Aug 142017

Over and over, nowadays, I read complaints that education is not practical, and these voices are getting louder and louder. What exactly does that complaint actually mean? I am more than a little tired of hearing that subjects taught in school or university have no practical application. “Why must I learn the Pythagorean theorem, or Latin, or (fill in the blank)? I am never going to use them.” Sure. I can’t remember the last time that I needed to solve a simultaneous equation outside my academic writing (and I haven’t done it much within my writing either). The great mistake hidden within this question is the unquestioned assumption that the TOPIC must be relevant to some life goal for the study of the subject to be “important.” One variety of this great fallacy I see all the time in the media is the assumption that the point of a university education is to get a good job, and the road to that goal is to study a subject that will enhance your career prospects, whether it be business studies, computer science, nursing, or whatever. History, Literature, Sociology etc. are, therefore just a waste of time and money because they can’t lead to a good job (except, perhaps, in teaching). Science and mathematics are on the cusp (political science too), not because they are perceived as intrinsically useful, but because they can lead to training that will be marketable.

Vocational subjects are certainly necessary: I don’t want to go to a doctor who does not have a medical degree, obviously. But there is much, much more to education than vocational training. In my oh-so-humble opinion, education (at least my kind of education) is about learning how to think, and to learn how to think the subject matter is not relevant.

Let’s start with the obvious. In business these days, especially in the US, the supposed path to a “good” job (that is, pays a ton of money) is, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in business, and preferably a master’s. My first (not so obvious) question is: “How did the titans of 19th century industry succeed without any formal training in business studies (because such university programs did not exist)?” Answer: “They were smart, creative, imaginative people.” They didn’t get that way by studying pi charts or sales analysis in university. Actually, in many cases they had no formal education at all, but I’ll get to that later (probably in another post).

I will confess that teaching students how to think is a wretched enterprise – usually doomed to failure because it’s very poorly understood. But I don’t think we should give up because it is hard. That’s pretty weak kneed. The problem, as I see it, is not that teaching students how to think is a complicated endeavor, it’s that the vast majority of teachers don’t see this as their primary mission: they see communicating their subject matter as their main goal, whether it be social work, mathematics, Chinese language, or world religions. Generally, this is because they love their own subject matter (or are expert in it), and think that (at best) by simple enthusiasm they can convince their students of its intrinsic value. That ploy does not work. I can’t count the times I have taught an arcane subject with passion only to be met with bored stares. You really can’t make people care about what you care about by simple enthusiasm. Mostly you get laughed at or ignored.

Of course, it’s easy to get students to learn the rudiments of any subject by threats and intimidation – that is: “Learn this set of principles and be able to regurgitate them as needed or receive a failing grade.” Brilliant. This kind of mechanical “education” is worthless on any number of counts. Chief of these counts is that rote learning does nothing when it comes to applying the materials you have learnt. I taught English to dozens of university students in China who had, in theory, been learning the language for years, but what they had been learning (by rote) were the answers to standard grammar and vocabulary questions which they could reel off unerringly and score 100% on tests (and all had). But . . . they could not really speak English, even after years and years of such tests, because they had never encountered actual English speakers nor engaged in genuine conversations in English.

One simple conclusion you might draw from this basic example (which I could multiply many times) would be that less emphasis on theory and testing, and more on the application of principles taught would improve education. Maybe. But that’s not really what I am getting at. You’re not going to get much traction with that argument when it comes to conjugating Latin verbs or solving quadratic equations. There’s a deeper issue at stake – much deeper. For a great many years I taught subject matter without really thinking too much about why I was teaching it beyond the needs of the university and the department I was in. I argued, for example, for the need to make Fieldwork Methods a requirement for anthropology majors and the faculty readily concurred. The curriculum I put in place is still unusual for undergraduate anthropology programs in the United States in requiring a course in fieldwork. My reasoning was that anthropological theory was just a bunch of words without the experience of actually collecting and analyzing data for yourself – in the process seeing all the messy problems that data collection produces. I taught the Fieldwork Methods course under this aegis for 20 years, and I always began the course by explaining WHY it was required. Now we have the crux.

Maybe about 15 years ago I extended my ideas outward from Fieldwork Methods to EVERY class I taught. First lesson started with my statements as to why I was teaching the subject matter that I was teaching, and why I thought it was important. Every course had its own particular rationale, of course, but at heart there was one principle that was invariant: To help students to think critically. As I’ve already said, this is a thankless, sometimes futile, maybe impossible, task – but it was my goal – always. I stated it plainly so there was no mistaking my deepest intentions.

Let’s now take a step back. How many times in class did a teacher explain to you WHY you were learning a certain subject? If you ever questioned why you were learning a particular subject, what was the answer? The simple fact is that most teachers can’t give a coherent answer. I am sure that most teachers teach what they were good at in school, and can’t explain why they excelled at it or what excited them about the subject. For me, subject matter is utterly irrelevant. I’ve taught anthropology, history, sociology, chemistry, physics, biology, dance, music, anatomy, archeology, computer science, political economy, Biblical analysis, technical drawing . . . and on and on. I’ll teach whatever you want. I don’t care because it’s not the subject that’s important. I’m trying to spark creativity, imagination, and mental agility. I’ll do it using lab equipment, computers, novels, drawing boards or a piece of chalk (or nothing at all). Teaching in any other way is, to my mind, nothing but drudgery, and I’m not surprised if students rebel. Many of my students rebelled. Many just wanted to know what would be on the final test, and, if possible, wanted a neat list of all the answers to memorize so they could get 100%. With me they were plain out of luck. One student asked me on the first day what it would take to get an A in my class. He didn’t like my answer: “Be creative, imaginative, and intelligent. Impress me.” He didn’t.

To be continued . . .

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