Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 1981
On the basis of visits to four major universities and the complaints of some undergraduates (how many he doesn’t tell us), Stephen Hess would hand out failing grades to much of the instructors on any college campus (Forum, Dec. 10).
He admits that “there was nothing scientific” about his conversations and that perhaps he talked with the wrong students, but still he subscribes to the complaints that students are not getting their money’s worth.
“What they are telling me,” he writes, “is that the cost/benefit ratio is now out of whack and they want a more appropriate balance.”
His attack falls into that old familiar category, that easy argument — post hoc, ergo propter hoc [after this, therefore because of this] — teachers are responsible for their students’ learning: Students fail because teachers have not made them learn.
Education, the attainment of wisdom, does not work that way. You can bring the student to Shakespeare or calculus, but you can’t make him a scholar. Students have to want to learn. They have to want it more than a Thursday night beer, a Saturday night date, and parties or TV or part-time jobs every other day.
Knowledge is not a passive sensation. Cardinal John Henry Newman explained this more than 100 years ago in a set of lectures entitled “The Idea of a University,” a work that has influenced the course of modern liberal education. The aim of education, according to Newman, was to enlarge and enlighten the mind, but true learning was
“not merely in the passive reception into the mind of new ideas.” Rather it was “in the mind’s energetic action upon and towards and among new ideas.”
Knowledge may be taught, or shared, in many ways. Hess brings up the fact that college teachers, unlike those in elementary and secondary schools, are not required to have formal training in teaching. They
“learn the skills of their trade on the job,” he writes, “with Charles and Peter subsidizing their educations.”
Charles and Peter subsidizing their educations? Do you want to talk about how doctors and lawyers learn? And who pays them? How much we pay?
But that is beside the question. Public school teachers become certified with courses in the philosophy of education, classroom methods, educational psychology and testing techniques, but the crux of their training has always been the student teaching experience. They don’t learn to become teachers until they do it, and they don’t become good teachers unless they want to.
The same holds true with their students. The learning process may be more “fun” with a good storyteller, more “comforting” with a sympathetic listener, more “sporting” with a clever testmaker, but what is the value if students don’t want to learn?
The fault, dear critic, is not in their teachers, but in themselves.
And a note to Charles and Peter: Ralph Waldo Emerson, also more than 100 years ago, told us that we all wanted someone to tell us what to do, so here are my suggestions: