The School of Teaching Without Teaching, Part II

This morning, before leaving for school, I responded to Thomas Friedman’s piece in today’s New York Times. I wrote quickly. Though today is “reading day” before final exams, I am responsible for a good deal of advisement and needed to get to the college so that I can talk to students face-to-face. As a teacher, that’s an important part of what I do, both in and out of the classroom.

It astonishes me just how little value is placed, in American society, on the personal interaction between student and teacher. Students crave it; even when they don’t use it, they demand it be there. Time after time, we see that the most successful teaching occurs when teachers have substantial direct personal contact with students. That contact is not just in lecture halls (though that can be a small part of it) or even in offices. It is in the hallways, dining rooms, club meetings… in the dozens of small daily interactions that can lead to discussion and the sparking of interest.

We forget that the first great teacher in the Western tradition, Socrates, succeeded through discussion, not presentation, through challenging his students and responding to them.

With the advent of mass media through Gutenberg in the 15th century, teachers gained their first great tool since the days of Socrates, the mass-produced book. With copies cheap and easily produced, the book allowed teachers to expand their repertoire far beyond their own expertise, making reference and research possible for all students, not just the elite with access to what had been rare (and small) libraries. The book did not lessen the need for teachers. If anything, it expanded that need, for more people now demanded education. With books available, they wanted to know how to use them.

Only the rare person is a true autodidact. Even that person, though they may gaining learning while alone, gathers in knowledge created by others. No one starts from zero and recreates knowledge on their own. What books were (and are) good for, and what digital tools help with today, is access to the knowledge that came before. What the writer does, or the creator of the digital “courses” Friedman lauds does, is organize that knowledge and, perhaps, move it forward just a bit. But this does not constitute teaching, though it does provide opportunity.

Opportunity of this sort is only rarely taken advantage of by the individual alone. Few of us have the will and desire of Frederick Douglass, one of the only people successful in taking control of his education before it had really started happening and deliberately making others into his teachers:

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.

That dedication to the gaining of knowledge is unusual. From the very start, most of us need interaction with educated teachers who are focused on the task of instilling within us that desire to learn that Douglass evidently had by nature. Most of us need help in becoming learners, and that help can’t come from books or digital platforms alone.

The belief that students all bring desire to learn with them, that everyone wants to learn, is mythical for all that it is pervasive. It is part of what Philip K. Dick is making fun of in that passage from the fictional The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that I quoted in the first of these two posts. The “kits” that Dick writes of are available, and have been available, for centuries–world wide. They are “books.” Yes, they are still rare in some places, but they can be found everywhere. Those who want them, do find them, but most don’t bother. Most of the time, the “kits” remained unused–or are used for other purposes (book pages, of course, make adequate toilet paper).

When the kits are used, when they become effective, is when they are augmented by real teachers, when it is realized that the kits are not now (and never have been) substitutes for the actual act and art of teaching all by themselves.

As I said at the start, it is “reading day” here at City Tech (or, as the students have started calling it, “C-Tech”). If the students are reading, it is because of a teacher–or even to spite a teacher. It is not happening simply because books (or even computers) happen to be lying around.

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