Wednesday, March 4, 2009


If Western philosophy has a motto, it surely must be "know thyself", the phrase that, tradition has it, was inscribed above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo of Delphi; Immanuel Kant added the suggestion that there is something fearful and even subversive about doing so, when he said that the motto of the Enlightenment was "dare to know".

Here is the root of the mission of the liberal arts: to aid students in thinking, reflecting, and considering - to give them the tools to know themselves and the world around them, according to the light of reason, rather than by the crude instruments of instinct and gut feeling.

A report issued by a faculty group at Harvard put it this way: "The aim of liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar…to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves." These ideals are contained in the mission statement of thousands of institutions of higher learning throughout the western world, and many professors in the arts and humanities would consider them axiomatic. And yet, in case after case, the actual teaching of undergraduates — including my own — goes forward on the basis of the very things that enlightened thinking is supposed to contest: unexamined custom and bureaucratic inertia, much of it brought on by the low regard — sometimes even disdain — with which teaching is held at many research-oriented institutions. Too often, the reflective, skeptical, rigorously empirical standards that members of the professoriate apply in their research and writing are suspended when it comes to teaching.

In my last column, I discussed very alarming evidence which suggests that many students are learning curriculum only well enough and for long enough to regurgitate it on the final exam. In most cases, they are unable to apply what they have learned outside the immediate curricular context. The conclusion, then, is a very pessimistic one. For if it is true that curriculum is both forgotten in short order and does nothing to forge the reflective habits of mind that the liberal arts are supposed to, what defense is there against those critics who charge that the arts and humanities are a waste of time?

Howard Gardner, the famous psychologist, believes that the solution lies in courses that offer a "rich, probing, and multifaceted investigation of significant topics", as this will make it "reasonably likely that more sophisticated understandings will emerge." But survey courses — the bedrock of an undergraduate education in history — are in most cases anything but rich, probing, and multifaceted. In theory, they are designed to provide students with an understanding of the narrative, or chronology, of historical events of a given country or region - "Plato to NATO courses", the joke goes. But is even that claim true?

Lest anyone think I'm pointing fingers, let me be clear that I count myself amongst the company of the guilty. Still, I caught myself doing it again last week. In the midst of a fascinating, provocative, and really very useful discussion with the students in my survey class — a discussion prompted by a student's question, incidentally — I looked at my watch and, in a moment of mild panic, said, "Well, I've got to cut this short. We have to move on," and resumed lecturing. But why? Why did I "have" to move on? Why justify a superficial examination of one topic by the need to provide superficial examinations of other topics? The usual argument is that survey courses aren't meant to provide deep or specialized knowledge, only a foundation from which more sophisticated studies can be undertaken, and such courses would be partially justified if they actually did so. But I am increasingly pessimistic about the claim. In the first place, the standard mechanism by which survey courses are taught – the lecture – has long since been demonstrated to be inferior even to solitary reading for conveying raw information. By such means, students can learn something long enough to reproduce it (in many cases not very accurately) on the final exam, but they are not likely to be able to recall much of what they have learned in future courses. As for the claim that an undergraduate education produces students better able to think critically, who are more literate, more articulate, and so forth, these are, as I have said many, many times, admirable ideals, but they cannot come to fruition unless the most serious effort is devoted cultivating them. In survey courses, such efforts are often sacrificed to the necessity of covering more topics for the sake of covering them.

In my next column, I'll begin with some desired outcomes and then describe how I would build a survey course that might, I think, go a long way towards achieving them.