vengeance, and nuptial high jinks.

They had to learn to weed that out from portions on Nile hydrology, etc.

I do think that you can focus on process, and have that measureable by facts. I stressed that they were just as responsible for the boring parts, as the exciting ones. It was up to them to focus attention, regardless of their personal aesthetic.

Part of this was done in response to teens continually telling me that their laziness was justified as the material was not exciting enough.

Garry Geer said...

@Ann
I don't expect the students to be excited in the same way with the material that grabs my imagination. They are at a different level of maturity with a different background, etc.

While I do expect them to learn the material, I encourage them to find "affection" as to love something means you are drawn back to something regardless of the flaws.

It is not always possible, nor should it determine your ultimate responsibility to the material. But when it happens, it rocks.

Bob_R said...

Sounds like Gutting is teaching a good freshman seminar course with challenging, substantive texts. And yes, it's reasonable to judge the teaching in that kind of course by the amount of excitement it creates rather than the specific knowledge that is transmitted. But his baseless generalization from his course to "teaching" in general is bullshit. You'd think that reading a lot of Plato, Thucydides, Calvino, and Nabokov make someone less likely to say such things, but evidently not.

bagoh20 said...

I completely understand the attraction and the value of this exercise, but it's like an aerobics class. It doesn't make sense to pay a lot of money for the opportunity to do something that you mostly do to yourself. Having an instructor is usually helpful, but there are many capable instructors from friends to the internet, from free to ridiculously expensive, and I bet the most costly ones give you some of the the least access and intimacy of experience. It's certainly worth doing, but trying to buy it is a mistake.

SteveR said...

This is the thinking that leads to the higher education system we have today. Largely about fulfilling the ideals of academics more than the needs of students. I'm glad I went to an old fashioned hard core science and engineering school. I learned to think in P-Chem and Igneous Petrology and I learned when not to think.

bagoh20 said...

Hey, what university did those greeks go to anyway. That must have been a good one. I wonder if they had adequate diversity to insure a quality learning experience.

edutcher said...

Ann Althouse said...

Nope, not buying it.

What are you not buying and how does it relate to your anecdotes?


He's talking about reading just for the fun of discussing it the next day.

Teaching is about imparting understanding of the subject matter, but any fun discussing it is a side issue.

Developing understanding is the heart of knowledge. If your true interest is that particular subject (as is the case with you), all to the good, but you can "get" the material, be able to discuss it, and still regard it as something worthwhile knowing, but nothing intrinsically pleasurable in itself.

I understood chemistry and binary math the first time they were thrown at me, enjoyed them, but I had no need to discuss their more esoteric aspects nor found any great pleasure in it - other than, at a somewhat difficult time in my life, something was coming easily to me.

DADvocate said...

Sounds great if you're a liberal arts student and aren't really taught anything anyway. But, if you're in engineering or a hard science, you better accumulate some knowledge or you'll be a royal fuck up.

Crunchy Frog said...

Can I take a class in porn? I find it generates very enduring excitement.

Peter said...

Now that knowledge is becoming ever less costly to acquire, many college faculty members are going to be scrambling to explain the value of their more personalized teaching methods.

And while there may well be value in some or many in-person classes, it's also to be expected that there will be some rent-seeking.

Beach Brutus said...

Learning substantive knowledge versus developing critical thinking skills is a false dichotomy. These things are complementary. Figuratively speaking -- what good is it to constantly be upgrading the processor and RAM on your computer if the hard drive is empty? ... or having 1 tetra-byte of info but only a 286 processor with 254k byte of RAM.

Learning is going to involve a lot of rote memorization of facts -- facts that become the fodder for critical thinking exercises.

For example, when I cam along, we memorized multiplication tables until the recall was instinctive. We learned all our one's (1x1=1, 1x2=2, etc) before we progressed to our two's, then three's etc. When we started doing pre-algebra we did not need calculators and we grasped the relationships of the variables from the constants.

I say "when I came along" because when my kids came along I assumed that this was still how multiplication was taught -- I was wrong -- now they learn "math facts" -- discrete multiplication facts unrelated to any table. One day they learn 3x5=15, the next day it 4x6=24, - no relationship to any system of progression -- no real understanding or feel for the numbers.

I wondered why my (then) 4th grader could not do simple multiplication and found out that they no longer use the tables. I found one on a laminated place-mat sold at Walmart - cut the one's from the two's, etc. each onto its own card - put them on a ring and let my kid practice. That's how he learned multiplication two years too late.

Same thing with history -- everyone asks "Do we have to memorize dates" -- in my time the answer was YES - otherwise how can you put events in context. That way you would know that prior to the Civil War they did not have repeating rifles and revolvers with self contained cartridges (Django).

Saint Croix said...

Supreme Court opinions not being truly "wonderful texts" like Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov

There are several jurists who have an amazing literary quality, particularly Holmes, Black, Cardozo, Brandeis and Scalia. I would love to have an entire library filled with Hugo Black opinions.

though they are kind of wonderful in their own special way

A judge doesn't have to write brilliantly in order to be interesting to read, because his opinion is about solving a problem. Which is inherently interesting, at least to people who like to solve problems.

And in many cases, there is a fight over how to solve the problem. So legal opinions can be fun in the same way that boxing can be fun. It's an intellectual squabble.

Saint Croix said...

I believe we are still fighting over Roe v. Wade because the opinion itself has a feeling of being unsettled and unresolved. There's no reasoning in the opinion that takes you from A to B. Blackmun recites a bunch of history, and then dictates a new rule. Attorneys scoff at this. But what's far worse about the opinion is how a major issue is skipped over and ignored--the baby's life.

"We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins." This is such an important issue, I still find it mind-boggling that the Supreme Court said the baby's life is irrelevant.

Indeed, the Court not only skipped over the infanticide issue, they also skipped over the rape issue. (Jane Roe had falsely claimed that she had been raped).

And what do pro-lifers and feminists fight about the most? Infanticide and rape, the two issues the Supreme Court skipped over.

So, while Justice Blackmun's opinion is very well-written (as literature--although that first bit might put you to sleep)--it is distinctly unsatisfying as a judicial opinion. Even fans of the result in the case find themselves rewriting the opinion, trying to improve it.

30yearProf said...

Correct. All education beyond buttering bread and cleaning a carburetor is just mental exercise. I went through the Honors Liberal Arts Program at Notre Dame. I can't remember a thing about Metaphysics (except that it's not physics). Nor anything about most courses. But my life track does show that I learned to think and with that skill I did very well at everything I touched. Brain power does work especially when exercised up to full strength.

Richard Dolan said...

"I wonder how this applies to law teaching ..."

It doesn't.

virgil xenophon said...

What Beach Brutus said..

Saint Croix said...

Teaching is about imparting understanding of the subject matter

No. That's indoctrination, and if you're like me you'll resist it.

Too much of "education" is memorization and regurgitation.

Law school was a revolution for me, because law school questions authority. You have competing versions, both authoritative, and they are in conflict. And so you, the reader, have to resolve the conflict (i.e. think for yourself).

William said...

In the 19th century, well bred Englishmen used to study the classics at Oxbridge and then go forth to rule the Empire. They claimed that their knowledge of the classics enhanced the beauty and balance of their minds. ..I don't think their knowledge of the classics did any such thing, but they were, after all, the ruling class. They believed that the study of Cicero in the original Latin made you a better, wiser person and lots of people followed their lead. Knowledge of rhetoric and logic plus possession of the Gatling gun gives substance to the pretensions of the ruling class.....There used to be a saying that we can see far because we stand on the shoulders of giants. That's certainly not true of medicine. Galen was a huge roadblock for centuries. I suspect that the same observation may be true of Plato, Aristotle, and a lot of other classics. They should not be taught with reverence, and their irrelevance to today's world should be emphasized......Beyond this, all students should know that there are very few hot girls who take classics courses. Psychology is the most productive field of study if that is your aim in college.

Paddy O said...

I went to a liberal arts college. I was pre-law, which doesn't mean anything really except I planned to go to law school. I was a history major.

It was a Christian Liberal Arts school (considered one of the best of that type). Took a Church History class. Had to read all sorts of early church history. Read the primary sources. Changed my world. The professor wasn't exactly conventionally passionate, but was very knowledgeable, and shared the passion through the subject matter. Got crazy passionate about reading such people like Tertullian.

Had a British Literature class. Hardly did any reading for that class. I got by as a student. The prof had done his dissertation on Milton, and when we discussed Paradise Lost he brought out elements that changed my world. I bought the whole book. Read the whole thing in a four day weekend break.

Starting taking more church history, adding a theology/Bible major.

Took the LSAT, did very well on it, went to seminary instead. Then wrote a couple of books, began my PhD work.

Don't make lots of money, but I'm absolutely and utterly fascinating with what I read, what I help others discover and read, helping to, in a small way, introduce them to a bigger world just as my professors did for me.

David R. Graham said...

"True education focuses on equanimity amongst students." The end of education is love. An educated person has refined tastes.

"Sounds great if you're a liberal arts student and aren't really taught anything anyway. But, if you're in engineering or a hard science, you better accumulate some knowledge or you'll be a royal fuck up."

Yeah, theology too - for the "you better accumulate some knowledge" bit.

traditionalguy said...

Legal writing can be outstanding when it categorizes using our known cultural thoughts and then clearly expresses what is right and what is wrong that the cases clear facts based on precedents, principles and statutes. It is quite invigorating writing.

Unfortunately the "on the one hand and then on the other hand and we flipped a coin" type of decision makes you want to scream.

David R. Graham said...

"Took the LSAT, did very well on it, went to seminary instead. Then wrote a couple of books, began my PhD work."

Traditionally ideal, the first-born son became a priest and the second-born son becomes a soldier or, its related profession, a lawyer.

The English knowledge derives from the Greek Gnosis, which derives from the Sanskrit Jnanam. Its core meaning is reunion with God in thought, word and deed. It does not mean stuffing the head with facts.

Another way to put this: knowledge is a mind hard as diamond, a heart soft as melted butter, a hand skilled at craftsmanship. Love is the goal of education.

SteveBrooklineMA said...

I am reminded of Father Guido Sarducci's "Five Minute College" routine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO8x8eoU3L4

stlcdr said...

College, University, Schools have multiple purposes, but the overwhelming one is to impart knowledge. That knowledge is a requirement to support oneself, a family and society, in that order.

We are slowly degrading into the situation where knowledge is taking a back seat, and 'the process' is becoming the prime goal.

While there have always been learning establishments and education paths which are, to a greater or lesser extent, self indulgent, it is necessary to have a spillover support system from the self/family/society education. More and more courses are simply self indulgent, and cater to adolescent desires - and feelings.

We are now heading into the generation where those who have been brought up in this wanting educational machine, are now, themselves, educators. They do not know any different.

Bill R said...


"I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises."

Oh I see, mental masturbation then.

Captain Curt said...

Ever since I was applying to colleges in the 1970s, the people I have respected most have told me that higher education is not, or should not be, about the facts of the subject matter, but primarily about learning how to think, how to approach a problem, how to build an analytical framework, etc. The particular material should be a means to this end.

I have degrees in engineering and liberal arts from top universities, and I caught this vibe from the best people, teachers and students, in all of the departments I was associated with. In the science and engineering courses at these schools, all of the exams are open book, and they are not easy.

In different fields, the details are different, but I think the principle is the same. You are learning how to ask the right questions in approaching the problem, whether the energy balance of a thermodynamic system, the constitutional issues of a legal case, or the underlying issues in a novel.

Now, maybe this approach can really only work at top schools with great teachers and motivated students. In the wrong situations, it could easily degenerate into having the students gaining neither knowledge nor analytical skills.

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