Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Okay. Do this. Toss a coin. This thought experiment applies to all kinds of things, but for the sake of ease, let's toss a coin. After the coin has been tossed, what forces are acting upon it? You probably guessed the initial impetus of the toss — a gradually diminishing force that your hand and thumb transferred into the coin —and, of course, gravity, which is what makes the coin come down. Congratulations: you're in good company. The vast majority of people, when asked, say the same thing. The bad news is that you're wrong (I admit that I was wrong, too, when confronted with this problem a few months back.) In fact, the only force acting on the coin after you have tossed it is gravity — at a rather imposing 9.81 m/s^2, which is why the coin comes down very quickly. Same if you throw a ball, or shoot a bullet, or jump from one roof-top hoping to reach another, possibly while dodging balls and bullets.

This is basic Newtonian physics, worked out three centuries ago by one of history's great geniuses, and the failure to understand it illustrates the way in which our uneducated "gut" reaction is often at odds with the way things really are. What we see and hope and feel and wish to be true often aren't. One promise of education is that it will give us the necessary base of knowledge to improve upon unschooled snap judgments.

But how effectively does it do that, really? Our educational system is predicated upon this promise, but there is good evidence to suggest that things aren't as simple as telling students what's true and what isn't. Let me give just one example. In the early 1980s, a scholar named John Clement posed the same coin-toss question I asked above to engineering students at a top university. Nearly three-quarters of the students, who had just taken a university-level physics course, incidentally, gave the same wrong answer that you and I did. Only 12 percent got it exactly right. They had memorized the principles of Newton's Laws well enough to pass an exam, but couldn't apply those laws to real world examples, even in the case of something as trivial as a coin toss. In short, what they thought had not altered how they thought. Educated in physics, their ability to apply what they had learned outside of class was no greater than that of someone completely without education. This is by no means an isolated example, nor is the general lesson to be derived from it limited to physics. The implications for all teachers is very large, for it suggests that a conventional, fact-based education has far less social utility than we like to believe.

On several occasions on this blog, I've expressed my skepticism about the standard defense of history as a subject for study. The defense goes something like this: by learning history we are able to apply its lessons in the present, and to live better lives thereby. But this assumes that history provides clear lessons; it assumes that students of history are being taught the right lessons; it assumes that they remember those lessons for any length of time; and it assumes that they can actually apply them outside the curricular context. Each of these claims is highly suspect. In fact, historians already know that the first claim is false: history is a series of arguments about the past and what it means – historiography, we call it — not a bill of facts (and yet history survey courses tend to be taught as narrative rather than as historiography) and so it's difficult to see how clear lessons can be derived from its study.

At any rate, the evidence presented above suggests that the basic claim, that the study of history enables us to live better lives in the present, may be flawed from the start. Like the undergraduate students of physics, students of history might only be changing what they think rather than how they think, and any lessons (assuming that lessons can be found at all) might be left behind when the final exam is over. The ability to name the Presidents, recite the order in which the provinces joined Confederation, and name the year in which Queen Victoria died might satisfy various kinds of exceedingly tedious patriotic quiz makers, but if the ability to do so has no broader implications, then it is just, well, academic.

Fortunately, there have been a lot of people thinking for a long time about how a curriculum might be designed so as to produce students who are not merely more knowledgeable but actually more thoughtful. Some of this involves ideas that would seem to many professors of history to be positively threatening - but, as I suggested earlier, a good deal of it involves only a revival of some very old ideas about education. If the reader will bear with me, I will in the next week propose what I think such a curriculum would look like, and thereafter we can return to some much-needed and well-deserved tomfoolery on Measure of Doubt.

Monday, February 16, 2009


We might begin by defining two approaches to education. In the first, education serves to teach skills of immediate and practical application in the workforce - the vocational approach to education. In the second, the purpose of education is to produce students who can think clearly, reflect before they act, find answers to questions on their own, and whose broader and more informed outlook affords them greater empathy for others and therefore serves as a basis for a moral worldview. When it is centered on the study of literature, art, music, philosophy, and history, this second model is often referred to as a liberal education, by which is meant liberal in the classical sense of the word. In antiquity, it was an education fit for the free individual, while the specialized skills imparted by a vocational education were intended for slaves.

There has always been tension between the first and second models, and we see it today in every blustering politician or exasperated parent who asks "what good is a degree in English?" We see it, too, increasingly, and, in my view, distressingly, from administrators within the universities themselves. Consider John Sperling, the billionaire founder of the vocationally-oriented University of Phoenix. "Coming here is not a rite of passage," he says. "We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that "expand their minds" nonsense." Notice that Sperling is not merely indicating his preference for vocationally-oriented postsecondary education - but a contempt for any other kind. More recently, Margaret Wente (always good for a smug and condescending quotation) wrote in The Globe and Mail: "A vast proportion of the student body neither wants nor needs a traditional liberal education anyway. They have no desire to sit at the feet of cloistered masters debating truth and beauty." I'll ignore Wente's presumption that she actually has any idea what the "vast proportion" of the student body wants (and indeed the idea that a typical academic, probably polylingual, well-travelled, and politically active, is somehow "cloistered") and instead observe that the ability to consider questions of truth and beauty is vocationally important. Can anyone examine the behaviour of corporate America in the past few years and say that a healthy dose of moral philosophy hasn't been required?

We must be cautious, however, in assuming a liberal education will always or necessarily yield a more moral and empathetic worldview. In The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz offers chilling examples of liberal education gone terrifyingly askew. In the case of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, to cite just one example, a lifetime's pursuit of the truth — he had studied theology and then philosophy — served as the basis for a moral and intellectual absolutism that led him to embrace a political and racial ideology that represented the point of absolute negativity in human affairs. For those who believe that a liberal education is a defense against precisely the kind of bigotry and thuggery that the Nazis embodied, the thought of men, listening to Beethoven and Schumann while discussing Kant and Goethe long into the night, and then going forth the next day to operate the bureaucratic machinery of the Holocaust, is particularly chilling. Heidegger himself, who played no direct role in the genocide, but who was an ardent, enthusiastic, and largely unapologetic Nazi, was an acknowledged expert on one of richest and deepest contributions to moral philosophy: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

It is no easy matter to say what, precisely, went wrong, not just with Heidegger but with hundreds of thousands of people like him. Some Marxist cultural critics have argued that Nazism was the terminus of the Enlightenment project - that the 18th century celebration of reason evolved into a 20th century tyranny of reason - though reason of a particularly perverse sort. Koonz offers the more hopeful suggestion that it represented a failure or even an explicit rejection of the Enlightenment program, but either the way the fact that it emerged in the most educated nation in Europe should give us a moment of pause.

But if an education in the liberal arts is no guarantee that a more generous, understanding, and moral outlook on life will result, it remains the best mechanism we have for producing one. (I exclude religious instruction here, since it is demonstrably true that not all religious denominations teach lessons than can be called "moral" in any sense of the word.) The point is not that professors will always have answers, nor that they should give them even if they do (recall Gotthold Lessing's famous observation that, given the opportunity, he would refuse God's gift of truth in favour of a lifetime of groping for the truth). Rather, the point is to aid students in thinking intelligently about how the curriculum they are learning will aid them in answering the difficult moral and ethical questions that they will be faced with in their lives.

In my professional discipline, the format of many courses provides us little opportunity to pause to consider such matters. I personally pay lip service to the idea that we study history because it offers lessons about how to live well in the present, but I spend very little time actually helping students to understand what those lessons might be. But how could it be otherwise, when I have 400 years of history to teach in about 70 classroom hours, and when the students are evaluated in large measure on the accuracy with which they can reproduce lecture notes on tests and exams?

What is needed is not so much new ideas about how an undergraduate education should be organized, but a resurrection of very old ideas that have faltered under pressure and prejudice.