Category Archives: Education

“We value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded.”

Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance. […]

History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.

While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.

–Carla Arnell, All for the Now–or the World Well Lost?

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On unlearning learning styles.

In a study published last month in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the vark questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better on their tests.

Husmann thinks the students had fallen into certain study habits, which, once formed, were too hard to break. Students seemed to be interested in their learning styles, but not enough to actually change their studying behavior based on them. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered.

–Olga Khazan, The Myth of “Learning Styles”


“I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to someone quite like you.”

Sean Illing

I’ve taught at a couple universities, and I’ve got plenty of criticisms of higher education, but I still don’t think the answer is to scale back education altogether. I think we have to continually reshape it and improve it, and that means mapping it to the skills our society needs but also reaffirming our commitment to a broad-based liberal democratic education. If we can’t do that, if we’re not willing to do that, then I’d argue we’ve given up on the whole project of liberal democracy.

Bryan Caplan

You have a very interesting perspective, Sean. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to someone quite like you, so it’s great. What you’re saying sounds really good. The issue is how to do it. Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

Why this economist things public education is mostly pointless

Caplan just researched and wrote a 400-page book literally titled The Case Against Education, and he has never before talked to someone with Illing’s perspective? I don’t care how many citations Caplan has in his book — if he’s never heard someone make the argument that public education is a cornerstone of a healthy liberal democracy, then he has simply not done his homework.


“It could make some people angry,” she said.

One student in my class this semester, a teenager, an African American, happened not to have this typical demeanor. He didn’t make an effort to hide his lack of knowledge or to downplay that it mattered. Astonishment, disturbance–you could see him working things out. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, though often, by the time he got around to asking one, so much time had passed that I had to backtrack a ways to supply an answer. As I talked about Hemings and Jefferson, I saw these operations going on across his face. We were almost finished and moving on to the next bit, when he frowned and raised his hand. “Did he rape her?” he asked.

I repeated the fact of their age difference. I reminded that Jefferson owned Hemings. Then I said, “That’s a complicated question that I can’t answer satisfactorily. But the question you ask is the right one.”

From the other side of the room came another question, again from an African American, this time a young woman. She was more sophisticated than her classmate. She entered into the class with clearer concerns and seemed to be in some early stage of politicization. “Why don’t they teach us this?” she said. She was speaking low, almost muttering, but I heard her and had the impression that the rest of the class did, too.

“I am teaching it to you!” I said with a chuckle, answering maybe too quickly and defensively, having felt a tick of tension rise in the room.

“No, I mean,” she said, still speaking low, “before now.”

This time I let the comment have its full weight. “Why do you think that’s important?” I asked.

“It could make some people angry,” she said.

–Anthony Chaney, The Realest Moment of the Semester


White tears white tears

The most popular public forum at Reed is Facebook, where social tribes coalesce and where the most emotive and partisan views get the most attention. “Facebook conversations at Reed bring out the extreme aspects of political discourse on campus,” said Yuta, a sophomore who recently co-founded a student group, The Thinkery, “dedicated to critical and open discussion.”(The Atlantic used first names for students out of concern for online harassment.) Raphael, the founder of the Political Dissidents Club, warned incoming students over Facebook that “Reed’s culture can be stifling/suffocating and narrow minded.”

It can also be bullying. When the parent of a freshman rebuked RAR for derailing a lecture, a RAR supporter tagged the parent’s employer in a post. In mid-April, when students were studying for finals, a RAR leader grew frustrated that more supporters weren’t showing up to protest Hum 110. In a post viewable only to Reed students, the leader let loose:

To all the white & able(mentally/physically) who don’t come to sit-ins(ever, anymore, rarely): all i got is shade for you. [… If] you ain’t with me, then I will accept that you are against me. There’s 6 hums left, I best be seein all u phony ass white allies show-up. […] How you gonna be makin all ur white supremacy messes & not help clean-up your own community by coming and sitting for a frickin hour & still claim that you ain’t a laughin at a lynchin kinda white.

The RAR leader proceeded to call out at least 15 students by name. One named Patrick defended himself, saying in part, “I didn’t realize this was [your] opinion of me as a friend. … I will not give you my support simply because you are leading a noble cause.” The leader referred to that defense as “white supremacy.” Another leader used a vulgar insult, followed by “White tears white tears.”

Non-white students weren’t spared; a group of them agreed to “like” Patrick’s comment in a show of support. A RAR member demanded those “non-black pocs [people of color]” explain themselves, calling them “anti-black pos [pieces of shit].” Another member tried to get Patrick on track: “Hey man, everyone getting called out on here, me included, is getting a second chance tomorrow to wake up and make the right decision.”

–Chris Bodenner, The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country


“They’re going to get me fucked up.”

So let us now imagine all the forces arrayed against 19-year-old Tim Piazza as he gets dressed in his jacket and tie, preparing to go to his new chapter house and accept the bid the brothers have offered him.

He is up against a university that has allowed hazing to go on for decades; a fraternity chapter that has hazed pledge classes at least twice in the previous 12 months; a set of rules that so harshly punishes hazing that the brothers will think it better to take a chance with his life than to face the consequences of having made him get drunk; and a “checking system” provided by a security firm that is, in many regards, a sham. He thinks he is going to join a club that his college endorses, and that is true. But it is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t survive.

So here is Tim, reaching for his good jacket—in a closet that his mother will soon visit to select the clothes he will wear in his coffin—a little bit excited and a little bit nervous.

“They’re going to get me fucked up,” he texts his girlfriend, and then he pulls closed the door of his college apartment for the last time.

–Caitlin Flanagan, Death at a Penn State Fraternity


The golden bricks

If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.

–Giles Scott, High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression