Saturday, December 27, 2008

On education

Oglethorpe University Professor Joseph Knippenberg laments the "technologically-induced short attention span" of his students:
Exaggerating for the sake of clarity, the relative incapacity to read, write, and think that I deprecate is surely superior to illiteracy or semi-literacy. Stated more soberly, when more people read -- or rather are assigned -- Homer and Aristotle, we might lose some depth of exposure, but we surely gain breadth, don't we?
What troubles me is Professor Knippenberg's assumption that none of his students would read Homer or Aristotle unless it were assigned to them. This assumption is no doubt correct -- if left to his own devices, the typical college student today would never put down his Wii -- but it is still troubling.

Professor Knippenberg's assumption is all the more troubling when you consider that Oglethorpe isn't some second-tier state school, but a private liberal arts college where the annual tuition is more than $25,000. If the professor is to be believed, then, the relatively bright students at this relatively prestigious school lack any personal curiosity about the classics, and will read the ancient Greeks (in translation, I'm sure) only if these texts are mandated as part of the curriculum.

When I was in college, I went to the library in my spare time and read through most of Plutarch's Lives of the Great merely to satisfy my own curiosity, after seeing the mention of Plutarch in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (a selection of which was included in my sophomore American literature anthology). If Franklin thought it "time spent to great advantage" to read Plutarch, it seemed to me I should try it myself.

The autodidactic impulse was perhaps always unusual, but if Professor Knippenberg is correct, it has been utterly extinguished in the current generation of youth. Why? I would suggest it is because of the waning of what might be called the "adversarial Socratic" method in education.

When I was a kid, it seemed that our best teachers didn't shrink from asking questions in such a way as to expose their students' yawning ignorance. The student who gave the wrong answer was made to feel embarassed. If you've seen The Paper Chase, you know what I mean in describing this as an "adversarial" method, and the best of my teachers used an approximation of this method as early as fifth or sixth grade.

In recent decades, however, teachers have become so concerned for the self-esteem of children that it is no longer permissible to call the student's attention to his own ignorance, to shame him when he fails to identify a comma splice or when his pronouns disagree with his antecedents. Similarly, the red pen of correction has been abandoned and, if reports are to be believed, no one ever gets an "F" anymore. As to corporal punishment as a means of enforcing discipline, it appears that my generation was the last to be subjected to that regime.

Professor Knippenberg's column has inspired my American Spectator colleague Hunter Baker, who teaches at Houston Baptist University, to attempt an experiment:
I'll be teaching an intro to political science survey where I intend to have the students leave the laptops shut and to read through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Mill, Locke, and many others with me.
Grill them, Professor Baker. Assign the readings, and then grill them good. Employ sarcasm freely and if, in the process, you should bring some young ignoramus to tears of shame, you'll know you've made a start in the right direction.

But . . . no Burke, sir?


  1. You are quite correct dear Robert in your observations. I went to my son's back to school night and talked to his english teacher. It seems the teacher never heard of Ayn Rand let alone Anthem. Of course this is the same school that has word questions in math about global warming and rain forests. On another note, I work in education in technology, which means I don't teach, and I was called into a social studies class to help proctor a competition between two halves of the class. I was given a sheet with questions, but I could ad lib and did. Not only did the students not know where Grant's Tomb was, but some didn't know who was buried in it. Oh well.

  2. We are ABSOLUTELY going to do some Burke!