The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same?

In today’s New York Times, Stanley Fish writes about Andrew Delbanco’s new book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. As something of both a traditionalist and an innovator, I appreciate what Fish has to say, and will likely be reading Delbanco’s book soon.

Fish describes the book as one that:

seeks to persuade not by driving a stake into the opponent’s position or even paying much attention to it, but by offering us examples of the experience it celebrates. Delbanco’s is not an argument for, but a display of, the value of a liberal arts education.

My purpose in the classroom is to engage students, to get them interested in pursuing a line of thought, of reasoning, of experience. I want them to make the arguments, not me. And that, of course, is what college has traditionally tried to get students to do.

Not everyone feels this is best. In a column the other day, also in the Times, David Brooks wrote:

In their book, “We’re Losing Our Minds,” Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh argue that many colleges and universities see themselves passively as “a kind of bank with intellectual assets that are available to the students.” It is up to students — 19 and 20 year olds — to provide the motivation, to identify which assets are most important and to figure out how to use them.

Brooks, following Keeling and Hersh, is showing something quite valuable in its worst light: The most important thing a student discovers in college is how to think and learn for herself, for himself. We professors are not, however, a passive bank (shades of Paolo Freire–though I suspect Brooks would be horrified to see that he is following in those footsteps) for students to dip into… which is the point Fish is making about both higher education and the Delbanco book. His last paragraph is key, almost as though written as a response to Brooks:

Delbanco writes as he does — by introducing you to the voices of those who embody the values he would preserve — in the hope that his readers will want some of that and may even be moved to do something about it.

Yes. At the same time, though, and like many in higher education (like Fish and, I am sure, Delbanco), I am always trying to find new ways–not simply by talking or writing–to facilitate student learning, to do more than just present and hope. My newest way is an old one, but one that has been ignored for almost half a century, Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction. The heart of this system, though indeed different from what has been seen in college classrooms for the last century, is also the student, and desire for the student to take control of his or her own education.

Something, by the way, that standardized and universal assessment (which Brooks argues for) leaves out.