Saturday, October 11, 2008

Education: let's get it on

I once thought that the education system was supposed to teach kids, who would be in class in order to learn. I have an idealistic picture of the study of literature involving a group of students being led by a teacher to sit at the feet of a given writer and hear what is being said.

From what I can tell, however, education is considered successful when the students are led to express what they already think. In some ways, we are taught not to listen.

I just got through grading a stack of high school English papers. They read Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and criticized it in a way I've already ranted about twice, read Herrick's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" and Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" to get a feel for seventeenth-century carpe diem sexual arguments, and compared all of them to a modern rap titled "Let's get it on" with clever witticisms like "If the spirit moves ya / Let me groove ya... good." From what I can tell, the thinking behind the assignment was this: If we talk about what students are interested in, we can get them to participate in a class discussion. Since I'm not the teacher I have no idea weather or not the assignment was "successful" toward that end, but I can imagine a teacher walking away from an animated discussion of rap lyrics thinking it was a productive discussion because the students talked, not because they learned.

Then I did work for my own graduate school career, in which our medieval literature class focuses specifically on the topic of rape. I feel like I'm suddenly in that high school class I'm grading for; my professor can sit back and feel satisfied about the productive discussion about Chaucer because a room full of female members of the intelligentsia have had an animated conversation about what they do not like about rape. To take the conversation a few notches deeper, we can even move into an analysis of what we don't like about the middle ages as it relates to what we don't like about rape. Education is successful because students have said what they think.

No wonder listening is so hard; we don't even do it in our education.


Kate said...

[sigh] You have just captured what it is that I don't like about my Christian ethics tutorial group. No one listens - to those in the class who have different views, to the writers whose work we're reading, to the tutor. The students all talk - all the time - but no one learns, and there's no real engagement with the texts. Sadly, not listening is not just a product of the American system. [deep sigh again]

Chestertonian Rambler said...

We live in strange times, literary-study-speaking. Theory is king, which is a code-phrase for reading texts antagonistically rather than appropriatively. (That is, the question isn't "what can this author give me" but rather "how can I protect myself against this author's illusions.") Good Ole' Jack (C.S. Lewis) quite possibly said all that needs to be said about the subject in The Abolition of Man, although what he perhaps didn't see coming was the wave of activism that comes from people who don't believe in anything but haven't actually lost their ability to care.

Yet I still find some hope in Graff's Beyond the Culture Wars, where he argues for "bringing the discussion in" to the classroom. Certainly there is something about the students forming "sides" in an inter-classroom debate that often drives them back to the texts to support what they want to say.

One of the best undergraduate discussions I witnessed was in a class co-taught by a Roman Catholic film-studies prof and an atheistic medieval historian.